Pentagon Issues 'Credits' To Offset Harm to Wildlife

The Fort Hood project aims to give ranchers incentives to expand habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
The Fort Hood project aims to give ranchers incentives to expand habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. (Courtesy Of Interior Department)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009

The Pentagon has been funding Texas A&M University to pay landowners near a Texas military post to protect endangered bird species on their land under a secretive program designed to free the military to conduct training activities that would damage the birds' habitats inside the post's boundaries, documents show.

Despite complaints that the program is a boondoggle for the landowners, some federal officials are pushing to replicate it at other military sites and in federal highway projects. The program's effectiveness has been questioned by several military officials, federal wildlife authorities and an independent consulting firm, which recommended that the Army cancel it.

Initially championed by former president George W. Bush and some of his political allies, the "recovery credit system" at Fort Hood in central Texas has so far paid out nearly $4.4 million to contractors and landowners.

Under the program, the Army accumulates "credits" that correspond roughly to the acreage that landowners agree to conserve for between 10 and 25 years. After banking sufficient credits, the military can use them to offset the habitat loss or harm that would stem from its activities. It must set aside 10 percent of the credits to foster the recovery of a target species.

At Fort Hood, the program -- which does not disclose the landowners' identities, the amounts they receive or precisely where their properties are located -- aims to provide ranchers with expertise and financial incentives to expand habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.

Neal Wilkins, who directs Texas A&M's Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and oversees the Fort Hood pilot project, said imperiled animals such as the warbler will survive only if experts can persuade private property owners to provide them with a haven.

"If we don't figure out how to manage private lands . . . we've lost the battle," Wilkins said, dismissing criticism of the program. "Those are the little turf battles, the little petty arguments that go on in the background."

But according to more than a hundred pages of e-mails, internal reports and other documents obtained by The Washington Post, the criticism has come from several Army officials as well as some biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service who study imperiled species. These officials, as well as others who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue, questioned the wisdom of using federal money to secure temporary habitat on private property when permanent easements that bar development in perpetuity are known to be more effective in protecting vulnerable species.

One federal official familiar with the program said that unlike other conservation initiatives the military has developed, the three-year pilot project at Fort Hood does not benefit either soldiers' training or the species in question.

"From my perspective, the bottom line is, it was all political pressure to take a slug of money every year and put it toward this program, and no was not an answer," the official said. "We should spend money on soldiers preparing to go to war. And instead it appears this was about making sure this money was devoted to a specific constituency in Texas."

LMI Government Consulting, an independent firm hired to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the project, produced a report in August that concluded that the military should instead devote resources to the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program, which allows the military to buy permanent conservation easements from willing landowners.

"The Army has less expensive ways to protect accessibility, capability, and capacity for soldier training at Fort Hood," the report said, adding that the project is "unnecessary." The Army has yet to release the report.

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