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When most people think of land conservation, they likely think of scenic open spaces, roaming wildlife and unpolluted waters. While that type of conservation is certainly important, there are other forms of conservation that have tangible benefits for our nation’s armed forces.

Currently, the Department of Defense utilizes conservation easements to both ensure military readiness and to preserve working lands, green space and natural resources near its bases. But these programs cost money, and with defense budgets curtailed in recent years, this presents a distinct opportunity for the private sector to work in tandem with DOD to advance important conservation efforts.

Since December 2002, DOD has administered the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program. Through this program, the Pentagon conserves lands around military facilities. The list of benefits from this conservation is long. Nearby residents often complain about noise, dust or smoke at training facilities. Encroaching development can create competition for frequency spectrum, power lines and highways, and land development that pushes wildlife onto military lands. All of these factors lead to restrictions on the timing, frequency and type of training activities, presenting a risk to military readiness.

But funding for these important programs is at risk. In a March 2016 report, the Pentagon stated that funding requirements for these programs were unsustainable and that the department is only able to fund half of a given project’s costs. However, this funding gap can be alleviated by working with an outside partner, whether through federal, state or local grants, monetary contributions by private individuals, and/or willing landowners, including multiple individuals who come together as a partnership. These conservation partnerships can provide environmental, economic and quality-of-life benefits for all stakeholders, from DOD and neighboring communities to conservation-focused groups.

I served 33 years in the U.S. Army and am currently director of Military Partnerships for Compatible Lands Foundation (CLF). I see firsthand the vital role the private sector can play in military readiness. Through my organization’s current partnership with DOD to execute the REPI program, we work together to conserve lands surrounding eight military bases nationwide, including Fort Hood, Texas.

Fort Hood, the largest active-duty armored post in the entire Army, supports intensive and varied training programs, whether battalion/brigade task force and joint operations, mechanized maneuver exercises or air operations. The size of Fort Hood, which encompasses 217,337 acres and is home to nearly 65,000 soldiers, allows for the base to support a wide range of training activities.

However, the constant training at Fort Hood has led to concerns from residents of the city of Killeen and other nearby communities, leading to restrictions on certain training, such as those that use pyrotechnics. To address these concerns, CLF has partnered with DOD to work with willing landowners to purchase conservation easements on lands located within Fort Hood’s designated buffer areas.

CLF is also currently working with DOD and Texas A&M University to establish a Farming Education And Training (FEAT) center to provide career training and assistance in sustainable agriculture for those leaving the military and interested in civilian careers in agriculture. Together, we plan to educate interested veterans on agricultural practices, business plan development, grant opportunities and other resources to support their farming operations, in addition to training them.

Farming can even prove therapeutic for veterans struggling to adjust to civilian life. Conserved lands around our nation’s military bases can be used as farms tended by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions resulting from their service to our country.

We should be encouraging more private land conservation around our nation’s military bases. Thankfully, Congress has created an incentive to encourage more conservation. This incentive should be protected and improved where possible so that conservation partnerships can continue to help preserve lands around military installations.

Programs like REPI and our partnership with Texas A&M are prime examples of public-private partnerships. With government funding tight, we should be encouraging greater use of private conservation to achieve these same goals. Not only the environment, but also our national security stands to benefit from increased private land conservation, and I hope Congress will take steps to ensure incentives are safeguarded so that innovative conservation is not stifled or restricted.

Joe Knott, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, is director of Military Partnerships at Compatible Lands Foundation. He is a former project director for the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program.

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