Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Conflicts over conservation on military bases

While we often think of conservation efforts as being biological in nature, they are also shaped by social issues that impact decisions on things such as goals, priorities, funds distribution, and location. Unsurprisingly, disagreements are known to arise between different groups with different values and objectives--a topic explored in a new Biological Conservation paper aimed at understanding the dynamics of conflicts on American military installations, where land that is set aside for military training purposes has also been allocated to conservation projects.

The authors of the paper report that the U.S. military utilizes more than 12 million hectares worldwide, with previous surveys indicating that there are more than 500 at-risk species sprinkled across 224 military installations. These habitats tend to be particularly wildlife-friendly because the military frequently maintains large tracts of land that are left un-managed and undisturbed save for infrequent training activities. However, these spaces may occasionally be needed--for instance, when the military is preparing troops for war or when it is necessary to build new facilities to house or care for soldiers. In these cases, tensions can arise between "training area supervisors and users" (or TASUs) and civilian "natural resource and environmental compliance managers" (or NRECMs); while each group may be aware of, and even sympathetic to, the desires of the other, they have fundamentally different goals and areas of expertise, and may therefore find themselves at loggerheads.

(Red-cockaded woodpecker, Picoides borealis. Image courtesy of Team Stewart.)

In order to better understand the tensions that arise in such situations--and to hopefully propose methods of resolving them--the authors focused on conservation efforts associated with one particular species of interest: the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW; Picoides borealis), a vulnerable species whose population numbers have been improved thanks to its use of military lands in the southeastern portion of the U.S. Unfortunately, increases in the numbers of troops assigned to bases in these areas have left the military scrambling to make room for barracks, facilities, and training grounds, while also continuing to ensure the protection of the birds.

The authors of the study visited one affected installation and interviewed 41 personnel (23 TASU and 18 NRECM) about issues associated with conservation activities. All participants were asked the same 5 questions: 1) What do you do for the military? 2) What are the main objectives in your position? 3) Do any environmental issues influence your ability to successfully meet these objectives? 4) How do you feel those objectives should be balanced with the environmental issues? 5) Will you tell me about the most challenging environmental issue you have faced while working here? In all cases, the questioners avoided asking specifically about RCWs or endangered species management, preferring instead to see if these topics were introduced by the informants themselves. The researchers also observed both TASUs and NRECMs as they engaged in staff meetings and other relevant social encounters, and they gleaned information from literature provided by both groups of participants.

(An off-limits sign at Fort Benning, Georgia, that warns military personnel that they are close to red-cockaded woodpecker habitat. Image courtesy of USAEC.)

Overall, the researchers found that TASUs and NRECMs both avoided use of the chain-of-command conflict resolution system available for addressing any tensions on base. Instead, both parties did their best to accommodate each other on particular issues without acknowledging any broad patterns of conflict. Conflict definitely occurred, however, and because it was never directly addressed, the researchers found evidence of escalating mistrust, dislike, and "unwillingness to communicate." During one meeting between the two groups, for example, the authors observed a lack of "cues to active listening, such as verbal statements of validation, support, and reflection, as well as non-verbal signals of eye contact or appropriate facial expressions"; they even saw individuals walk out of the room, check cell phones, and look at calendars rather than engage with each other. Thanks to encounters like these, it was easy for both groups to "deindividualize" each other: Several TASUs referred to the NRECMs as "a group of environmentalist civilians" who could not understand military needs, while the NRECMs frequently reported that TASUs failed to value the environment or the conservation contributions of military installations.

Interestingly, all informants responded in the negative when asked whether any environmental issues impacted training. Later on in the conversation, however, several TASUs contradicted themselves by making comments about how the presence of RCWs impacted their ability to train in a particular way, or to utilize certain areas of the base; indeed, one commanding officer is on record making similar comments during a Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee meeting. The researchers feel that both TASUs and NRECMs are trapped, to some extent, by their professional responsibilities; it is not deemed acceptable to admit that training needs are not being met, but it is also unacceptable to suggest that this is being caused by conservation efforts.

(Banding of a young red-cockaded woodpecker at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Image courtesy of USAEC.)

The authors also report that, while the TASUs tended to have a more "anthropocentric" viewpoint, the NRECMs were characterized by a more "biocentric" view--one that, in the minds of military personnel, failed to take into account the practicalities of the settings in which RCW conservation is taking place. The TASUs' distrust was so extensive that the researchers feel it could only represent the accumulation of tension over time. Further, the authors reported that the conflict they observed was "unusual in that symptoms typically associated with protracted direct conflict accrued and persisted without any direct engagement among parties."

How might this be combated? The researchers suggest some mechanism allowing "parties to release tension through multiple, small controlled conflicts [to] prevent catastrophic and unpredictable conflicts from exploding later"; perhaps there might be forum in which both TASUs and NRECMs could directly acknowledge their conflicting desires without worrying about professional repercussions. While the TASUs need to demonstrate a willingness to be more flexible, the NRECMs clearly need to persuade military personnel that their pro-environmental ideals are not necessarily also anti-military. Obviously, these goals are not easy to achieve, and will require "creativity, adaptability, [and] innovation." The authors believe that a good first step might be agreeing to "a shared definition of the problem and a shared commitment to resolution." Moving forward will be much easier once the channels of communication are (re)opened--a goal that might be more achievable in the setting of a workshop and/or under the watchful eye of a moderator.

The authors suggest that this is likely not the only example of conflict between military personnel and environmentalists; further, there may be other conservation settings in which different parties are similarly hindered by tradition, expectation, and bureaucracy. They hope that their observations might help people in tense situations identify points of conflict and work towards peaceful resolution. Ultimately, the researchers believe that improvements in communication and collaborative efforts between TASUs and NRECMs could have beneficial effects not only during times of peace, but also during post- and even mid-wartime efforts to mitigate the impacts of damage caused by military activities around the world.

Just a reminder--Anthrophysis also has a Facebook page!

Jenni, G.D.L., Peterson, M.N., Cubbage, F.W., and Jameson, J.K. 2012. Assessing biodiversity conservation conflict on military installation. Biological Conservation 153:127-133

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