JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – As Earth Day draws global attention to environmental issues each April, a diverse team of Air Force professionals protects the environment and ensures missions’ success every day.
The Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s environmental and base realignment and closure teams help preserve the Air Force’s natural infrastructure on nine million acres of land, including forests, prairies, deserts, and coastal habitats, through their headquarters at Joint Base San Antonio- Lackland and Installation Support areas in the US
“Earth Day is an opportunity for us to reflect on what we are doing to take care of the planet. Conserving our natural resources is critical to completing today’s missions – and preserving our environment for tomorrow’s mission operations,” said Judy Lopez, Environmental Management Director of AFCEC. “For 75 years, the Air Force has continually adapted innovative solutions to meet ever-changing environmental demands.”
From restoring the environment affected by Air Force mission activities to protecting endangered species and cultural and natural resources to ensuring compliance with state and federal laws and regulations, the Air Force’s environmental protection is far-reaching. As the Air Force’s executive agent, AFCEC plays a role in virtually every aspect of environmental management, including directing restoration efforts at active and closed facilities and ensuring compliance with regulatory requirements. For example, since 2010, AFCEC has awarded approximately $1.3 billion in performance-based contracts to meet recovery needs at various active installations.
Environment restoration doesn’t stop when a base closes. For closed facilities, the BRAC team oversees the restoration and rehabilitation of 40 facilities that have been closed by federal law since 1988. Often, returning property to the community means addressing environmental issues so that the property can be used for community needs. To date, BRAC has transferred more than 87,000 acres, or 100% of the property, in 35 installations, with approximately 1,900 acres remaining. The BRAC team was recognized with the 2021 Department of Defense National Federal Facility Excellence in Site Reuse Award at the former Griffiss AFB, NY for their hard work and innovative thinking.
“We are here for the long term and are doing whatever it takes to protect human health and the environment,” said Dr. Stephen TerMaath, Head of AFCEC’s BRAC Program. “Our mission of restoration does not end with the closure of the facility, we continue our environmental responsibility even after the transfer of the property.”
With the support of AFCEC, Air Force natural resource installation teams at 54 bases maintain biologically diverse habitats for 123 threatened and endangered species. Eglin AFB, Florida, recently received the 2021 DoD Environmental Award for Conservation of Natural Resources at Large Facilities for their four-pronged approach to gopher tortoise conservation.
“Eglin’s natural resources team brought more than 2,300 gopher tortoises that have been displaced across Florida due to alternative energy generation to the installation. The goal is to conserve 6,000 turtles by 2023,” said Karla Meyer, Air Force natural resources expert at AFCEC.
When Air Force construction and mission activities encroach on these habitats, the Department of National Environmental Policy Act conducts environmental assessments to ensure installations comply with federal and state codes. Environmental impact assessments often have to be carried out in difficult terrain and without affecting the natural environment.
Guided by the AFIMSC corporate goal of accelerating change through innovation, AFCEC is testing small unmanned aerial systems to improve land surveying, floodplain mapping, vegetation classification, or management of endangered species and forests. This technology could save the Air Force millions of dollars and countless hours of work, freeing up funds and resources for other projects.
“AFCEC funds environmental projects to encourage population growth for threatened and endangered species,” Meyer said. “If we don’t comply with the Endangered Species Act, we cannot carry out our missions.”
On Earth Day and every day, the AFCEC team works to foster and expand partnerships that will sustain the success of environmental health and Air Force missions for many years to come.
“Great things are happening across the country because of our environmental partnership efforts, but we have a lot more work to do,” said Kenny Johnson, head of AFCEC’s Restoration and Cleanup Division. “We will continue to forge and build new partnerships so together we can protect and conserve our natural resources.”