It isn't just developers and livestock operators who have issues with the government's Endangered Species Act (ESA). When endangered species are found on their lands, U.S. military installations also must stand at attention.

This was the case when two bird species, the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, were discovered on Fort Hood in central Texas. Now a unique program is showing that where confrontation and litigation won't solve ESA woes, cooperation can step in to help save the day.

A Texas-sized problem

Located on about 340 square miles between Waco and Austin, Fort Hood is the Army's premier maneuver training facility. It's home to more than 52,000 soldiers, 471 tanks, 848 Bradleys, 266 aircraft and more than 1,500 other tracked vehicles.

But since they were listed, the two birds have given headaches to the facility and limited the amount of training allowed — during a critical time for war preparations. In 2006, Fort Hood lost 119 days of live-fire training as a result of restrictions of access because of the endangered birds.

The ESA is uncompromising, however. The golden-cheeked warbler is the only bird that nests exclusively in Texas, and about 70% of known occurrences of these birds have been on Fort Hood. About 30% of known occurrences of the black-capped vireos have been on the installation.

To protect its ability to continue training on this land, the Army agreed to join a diverse group of organizations and state and federal agencies in a three-year plan to protect the golden-cheeked warbler on surrounding lands. The U.S. Army/Fort Hood earns “credits” by supporting the efforts of local landowners to protect and expand their own habitat for the bird, which leads to conservation and recovery.

The program involves habitat conservation incentives for participating private landowners through a process called Recovery Credit System (RCS). The long-term goal is to de-list the species.

“This program rewards landowners for what they do best: manage the land,” says Neal Wilkins, director of the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources at Texas A&M University (TAMU). “It also helps provide an insurance policy for Fort Hood.”

Though it's a private and not a government program, RCS is modeled after USDA's Conservation Reserve Program, which allows private landowners to participate in a conservation program in exchange for technical guidance and cost-share assistance.

Under RCS, landowner participants enter into 10- to 25-year contracts with the independent Texas Watershed Management Foundation (TWMF), which oversees the program. After an assessment of the proposed land to determine its golden-cheeked warbler habitat, a confidential management plan for habitat enhancement and a bid by the landowner for proposed management practices and timeline are prepared. Payment is made for habitat-conservation practices, with annual payments for the term of the contract. Regular monitoring of sites and management is also conducted.

Watching for pitfalls

Government programs make most U.S. livestock producers wary. That's why RCS designers were careful to maintain its independence and distance itself from USDA and other government agencies when working with landowners.

“Originally, the Department of Fish and Wildlife tried to put the heavy hammer down (on the issue),” according to Justin Tatum, TWMF program specialist. “You can imagine the kind of response that got.” About 97% of the land in Texas is privately owned.

RCS funds don't go directly from the government to the landowner, but rather through a three-step process that helps protect the independence of the program and the confidentiality of participants. Also helping protect confidentiality is a Texas confidentiality law passed in 1995.

Still, it can be a delicate process in working with surrounding ranchers. “How you approach the landowner is huge,” says Tatum, who's also a local rancher. “There's a natural fear in dealing with the government.”

Monitoring is conducted by TAMU, which also helps build trust among landowners. “That's one of the reasons we're able to gain access like we are,” says Steve Manning, TWMF president. “The only people who can go on the property are TAMU and the Texas Watershed Management Foundation.”

The structure of the agreements is also important. These aren't easements, project leaders stress, but performance contracts with measured goals and results. “Easement is a four-letter word in Texas,” says Ron Perry, deputy chief of staff for III Corps and Fort Hood. “No matter how much money is involved, that's not going to go over well here.”

Besides, asks Manning, “why would you want to pay for a permanent solution to a temporary problem?” Manning is a fifth-generation rancher whose parents lost their land in the military taking of land that created Fort Hood in 1942. He now runs cattle on the installation's.

Everyone wins

A byproduct of the project and earlier efforts to develop habitat improvements has been the lowering of communication barriers with others who hold different views.

For instance, among those joining on the Fort Hood/RCS project were the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Environmental Defense, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, TAMU, Texas Wildlife Association, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the Texas Farm Bureau.

Helping keep all participants in agreement — and out of the courts — is the fact that calculations and assessment are conducted by Environmental Defense. This also reduces TWMF labor requirements.

RCS “represents the best of how creative solutions can be used to achieve mutual goals in conservation between land use holders with distinctly different purposes,” says William Doe, interim director of the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands at Colorado State University. “The roles of each organization were clearly defined and the benefits to all parties were evident.”

In its first year, RCS secured 7,158 acres through its incentive contracts, including 1,174 acres of habitat important for the endangered warbler. Eleven landowners and about 1,300 acres are part of the 2007 contracts.

The pieces have been so successful that the Fort Hood Off-Site Conservation Program is supported by an FWS Biological Opinion of March 16, 2005, which also recommends the use of off-site conservation for threatened and endangered species.

“We've got a very producer-based focus, and have shown we can do two things at once,” Tatum says. “We can help the producers, and we can help the species at the same time.”

That keeps the U.S. Army on board. “It's all about benefit,” says Fort Hood's Perry. “We're in the business of training soldiers and units for war. To do that, sometimes we need to count birds.”

Walt Barnhart is a freelance writer and president of Carnivore Communications, Denver, CO.

Spreading the word

Other states are taking notice of cooperative efforts such as Texas' Recovery Credit System (RCS) on the Endangered Species Act. On Sept. 4-6, a team of Colorado landowners, legislators and government officials toured Texas land under contract to RCS and visited with officials involved in the program.

They came away encouraged about the cooperative nature of the effort and the possible applications to Colorado, including protection of the state's threatened and endangered species and their habitats, as well as assistance to the landowners who make their living from the land.

“I don't see why we can't start with the Texas model and apply it to Colorado, particularly when it applies to private lands,” says Jean Stetson, who with her husband ranches in Northwest Colorado and is co-chair of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association (CCA) Endangered Species Committee. “The landowner could provide the habitat, while those needing conservation credits [could] provide the funds and work to generate the credit with projects on those lands.”

T. Wright Dickinson, a fourth-generation rancher from northwest Colorado and a CCA board member, says providing opportunities like those offered by RCS would contribute “additional revenue sources for ranchers, and gives an incentive (for both government and private entities) to play.”

Although Colorado has a significantly larger amount of public lands than Texas, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John R. Stulp believes there are applications for the state that could go beyond what's being done in that state. This includes tapping into oil and gas interests and trying to “incentivize those who know the land the best.

“It was a great example of how different groups can come together to address an issue,” he says. Still, he says it's important to not put the cart before the horse. “We need to be careful to not get too far out in front, and to bring in the environmental interests,” Stulp says. “There needs to be an equal buy-in by everyone. We all need to be going down the same path.”