April 22, 2015 –
ELWOOD, Ill. - Every year, Earth Day is recognized worldwide in an effort to increase awareness and concern for the environment. Although Earth Day is celebrated on April 22, environmental stewardship is an ongoing effort throughout the Army Reserve.
The 88th Regional Support Command honors that responsibility with numerous ongoing projects, initiatives and adherence to prescribed environmental guidelines and strict regulations. In total, the 88th RSC oversees more than 10,000 acres at 312 different locations in the command’s 19-state region, which spans the northern U.S. from the Ohio River to the Pacific Coast.
“Environmental protection, stewardship and sustainment is a command priority for the 88th RSC,” said Dave Moore, chief of the 88th RSC’s Environmental Division. “Preserving and maintaining our natural resources so they are there for us in the future is the bottom line – and everything we do supports that effort.”
As part of the command’s efforts, the 88th RSC does what it can beyond what is required, said Moore.
“We are trying to do more than we are required to do,” said Moore. “A limiting factor in accomplishing some of these projects is funding. It takes money to do these things, and with our shrinking budgets it gets a little tougher."
“So we make wiser decisions on what needs to be done and when it should be done,” continued Moore. “Some of these projects are long-term, requiring ongoing efforts to accomplish, so each year we do the pieces of them that we are able to fund.”
One such example is the prairie restoration efforts at the Joliet Local Training Area located in the southwest outskirts of Chicago.
During the 1940s, the area was farmland, which was purchased by the War Department to build the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. Since 1962, it has served its current function as a training area for Army, Army Reserve and National Guard units.
Randy Berry, a wildlife biologist with the 88th RSC, has worked at the Joliet Training Area since 1993. For more than two decades, he has been striving to restore the lands to a usable and natural condition.
The goal of these projects is to restore the habitats to their original state, which are becoming increasingly scarce according to Berry.
“There are only about 2 percent of the original prairies left in Illinois – that’s it,” said Berry. “Ninety-eight percent of it has either been farmed, developed or degraded to nothing like the original state."
“There were once no bushes or trees in this area - this was all tall grass prairies when the settlers rolled through,” continued Berry. “They would have seen big 5-, 6-, 7-foot-tall big blue stem grass, prairie cone flowers – all of it unbroken.”
This change in the habitats has several consequences, one being severe impacts on some native species.
“The loss of all these grasslands has just decimated a lot of these grassland bird species. In the next 50 years, some of these birds will be gone forever – they just have nowhere to go,” said Berry. “So any time we can put some prairie habitats out there for these birds to live in – it’s a good thing.”
The Army Reserve is doing just that.
“We have about 3,500 acres of land at JTA and roughly 1,800 acres is prairie land,” said Berry. “I’ve restored approximately 300 acres of it – the rest being old-field-habitat.”
Old-field-habitat is land which has been farmed and left to naturally re-grow. According to Berry it still serves as good wildlife habitat, just not to the quality needed for a tall grass prairie.
Berry said prairie restoration requires vigilance and hard work, but the outcome is well worth the effort.
“Doing the restoration work is really rewarding,” said Berry. “You go out to a piece of land that has just been completely overrun with invasive species and get it back to at least some semblance of what it should look like. It’s really satisfying – I love coming in to work every day.”
There are multiple and sometimes costly steps to restoring a prairie according to Berry.
“First you have to burn everything off, then you have to disc it up, then you wait for the stuff you don’t want and you hit it up with an herbicide – then you can broadcast the seed and wait for it to come up, but you still have to keep on top of the invasive species.”
Invasive species are the predominant challenge throughout these lands according to Berry.
“Invasive species are really our biggest obstacle,” said Berry. “There is just so much invasive seed in the ground – it’s really hard to stay on top of it. The worst is bush honeysuckle, a small shrubby little tree that’s a real pain. It was intentionally planted in the '40s because people thought it would be good to prevent erosion – now it’s just everywhere.”
In addition to impacting natural habitats, the invasive plant species also impact the primary reason for the Army Reserve owning and operating the lands.
“Our ultimate objective here is to keep these training lands viable so Soldiers can use them,” said Berry. "The biggest obstacles we have are the different types of brush invasive species choking out the land and making it unusable to anyone. You can’t walk through it, you can’t drive through it – they just make it unusable."
“There is no end in sight – and keeping the invasives in check is a never-ending battle. Every year, more are being passively introduced into the country. Stuff that we’re trying to get rid of is a lot of the same stuff you can buy at your local landscape store.”
Brushing off the challenges and constant work, Berry said he loved his job.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” said Berry. “I was an air traffic controller in the Navy, but always loved the outdoors and wildlife. I was a scout and an explorer – all that good stuff. One day, when I was in the Navy, I decided to go back to school and get an environmental degree. Now I get to spend my time outside doing something I love.”
According to Moore, it’s people like Berry who make all the difference in the 88th RSC’s Environmental Division.
“He is on his own out there making a difference, like many of our field staff,” said Moore. “They are all proactive subject matter experts, and they really do care about making a positive impact.”