CONSERVATION AND THE MILITARY
1. Why are military areas important for conservation?
The notion of military area means the heterogeneous areas and infrastructure of the armed forces. Apart from some exceptions, the military areas, especially the ones used for training and experiments are important natural and semi-natural habitats, and have significant biodiversity. These areas are often the richest biodiversity hotspots of the given country.
The size of the training areas can be thousands or even ten thousands of hectares, but we should not forget about the smaller areas, for instance the runways, artilleries, and areas around radar equipment.
Military areas are of special importance for conservation, because:
- There has been no land transformation, and thus these areas have intact microtopography.
- Many military areas have a high biodiversity because they were never used agriculturally, and so were never fertilised.
- The natural processes have remained intact, for example river erosion and sedimentation processes, mobile dunes, accumulation of dead wood in forests.
Disturbance is an important factor in determining the quality of ecosystems (party or completely destroyed vegetation cover); and disturbance, but also a lack of it can be observed in military areas. Disturbance is usually present, but often in regular intervals in the same small area, whereas the rest of the area provides opportunity for the wildlife to avoid disturbance. However, the so-called pioneer communities of the flora and fauna need disturbance, these are the first to colonise the area after disturbance stops. Bombing, shelling, prescribed burning for training purposes and armoured vehicle manoeuvres can mimic natural disturbances.
2. Natura 2000 and the military areas
Natura 2000 is the ecological network of the European Union, which conserves biodiversity by protecting habitats, and wild animal and plant species of community importance. Natura 2000 is not a system of isolated nature reserves, and multifunctional use (including that of the military) is of special importance.
The LIFE program (L'Instrument Financier pour l'Environnement) is a financial tool to support the environmental policy of the European Union. The LIFE-Nature fund, which is 47% of the total budget, focuses on the areas of the Natura 2000 network. It has given more than 644 million euros to about 800 conservation projects all over Europe, 28 of which have been carried out on military ground. LIFE-Nature projects have been completed in about 2000 areas, in 10% of the whole Natura 2000 network.
The military had some concerns about losing autonomy at the beginning, but the successfully completed projects assured the cooperating parties, who gained valuable experience and mutual trust, and could thus continue to work together. LIFE helps develop a management plan for the military areas, and environmental education, habitat reconstruction, and communication activities, the exchange of best practice, and the opening of the areas for recreational use.
The military can be an active or passive participant (when conservation activities are carried out by an NGO or the authorities). An example of the former would be the “Sefton Coast” (LIFE95NAT/UK/000818) project in Northern England, where the military took part in the development of the management plan of a unique sand dune system and its realisation. An example of the latter would be the “Flora Menorca” (LIFE00/NAT/E/007355) project on the island of Menorca, where the military was the first to give permission for conservation activities, when negotiations were still on-going with other owners of the project area.
Military experience can often be useful for LIFE-Nature project work in Natura 2000 areas, for instance in the case of the Dijlevallei (B4-3200/98/434) project, where a visitor bridge was built with the help of the military.
Questions about the management of abandoned military areas are often raised, since management of large areas stopped after the Cold War. The German Grindenschwarzwald (LIFE01NAT/D/7039) project included building several kms of nature trail in a Natura 2000 area first abandoned by Air Force, and later swarming with visitors, in order to protect the natural vegetation.