FORT STEWART - Military bases in three U.S. states will share $17.5 million in conservation funding to protect longleaf pine forests used for training troops while assisting the recovery of threatened species, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday.
Projects at bases in Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina were among 84 chosen to receive $720 million. The money comes from the federal government as well as private and nonprofit groups taking part in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which was established by the 2014 Farm Bill.
"The reality is that one-off conservation projects are great, but when we coordinate our efforts we can have so much more of a profound impact," said Vilsack, who credited "unusual partnerships" between more than 2,000 organizations, including the Defense Department and environmental groups.
Vilsack's announcement Friday included a visit to Fort Stewart, the largest Army post east of the Mississippi River, where more than 278,000 acres of undeveloped longleaf pine forest provide soldiers space to train with everything from rifles to tanks.
The longleaf forest is also home to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and other rare species, including the gopher tortoise and the Eastern indigo snake. Fort Stewart uses prescribed burning - mostly fires started by dropping flaming pingpong balls from helicopters - on about 120,000 acres a year to keep the forest healthy by clearing dead leaves and brush.
This year, Fort Stewart will receive about $2 million of the conservation funding to purchase conservation easements on private land surrounding the Army post to provide an undeveloped buffer. The money should add about 2,300 acres to the 80,000 acres that are already part of the buffer.
"Fortunately the Army is pretty good at starting fires," said Tim Beatty, branch chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Fort Stewart. "If we have an urban development at the edge of Fort Stewart, it would be awfully tough to continue to do burning the way we do now."
A portion of the conservation funding includes money from the military bases themselves. In addition to Fort Stewart, they include Camp Shelby in Mississippi, Camp Lejeune and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina and Fort Benning in west Georgia.
The military is far from being the only beneficiary of the conservation grants. The 84 projects announced Friday are spread across all 50 states.
Vilsack was scheduled to visit Moncks Corner, South Carolina, on Friday afternoon to discuss $3.6 million being awarded to a project targeting black landowners in the Carolinas and Alabama. The project will help about 150 black owners of undeveloped forest establish clear legal title to their land and learn sustainable methods for earning money from their property - enabling the owners to resist selling to developers.
"To the extent that we can get an income source from properly maintained and harvested timber, it gives people a chance to keep the land," Vilsack said. "It gives them an income source they didn't have before."