Baumholder training ground teems with endangered species

By SETH ROBBINS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 2, 2009

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — The steep, sloping hills of the military training area here, where bullets strafe trees and tanks rumble across meadows, has become the unlikely home for the black stork, a rare bird that seeks out only the wildest unspoiled terrain.

Several storks have already hatched there this year, said Matthias Schneider, forest meister for Baumholder’s 31,000-acre military training area. The location of the nests, though, are kept secret, to prevent people from disturbing them. And the storks are not the only new visitors to the grounds, Schneider said. There are lynx and wolves.

“People saw footprints, and a deer was killed,” he said. “We think the wolf came from the French border.”

Last November, the Baumholder training grounds became part of the Natura 2000 agreement, a European Union-wide network of protected lands. The designation has not compromised U.S. troops’ training on the grounds, said Kenneth White, spokesman for Installation Management Command-Europe. Nor, in many cases, has it compromised the habitat for species that share the land.

Tanks and roving soldiers can even offer advantages to some endangered species, according to research scientist Steve Warren, who studied the ecosystems at training areas in Hohenfels and Grafenwöhr. Warren discovered that the Natterjack toad, yellow-bellied toads and blue-winged grasshoppers thrive on training grounds, where disturbance to the land provides them the open habitat they like. The blue-winged grasshopper, which has poor eyesight, requires open grassland to hunt, he said, and disturbance is vital to the toads laying their eggs.

“Military training areas are absolutely pristine in some parts, other areas are beat to heck, and then you’ve got everything in between,” Warren said. “Disturbance is a natural part of the ecosystem.”

Certain areas of the training grounds, such as wetlands, have been placed off-limits to soldiers and vehicles. Other areas, though, have species that flourish in the makeshift war zone, such as rare plants that grow only in bomb craters.

“Nobody knows the formula of how much disturbance is enough and how much is too much,” Warren said. “I think you can’t have too much disturbance as long as it’s not applied uniformly.”

The landscape, though, didn’t always look like this; Baumholder’s training grounds were originally farmlands, which were home to about 14 villages. A special order from Adolf Hitler formed the training area in 1937, displacing the villagers but allowing vegetation to grow unfettered by fertilizers and pesticides.

Schneider pointed out two tattered and moss-covered bunkers hidden among the trees that were once used by soldiers of the Third Reich. Schneider’s border collie, Laica, romped in their shade.

“There are parts of this forest that have been untouched for 60 years,” he said.

Woodlands now cover more than half the grounds, and several of the tree species — beech, oak and cracked willow — are prized for their ability to withstand the constant hail of bullets.

“We are very happy to have these trees here,” Schneider said, pointing at a cracked willow, with dozens of chips in its trunk. “They can be wounded and not be infested by something like a beetle.”

From a murky brown pool, Schneider pulled a sprig of frog spoon. The green, oval-leaf plant looks unremarkable, but it is rare and protected throughout Europe. And in this case, the tank that loped over the land and created the water bed, allowed it to grow.

“It needs densely packed soil,” Schneider said.

Besides the black stork, several other species of birds nest here, and bats are a common sight in the evenings. Sharing the grounds are wild boar, red-tailed deer and a type of wildcat that is very shy, Schneider said, particularly when bullets are flying.

“We do have some casualties,” Schneider said. “Sometimes you’ll come across a skull and some bones.”

Yet, the unpredictably is part of what makes the training grounds an interesting place, Warren said. Military lands provide some of the best habitat in the United States, too.

“Quite by accident,” he said, “the military has created some of the most biodiverse parcels of land.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Seth Robson contributed to this story.

Matthias Schneider, a forest "meister" for the Baumholder, Germany, military training area, scans an area last week for examples of protected wildlife among ruts created by military tanks in the training area. The frog spoon plant, a rare protected plant in Europe, grows in the rutted out area.

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