Research Brief

How can a fragile endangered bird coexist with a 60-ton M-1 tank on an Army base in the North Carolina sandhills? This is the question the Army faces at Fort Bragg as it grapples with its duty to balance its obligations to preserve the home of one of the nation's largest populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCW), a federally designated endangered species, and its need to effectively perform its military mission. Fort Bragg is the home of the militarily critical XVIII Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division, as well as a heavily used training base for National Guard tank crews and others.

Although Fort Bragg is unique in the severity of the challenge it faces, the problem there serves as a wake-up call to the Army to help it identify similar challenges at other installations that must conduct military missions while conserving sensitive ecosystems. Although no other Army installation has yet confronted problems as critical, they are all coping with natural resource concerns. The Fort Bragg case served as the basis for a broader study by RAND's Arroyo Center to help the Army formulate a proactive strategy for balancing military and environmental excellence.

The Army's Environmental Dilemma

The Army faces two contrasting types of environmental challenges: rule-based laws and planning laws. Rule-based laws, which are traditionally associated with regulating air, water, and waste system emissions, are highly prescriptive and often involve permits, mandated protocols, regulatory inspections and monitoring, and Notices of Violation relating to air, water, and noise pollution, and hazardous waste. Planning laws, which are generally oriented toward land management practices, seem deceptively benign, but compliance requires good judgment, knowledge, self-monitoring, and self-enforcement. For federal facilities, these laws often entail a highly integrated planning process that mandates consultation and negotiation with other government agencies and the public. And since planning laws influence how land and natural resources can be used, they have a direct impact on military training.

The Army has been better able to respond to rule-based regulations than to those that emphasize planning and negotiation, a fact that becomes clear in the case of Fort Bragg, where the Army originally failed to respond appropriately to enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The Process at Fort Bragg: From Recalcitrance to Leadership

Fort Bragg knew (or should have known) shortly after the RCW was listed as an endangered species in 1968 that its military training policies and its land management policies, which were rooted in using the land for revenue generation, were inconsistent with the ESA. Fort Bragg should have sought consultation with the FWS before the enforcement process began in 1988.

The history of the FWS consultation finally began in May 1988, when the FWS notified Fort Bragg that military training may be affecting the wildlife species. From hindsight, the Arroyo Center review shows that key officials at Fort Bragg probably failed to comprehend the full implications of the consultation. For example, when the FWS was writing its critical Biological Opinion on how to protect the RCW, the Army conducted its massive "Dragon Fire" training exercise that led to extensive habitat damage. Ultimately, the military's response virtually relegated the issue to a single isolated garrison directorate, and Fort Bragg was required to implement a plan for managing the RCW that was not optimized for the fort's military mission. The Arroyo Center's most important finding is that an innovative and better balanced plan would have required choices and decisions that could have been made only by the installation commander and other high-level Army decisionmakers at an early point in the process.

This study emphasized the early history of the Army's failure to respond; however, recent events have been much different. Fort Bragg has adopted many policies, including pioneering efforts to organize a regional recovery effort, that have positioned it as a national leader in endangered species management. The base, with both will and ability, is now seriously grappling with the complex issue of balancing military training with the requirements of a sensitive ecosystem.

Recommendations for a Broad Proactive Strategy

Although installations vary in detail, the Arroyo Center believes the lessons of Fort Bragg can be generalized for the Army to form the foundation of a broad proactive strategy that includes:

  • Recognizing that planning laws are as comprehensive as rule-based laws and requiring an authoritative response from the command structure;
  • Integrating long-range environmental and military mission planning performed by teams with expertise in wildlife biology, law, base operations, and military training;
  • Emphasizing land management policies that stress ecosystem conservation rather than revenue generation;
  • Developing alternatives to a base management approach characterized by excessive autonomy, rapid staff turnover, and a unidisciplinary perspective;
  • Committing the Department of the Army to establishing a system for institutional training, data gathering, and assisting installations to resolve training and land management issues;
  • Using base realignment and closure to adjust the basing structure of the Army to better match military missions to ecological conditions and the capacity of training lands.

The Arroyo Center also recommends that the Department of Defense begin to participate responsibly in the nation's environmental and conservation debate by documenting how environmental constraints affect its mission and by suggesting ways to more effectively balance its national security and environmental priorities.

Finally, the Arroyo Center emphasizes that the Army's experience prepared it to be the lead defense agency in developing strategies and systems to reconcile the twin goals of effective military training and sound resource stewardship before new crises emerge.

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