Authors: Ya-Wei Li and Tim Male

The Department of Defense (DoD) manages some of the most valuable lands for conserving biodiversity, freshwater, and ecological integrity in the United States. One reason is that military training and testing often require natural or other undeveloped areas that simulate wartime conditions. Another is that the military often needs large buffers around its installations for public safety–those buffers also protect nature. As one senior military representative told us, “fields, farms, and forests are the best neighbors of the military.”

Given the frequent alignment between military and conservation goals, how can conservationists embrace opportunities created by national defense and military readiness to promote conservation? And how can DoD better help conservationists understand and support the military’s mission?

DoD could invest millions of additional dollars into protecting and managing lands, species, and other natural resources, but it needs clear incentives to do so. Conservation has to yield a measurable benefit to the military’s mission. If conservationists can help make that benefit real, DoD likely has the political capital to secure funding, legislative authority, and other tools needed to unleash a new wave of conservation that also advances the military mission.

Now is a critical time to think about national defense and natural resources. In the coming decades, DoD will need more land, air, and ocean space to accommodate hypersonic weapons and other technological advances in long-distance weapons, sensors, and hardware. These forces will likely result in DoD needing to manage, access, or put use restrictions on millions of additional acres beyond the 27 million acres under its control today. Simultaneously, DoD is making deep investments in renewable energy production and is more aware than ever of its dependence on scarce water supplies.

If conservationists make bigger investments in understanding national defense, they can help DoD maintain and expand the lands under its management to benefit wildlife, water resources, and ecosystems. At least five strategies are critical to make this happen:

Increase the number of experts within conservation groups dedicated to engaging with DoD, particularly on funding, landscape-scale conservation and planning, endangered and at-risk species management, and resilience to climate change. Former military staff or those who have worked closely with an armed service are more likely to successfully bridge the cultural differences between nonprofits and the military. This new capacity within conservation groups, however, is unlikely to make major progress unless DoD also secures more natural resources staff to work with the groups.

Make improvements to Endangered Species Act policies that will result in even stronger incentives for DoD to conserve species and their habitats.

One of the Pentagon’s most important environmental programs is its Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program, which is currently funded at $100 million annually to address land use conflicts that restrict military activities. To date, REPI funding has protected over 586,000 acres of land for the military, often with an environmental benefit too. For example, REPI funding has allowed DoD to work with the Interior Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture to acquire and manage lands that promote military, conservation, and agricultural interests as part of the agencies’ Sentinel Landscapes Partnership. Greater funding for REPI and more ambitious implementation of the Partnership would enhance local land use decisions that protect conservation resources near installations; expand land acquisition by other agencies in DoD’s priority areas; and incentivize private landowners to promote conservation and national defense.

DoD needs more tools that allow pooling of funds across federal agencies to effectively manage natural resources on a landscape scale, because DoD will rarely have the resources to fund this work on its own. What do we mean by pooling? It is the ability to obligate funds from multiple agencies or U.S. Treasury accounts through single funding mechanisms (e.g., contracts, cooperate agreements, interagency agreements) without having to track and account separately for each agency’s allocation. Pooling of funds is also very important for resilience planning, such as pre-disaster mitigation, across multiple agencies. The White House Council on Environmental Quality or the Congressionally chartered National Fish and Wildlife Foundation already have limited authorities that could help pool funds. DoD needs much more ambitious use of those authorities or new legislative authority to establish more expansive pooling authority for DoD.

Public land withdrawal is a very controversial issue but one that may present overlooked opportunities for conservation. When DoD seeks to withdraw lands from the public domain, conservation groups often reflexively fight the proposals. We do not believe that those withdrawals are always bad for the environment because DoD’s use of the lands and waters may be considerably more benign than those permitted by the land management agencies (e.g., BLM mineral extraction) and because a withdrawal might be accompanied by DoD’s commitment to protect additional land as a safety or security buffer around an installation or to provide significant land management funding. In the future, conservationists might even succeed at encouraging DoD to mitigate for its activities on withdrawn lands by acquiring conservation lands elsewhere or by adopting stronger protections for other areas of federal land. The conservation community needs a more rigorous and objective approach to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of each proposed DoD withdrawal, and more capacity to negotiate with DoD to find solutions that meet the needs of DoD and conservation.


Suggested Citation

Ya-Wei Li and Timothy Male, 2020. “Conservation of Defense: Opportunities to Promote Conservation Through Military Readiness,” Environmental Policy Innovation Center, Washington DC