An unlikely protector of nature

On The Bay

Haven: Off limits to most humans, Aberdeen Proving Ground has become a wildlife refuge.

October 19, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE ARMY'S Aberdeen Proving Ground is in the news -- weapons testing has stepped up at the Harford County base since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

It comforts me: The more bullets and bombardment, the better. Long may this bastion of explosive ordnance prosper.

I'm not thinking national security here -- more like natural security.

Consider another news item: "Studies find no end to sprawl" (The Sun, Oct. 10).

Despite an aggressive state push for smarter, more compact growth, four of the Baltimore region's five counties continue chewing up forests and farmland at a fearsome rate.

What, you wonder, does it take to preserve some remnants of our natural heritage amid the relentless development of the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis?

Maybe nothing less than high fences, backed by troops and heavy artillery -- a sad commentary on the current state of land- use planning.

But how good can gunnery ranges and tank maneuvers be for the flora and fauna?

You'd be amazed if you spent a day, as I did several weeks ago, touring the proving ground, with its tens of thousands of acres of forests and wetlands, and more than 100 miles of undeveloped Chesapeake Bay shoreline.

With base biologists Jim Pottie and Deidre Deroia, we set off down a road named Bomb Loop, its median lined with tanks.

The tiny fraction of the base that's developed falls quickly behind, and soon we're riding down a dirt road through scenery that one suspects resembles Harford County in 1917, the year President Woodrow Wilson designated the proving ground here. (Congress wanted Kent Island.)

Actually, Pottie says, the countryside is substantially more forested than it was in 1917. This part of Harford County was mostly cleared for farming then.

For the last several decades, as forests have been falling at increasing rates to development in the region, they've been regrowing on Aberdeen.

They're not necessarily, however, prime for hiking trails. "The Army's been [firing weapons] here for 84 years now," says George Mercer, a public affairs officer at Aberdeen, "and you can hardly stick a shovel in the ground without hitting UXO."

UXO means unexploded ordnance. It also means people have to keep out, maybe forever; it means wildlife paradise.

So let us praise UXO as we ride by the lovely tidal creek where a record 34 bald eaglets hatched this year. In winter, up to 283 eagles gather at the proving ground, the largest concentration on the bay, maybe in the eastern United States.

"The guns firing don't bother them," says Pottie. "Now you shut a car door, and they're out of here. But they habituate to the artillery."

Each fall, a pond and adjacent wetlands on our tour hold up to 3,000 wood ducks, a species considered abundant when it occurs in the dozens in most parts of the state.

The base's 112 square miles of land and tidewater also harbor an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 beaver, and about 4,000 great blue heron nests. "There's nothing else like it in the state," Pottie says.

Because of its firing ranges, and the fires frequently started here, Aberdeen has the largest open grasslands in Maryland. In all, the base is a refuge for more than 60 species, mostly plants, considered rare and endangered in the state.

Wild turkeys in several flocks of a hundred or more strut along the edges of field and forest. White-tailed deer are so common, Pottie says, that recent hunting-season kills on the base of about 700 each year are "too low. ... We hope to boost it to around a thousand."(That will be unlikely in the short run, as heightened security since Sept. 11 has closed this year's hunt at Aberdeen.)

At one point, Pottie pulls down a road to an overgrown steel-walled bunker surrounding a sandpit. "Old grenade testing facility," he says. "Now it's become one of the northernmost nesting sites for black vultures."

Passing a dense forest of several hundred acres, Mercer says it's become "a de facto wildlife refuge, since they exploded a bunch of captured German, World War I ammunition in there."

Aberdeen's defense of nature is not unique. Acre for acre, military lands across the nation hold more rare and endangered species than lands owned by the national parks or national wildlife refuge systems.

For decades the protection was mostly inadvertent, an ironic benefit of UXO and military presence keeping out people. Also, the frequent fires set by military actions mimic the natural regime that many species evolved with before the modern era of Smokey Bear-style fire suppression.

But in recent decades, Aberdeen and other bases have adopted natural resources management that is equal to or better than anything seen in parks or wildlife refuges.

The military has partnerships on many of its bases with the Nature Conservancy, an internationally known conservation group, to inventory and manage its natural resources.

Steve Getlein, a biologist with the Army Environmental Center, has compared military and civilian land uses with fascinating results.

In terms of natural diversity, the mechanized-maneuver areas of military bases are comparable to a civilian farm; active ranges such as Aberdeen are comparable to wildlife refuges, and the buffers around those ranges are equivalent to wilderness.

Ultimately, armed battalions and UXO can't be our only answer to sprawl development. But it's nice to know, in these tense times, that national security and natural security can go hand in hand.

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