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Why Should the Department of Defense Care About Ecosystem Services?

Apr 24 2016 | Posted in: Research Highlight
By Stacey Solie

Photo credit: U.S. Dept of Agriculture, Flickr, Creative Commons. Fort Benning, Georgia, harbors a population of the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. Land managers are faced with figuring out how to balance military training needs with those of rare species.

Lands managed by the government are subject to complicated and often conflicting rules and regulations.

Take for instance U.S. military bases, which encompass more than one percent of the nation’s land area. To be useful in training exercises, these landscapes should approximate conditions of real-world battlefields. Tanks, artillery fire and explosives are all part of the everyday disturbance regime, even as land managers also work to comply with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and more.

Deciding how to manage land to achieve diverse goals and outcomes can be both difficult and costly. But a research project between The Natural Capital Project and the Department of Defense shows that an ecosystem services approach holds great promise for helping managers achieve multiple objectives on the land.

Described in reports and peer-reviewed journal articles, this project examined the landscapes and various mandates of three military bases operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) including Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington State; Fort Benning, Georgia; and Fort Pickett, Virginia.

Working with DoD managers, NatCap researchers investigated what was most important to managers at each site, and applied InVEST software models to help answer key questions. The InVEST modeling tool produced maps showing how, at each site, DoD could most efficiently achieve goals under different future conditions, such as fluctuating budgets.  

“The project is about testing an approach,” said NatCap’s managing director Mary Ruckelshaus.

“In the testing regions we chose, we tried to get as close as we could to the decision-maker, who then framed the questions for us. We were able to show in three different contexts how an ecosystems services approach could really change strategy in the basic day to day operations of the Department of Defense,” Ruckelshaus said.

The concept at the core of the study–that sustaining landscapes for training is itself an ecosystem services–was surprising at first, said lead author on one of the studies, Shan Ma. Discussions with military personnel helped identify two land-based ecosystem services: infantry training capacity and vehicle training capacity.  “These are ecosystem services unique to military landscapes,” Ma said.

For instance, portions of Joint Base Lewis-McChord are managed to maintain dry prairie conditions similar to those found in Afghanistan. But the prairie area is subject to forest encroachment as well as scotch broom invasions. Scotch broom is an aggressive invasive species which must be kept constantly at bay or it will quickly transform prairie into scrubland, which is less valuable for training and reduces habitat for imperiled species. These concerns make conservation activities a key part of the base’s core maintenance strategy.

At Fort Benning in Georgia, the pine forests on the base harbor federally-listed red cockaded woodpeckers. Co-founder and co-director of The Natural Capital Project Gretchen Daily explains: “The red-cockaded woodpeckers do well in forests on the base in part because the military is always setting fires, whereas everywhere else, we’re suppressing fire. They [The DoD] get forests more like what were there historically, which are good for biodiversity.”

To accommodate the birds, under the mandate of the Endangered Species Act, managers restricted training in certain areas, which required moving tank and other operations to areas more prone to erosion, said one of the researchers Brad Eichelberger. This could then inadvertently negatively impact water quality for people downstream.

Despite these seemingly intractable conflicts, NatCap’s InVEST tool can model how changes in management change landscapes, and how those changes affect these multiple mandates the DoD cares about, and produce maps showing where to do what, to get the most desirable outcomes.

David J. Hayes, who served as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior in both the Clinton and Obama Administrations, commented favorably on the recent collaboration between the Natural Capital Project and the Department of Defense. “Federal decision-makers charged with balancing multiple uses of the public lands can benefit from tools that measure and compare the relative benefits or ‘ecosystem services’ provided under different scenarios,” he said.

“The Defense Department’s experience with the Natural Capital Project’s methodology and tools, including the lessons learned from the exercise, provide a solid foundation for potential expansion of these approaches by federal and state land managers.”  The next step for this work is to take the collaboration beyond a demonstration and develop a use case, where the information is used in decisions, said Gretchen Daily. “We’d like to further tailor our approach to capture other critical issues that the DoD is facing,” Daily said.

Daily also sees this research as a way to execute the recent executive order from President Barack Obama, directing all federal agencies to incorporate the value of ecosystem services into federal planning and decision-making.

The land management issues faced by the Department of Defense are also issues for the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and other federal agencies. “They’re all facing similar pressures: needing to maintain their core mission in a world where there’s much more competition over land, air, water and other resources,” Daily said. “This research points out a way to balance the achievement of the core mission while sustaining all these other values.”


Valuation of ecosystem services to inform management of multiple-use landscapes
Ma, Shan, Jeffrey R. Foster, Jennifer M. Duggan, Eda Pepi, Bradley A. Eichelberger, Marc N. Conte, Gretchen C. Daily, Brynn W. McNally and Guy Ziv
Ecosystem Services 19:6–18. 2016.

Informing management of rare species with an approach combining scenario modeling and spatially explicit risk assessment
Duggan, Jennifer M., Bradley A. Eichelberger, Shan Ma,  Joshua J. Lawler and Guy Ziv
Ecosystem Health and Sustainability 1(6):1-18. 2015.

Read the report:

Another outcome of this project was an online course, NCP102: Introduction to the Natural Capital Approach in DoD Environments, which uses the three locations as case studies. NCP102 was created with DoD personnel in mind, but is also intended for a wide audience, and is free and open to the public. Click here to register and learn more.

Stacey Solie is the Communications Lead at The Natural Capital Project.


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