Prairies key to economic sustainability of region

December 16, 2012 

Pierce and Thurston counties’ prairies and their wildlife have been news lately. The streaked horned lark, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and the Mazama pocket gopher have been targeted for possible protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Less than 10 percent of the Puget Sound prairies remain intact today. If we lose the remainder, we will lose the unique wildlife that need the prairies for their survival.

But there is much more at stake.

The largest remaining prairies in South Puget Sound are on Joint Base Lewis McChord. These prairies are essential for its mission. Soldiers deployed overseas are trained there.

JBLM leaders are focused on their national security mission, but also hold natural resource management as a core value. They are proud stewards of the prairies and the wildlife dependent upon them and have learned how to provide both national security and natural resource sustainability.

But they can’t do it alone. No matter how good JBLM is at stewardship on the base, responsibility for the prairies is shared by neighbors.

As development surrounding JBLM swallows more prairies, the base holds a greater share of the habitat for declining wildlife. The burden for prairie protection is increasing and threatening the base’s viability for training troops.

Pierce and Thurston counties form a community with JBLM. As one of America’s largest military bases, it employs over 46,000 service members and 16,000 civilians. The 2010 payroll reached $5.8 billion with another $286 million paid in contracts. That is multiplied many times as it ripples through our South Sound economy.

To sustain the JBLM mission, we need local communities to support compatible land-use planning surrounding the base. This will help ensure that JBLM meets its training mission and continues as a regional economic engine. That’s why we congratulate Pierce and Thurston county leaders who share our goal to protect the prairies both on the base and off the base.

Thurston County commissioners are leading an effort to adopt critical area ordinances and a comprehensive land-use plan that will encourage sustainable economic growth while protecting the county’s prairies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided funds to ensure Thurston County’s plan will be compatible with the ESA, hopefully resulting in a prairie habitat conservation plan (HCP). If the HCP is approved, Thurston County will have long-term regulatory certainty that future development is consistent with ESA requirements for wildlife that use the prairies – and JBLM will increase its confidence that the training will not be restricted by too much prairie development in the surrounding community.

The integration of federal, state and local requirements to provide certainty for businesses, landowners and residents is the “Washington Way” that successive governors, public lands commissioners and other elected officials have promoted. It is how Washington’s leaders work with the tools provided in the ESA to implement the law while preserving economic viability and our way of life. It provides clarity and reduces duplication. It is good government.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and JBLM are committed to work with local governments and Washington state to develop an HCP for lands around JBLM. Together we have the tools, experience and leaders, and we have the Washington Way. We are confident our community can preserve this important prairie ecosystem and not put the economic contribution of JBLM at risk – and that is why we are proud to be part of this community.

Col H. Charles Hodges, Jr. is the Joint Base Commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Ken Berg is the manager of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees ESA issues in Washington state.

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