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.
Internal Army documents and communications echo that theme. In a Jan. 15 e-mail to several colleagues, Brig. Gen. Richard C. Longo, who helps oversee military training for the Pentagon, wrote of the recovery credit system: "BOTTOM LINE: RCS is not good unless you are a local landowner in the Fort Hood area." His commander, three-star Lt. Gen. James D. Thurman, replied, "ROGER AGREE HOLD THE LINE ON THIS. NO FREE CHICKEN!"
Officials as senior as Army Secretary Pete Geren also questioned the approach: In a July 2008 document, Geren hand-wrote, "I am very concerned about 'term' easements." He ordered Army officials to "brief me before anything further [is] done on them."
It remains unclear whether the program is succeeding in expanding the number of golden-cheeked warblers in central Texas. A biological evaluation issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service on Aug. 2, 2007, agreed with the Army that the project's impact would not necessarily boost the bird's numbers because the contracts with landowners were "not in perpetuity. . . . Thus, golden-cheeked warblers would receive short term benefits from the proposed action with no guarantee of future protection."
As it happens, the Army has made tremendous strides in rebuilding the population of the birds at Fort Hood over the past decade and a half. As a result of cultivating trees and shrubs that the birds depend on and driving off cowbirds that infiltrate the warblers' nests, there are now roughly 5,400 warbler pairs -- more than twice what is called for under the federal recovery plan for the species.
Texas comptroller Susan Combs, a longtime political ally of Bush's, helped start the Fort Hood pilot project while serving as the state's agriculture commissioner. She said she pushed for the funding because she wanted to promote "a tremendously important installation" while helping and educating area ranchers.
"The real issue was how could we persuade landowners to do the right thing for endangered species and also help Fort Hood," said Combs, a cattle rancher whose son spent time on the post before serving in Iraq.
Both Combs and Wilkins said they had made the decision to shield the landowners' identities in order to enlist ranchers in the program. Wilkins -- who said the program had paid $460,522 directly to property owners and spent another $1.9 million on "conservation actions" on their land -- said groups including the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the Texas Farm Bureau have embraced the project.
"The participation rate would be really low" if ranchers' names became public, because Texans feel passionately about their privacy, Wilkins said, adding that landowners are "lining up" to participate in part because they only have to commit to temporary rather than permanent easements. The landowners have spent $450,000 of their own money on improving their land for the warblers, he said.
Some military and Fish and Wildlife officials are hoping to apply the recovery credit system to other federal programs. Joy Nicholopoulos, Fish and Wildlife's state administrator for ecological services in Texas, said she was hoping it would "catch on" elsewhere, adding that the Federal Highway Administration is researching whether to use it. And senior officials with the Marines are exploring whether to institute it at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, in an effort to move nesting pairs of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker off the base.
But John Hammond, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Raleigh, N.C., who works on protecting the woodpeckers, said the current plan to try to relocate the birds onto private land several miles away does not take the species' foraging habits into account.
"You don't go out 10 miles away and start planting trees. You've got to do it on adjacent territory," he said. "It needs to be guided by the science that pertains to the biology of the bird."
Pentagon officials, for their part, said they will decide whether to continue the new conservation approach once Fort Hood's three-year pilot program ends this year.
"After its conclusion, DoD natural resource and program management personnel at all levels will review the results and consider whether, and how, DoD may be able to apply recovery crediting under applicable US Fish and Wildlife Service regulations as a tool to help address compatible land use issues at DoD installations and ranges," spokesman Chris Isleib wrote in an e-mail.