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Air Force, USFWS partner to protect natural, cultural resources

Mark Sledge, 673d Civil Engineering Squadron senior conservation law enforcement officer, and James Wendland, 673 CES chief conservation law enforcement officer, approach a black bear den at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, April 16, 2018. Making loud noises while walking the trails will alert the wildlife of your presence and reduce a surprise encounter.

Mark Sledge, 673d Civil Engineering Squadron senior conservation law enforcement officer, and James Mark Sledge, 673d Civil Engineering Squadron senior conservation law enforcement officer, and James Wendland, 673 CES chief conservation law enforcement officer, approach a black bear den at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Sledge has supported the Air Force conservation law enforcement program since 1991 as a civilian officer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Javier Alvarez)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife federal wildlife officer, scans the withdrawn area at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Madeline Prush, U.S. Fish and Wildlife federal wildlife officer, scans the withdrawn area at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. Prush is one of six USFWS officers supporting the Air Force’s Conservation Law Enforcement Program and is responsible for helping to protect natural and cultural resources on base. (Courtesy Photo)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Tex. -- Air Force natural and cultural resources are now safer, thanks to a new conservation law enforcement partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
 
The Air Force Civil Engineer Center and USFWS kicked off a joint Conservation Law Enforcement Partnership, or CLEP, this fall, placing six USFWS conservation law enforcement officers, or CLEOs, across five Air Force installations. These officers are responsible for preserving Air Force natural and cultural resources, as well as protecting those who participate in base recreation activities. 
 
“One significant benefit of a CLEO is the information and assistance they will provide to persons participating in outdoor recreation activities on Air Force installations,” said Kevin Porteck, Air Force natural resources subject matter expert and Air Force lead for the program.
 
Samantha Fleming, USFWS supervisory law enforcement specialist and USFWS lead for the CLEP, said the program is beneficial to both organizations.
 
“There are benefits to both USFWS and the Air Force through an increase of more natural and cultural resource protection,” Fleming said. “Conservation protection is what federal wildlife officers are trained to do and the Air Force is legally responsible for protecting these resources within their mission framework. The partnership makes sense: more federal wildlife officers for USFWS and better protection for Air Force lands.”
 
The five installations participating in the pilot program are Beale and Edwards Air Force bases, California; Eglin AFB, Florida; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey; and Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. 
 
Officers who support the program underwent 17 weeks of intensive training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, followed by five weeks of specialized federal wildlife officer basic training and 10 weeks of field training with experienced federal wildlife officers.
 
Each participating installation has its own CLEP operations plan, which outlines officer responsibilities and helps define their relationships with members of Security Forces and other partner organizations. 
 

The officers are already proving beneficial. As one of the largest installations, Eglin encompasses over 460,000 acres and is home to 19 federally listed endangered species. The base also boasts one of the largest outdoor recreation programs in the Air Force, making an effective enforcement program critical.

“This is a big deal,” said Justin Johnson, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist at Eglin. “The Air Force has working for many years to stand up an effective CLEP, and now through this new agreement with the USFWS, I believe they’ve nailed it. The biggest challenge here at Eglin is scale. I’ve been here 20 years and still haven’t been everywhere on the reservation.”

Most civil engineering programs have relied on Security Forces to support their conservation efforts, but manning limitations and other requirements have left some gaps in coverage the past several years.

“Security Forces historically played a significant role in conservation law enforcement, but since 9/11, resources shifted and there hasn’t been sufficient manpower for them to adequately support conservation,” Johnson said.

Visitors’ compliance with safety zones and installation rules is critical for the base to continue to allow recreation opportunities, such as fishing and hunting.

“We need to be more creative in how and where we can allow people to recreate on military lands,” Johnson said. “In the past, noncompliance with recreational regulations has led to safety buffer increases, reducing available acreage open to public access.   These officers help ensure compliance, protect the safety of our visitors and preserve future recreational access and opportunities.”

Similar to Eglin, Kirtland AFB also previously lacked the manpower to adequately protect its natural and cultural resources. There are approximately 700 archaeological sites on base, which require dedicated support for protection and preservation, said Madeline Prush, USFWS federal wildlife officer, who joined in September as part of the base program. 
 
“The base borders a national forest and there was not enough manpower to patrol the withdrawn area,” Prush said.  “We had mountain bikers who would trespass into potential unexploded ordnance areas where it’s not safe for them to be. They ask ‘when was the last UXO that went off?’ But it’s not the 200 that didn’t go off, it’s the 201st one that does, that we are there to protect them from.”
 
While the addition of USFWS CLEOs is new, the Air Force has supported conservation law enforcement for almost 30 years. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, has a robust program, staffed primarily with Air Force civilian and active duty Security Forces officers. 
 
Mark Sledge, an Air Force civilian senior law enforcement officer at JBER, and a member of the first graduating class at FLETC, has supported Air Force conservation law enforcement since 1991. JBER is home to a menagerie of wild animals, and responding to wildlife calls takes up a large portion of his time as an officer, he said. In fiscal 2019 alone, there were 647 wildlife responses, including interactions with moose, bear and eagles.
Keeping visitors safe and helping people enjoy the land at JBER is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job, Sledge said. Successful partnering with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies is critical.
 
Johnson echoed the importance of building relationships with other agencies as critical to the program’s success.
 
“Our (Eglin’s) CLEP operations plan encourages that our officers reach out to other Air Force and federal, local and state law enforcement agencies to develop working relationships,” Johnson said.
Partnerships like the CLEP are made possible through the Sikes Act, which encourages the Department of Defense to partner with other federal and state agencies to meet its conservation goals. These partnerships help ensure natural and cultural resources on military lands are protected and enhanced, while allowing the military to still focus on meeting training and other mission needs. 
 
“I see the program already making a difference; partnerships are being developed and cases are being made,” Fleming said. “A chief of natural resources on one of the installations said that in the few short weeks the officers have reported, the program has been everything they hoped for.”
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