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Military extends 'protect and defend' motto to the ecosystem

This three-dimensional image of the Yakima Training Center shows fires in magenta overlaid on a satellite image.

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Experts in hydrology, soils, remote sensing and wildlife habitat analysis from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing technologies that will help the U.S. Army's Yakima Training Center assess how military training exercises impact the site's arid ecosystem and make decisions about land use. The YTC is located in Washington state.

"Although YTC's overriding responsibility is training U.S. soldiers, they also have to work within a regulatory framework," said Mark Wigmosta, a PNNL hydrologist and project manager for a decision framework tool the Laboratory is creating for YTC. "They're trying to stay ahead of the curve as far as environmental regulations. Plus, they want to make the training center sustainable because if they degrade it too much, it will be more difficult to train there."

A sprawling 327,000 acres of sagebrush, volcanic formations, dry gulches and towering rock outcroppings, YTC is home to the sage grouse, a threatened species in Washington state and a candidate for endangered species status nationally. Abrams tanks, stryker vehicles, heavy artillery, tracers, bombs and grenades also inhabit YTC during training season.

Led by PNNL's Larry Cadwell and Janelle Downs, researchers provided sage grouse habitat and habitat change information that the military could use to plan training, restoration and resource management. "We went out and measured how much damage was done to the landscape after training, how many sagebrush were destroyed and how many were damaged by tracked and wheeled vehicles over the years," Downs said. "Then we combined this information with simulation models for vegetation change to produce Geographic Information System maps predicting changes to sage grouse habitat at various training intensities."

In another project, PNNL researcher Jerry Tagestad uses remote sensing data--satellite images and aerial photographs--to identify areas that burn during the training season.

The Laboratory provides YTC with a yearly map of fire locations in the form of a digital spatial data layer.

"The fire product can be overlaid on a digital map of vegetation in a Geographic Information System," Tagestad said. "You click one button and can see how much vegetation--how many acres of grass, how much sagebrush--was lost during a fire. This type of fire mapping has an advantage over flying around a fire perimeter, because we can easily detect unburned areas within the burned areas. This gives us not only a more precise acreage calculation, but knowledge as to the location of unburned islands, which is extremely valuable from a restoration standpoint." YTC uses the fire map to plan restoration and sage grouse habitat management.

In a new project, PNNL scientists are developing a decision framework that YTC managers can use to assess and predict the impact of training activities on sediment loss and, ultimately, area watersheds. Supported by the U.S. departments of Defense and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Strategic Environmental Research & Development Program is intended to benefit all military bases.

"We're using remotely sensed images, plus more than a decade of historical data we've gathered at YTC, as inputs to hydrological models that will predict soil loss through erosion based on various training activities, intensity of training, weather conditions, topography and location on site," Wigmosta said.

PNNL technical expertise provides a solid scientific basis for decision makers in ecology, military operations and range stewardship to reach a balance between realistic training and sustainable environmental management.



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