Texas singer Lyle Lovett sometimes tells his audiences that he grew up in the country but now lives in the city. "The only thing is," he drawls, "I never moved." Plenty of people have watched their once- rural environs change as a result of burgeoning development, but few entities have been more affected by sprawl than the U.S. military. "Most of our installations were in the middle of nowhere when they were built, and now they're not," says Janice Larkin, who coordinates base-sustainability efforts for the Pentagon. "There have been many developments coming right up against our fence line."
That's a problem for both military bases and their new neighbors. For instance, people who live near bases don't want to wake up to the sound of helicopters whirring at 3 a.m. Meanwhile, night training is undermined if new subdivisions create lots of light pollution.
Such conflicts can create problems not only for the military but also for states that stand to have bases shut down when they're no longer viable. With a new round of the federal Base Realignment and Closure process coming up next year, states are eager to ensure their installations stay in good working order.
Arizona state Senator Robert Blendu, who can see Luke Air Force Base from his house, notes that military bases contribute $2 billion a year to the state's economy. Blendu sponsored legislation this year to create a new fund to buy up land near the bases and also to require zoning boards to alert local commanders about hearings and seek their input on whether proposed developments would interfere with military operations.
"The Department of Defense has not been clear about its future needs but is starting to correct that," Blendu says. "In the past, DOD didn't want to get involved in local development decisions, and the result has been a disaster."
Georgia, Florida and Washington State also have passed laws asking local planners to take military needs into account. Other states are trying different approaches. Oklahoma, Nevada, Colorado are in the process of purchasing land around their bases, sometimes in concert with conservation groups. The Hawaii House passed legislation that would have designated bases as "areas of critical state concern" to ensure that all neighboring land uses were compatible with the military mission, but the bill died in the state Senate.
The Defense Department's efforts to find common ground with its neighbors grew out of environmental concerns. DOD has more endangered species living on or near its land than the National Park Service. If habitat around a base gets gobbled up by development, that leaves the base itself as the last place a species can call home--making it difficult for the military to use its land the way it wants.
A classic case was Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, home to the 82nd Airborne and also the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. "The habitat on private land within the base environment was shrinking, and the restrictions on training were going up very, very rapidly," says Scott Belfit, a wildlife biologist with the Army Environmental Center.
In response, the Army teamed with the Nature Conservancy to purchase open-space easements to prevent incompatible development. The $16 million Fort Bragg partnership led to federal legislation specifically enabling the military to enter into such contracts with other parties. Congress is expected to provide at least $10 million in funding for similar projects this year.
While all the parties involved--the military and other federal agencies, states and localities, and environmentalists--approach land use issues with different agendas, they have found a lot of overlapping concerns. "One of the benefits that will come out of this is a growing recognition in the military that they've got to look beyond their fence line," says Bob Barnes, a retired brigadier general now with the Nature Conservancy. "They need to be engaged like any other member of the community, and the community has a legitimate interest in what happens on the base."