ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — As the Army’s oldest proving ground celebrates its centennial this year, it is a good time to reflect on what has been accomplished in the past, and how we are preparing for the next 100 years of service to the nation.
APG is one of the most important research, development, and testing facilities for military weapons, equipment, homeland defense and counterterrorism. It is also home to more than 72,000 acres of complex land that includes forests, fields, creeks, wetlands, islands, and an open water estuarine section of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Natural Resources Branch, or NRB, within the Directorate of Public Works DPW, is charged with ensuring that these impacts don’t limit the sustainability of these critical biologically and economically important assets, nor threaten the long-term living infrastructure needed for current and future military operations. The branch is carrying on a long U.S. Army tradition of guiding the sustainable use of all these natural resources for the next 100 years.
Before Aberdeen Proving Ground
Long before APG was established just six months after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the U.S. Army had been used to oversee and protect natural resources, especially trees, since the 1820s. Back then, wood and “naval stores” (mostly pine sap derivatives) were critical to build the Navy of a young nation. In fact, until the National Park Service was established in 1916, the U.S. Army also protected and managed the national parks, including Yellowstone.
As APG evolved through the century to keep up with warfare technology, so too did the mission of those tasked with sustaining the natural resources on post.
The two largest sections of APG land, which are separated by the Bush River, are known as APG North (Aberdeen) and APG South (Edgewood) (formerly Edgewood Arsenal).
Before 1917, most of APG North was farmland where native forests had long been cleared for agriculture. In fact initially, even the military continued growing peaches, tomatoes, corn, potatoes and grain on post to feed APG Soldiers.
APG South was a famous center for waterfowl hunting and supported several hunting lodges. APG still hosts a very active waterfowl hunting program due in no small part to the more than 12,000 acres of wetlands and large areas of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) within the terrestrial and aquatic borders of the post. Forested wetlands support important waterfowl species including wood ducks.
As APG activities transitioned from its founding in World War I, to its expansion in World War II, technological changes worldwide changed mission needs. More advanced vehicles and equipment had a more destructive impact on the natural infrastructure. Over the course of the century, refinements to managing military lands mirrored advances in the natural resource sciences as well as changes in public awareness of, and concern for, environmental issues.
During the past 100 years, APG has kept pace with the evolution of approaches to managing military forests. The current overall forestry mission is to create and sustain landscapes for military mission testing and training, while managing those landscapes for ecosystem biodiversity and forest health. The details of this approach form the 50 year Forest Management Plan (FMP), as part of the larger Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan. The modern FMP is transitioning from a paper document to an interactive GIS platform that will allow for adaptive management of the forests well into the future.
A unique agreement between APG and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Critical Area Commission allows for a landscape- level approach to forest mitigation. The goal is to APG is working to reduce the forest mitigation footprint by enhancing current forests, which historically have grown wild with little management on unused parts of the post, rather than create new ones. This allows for inter-planting in existing forest stands as part of mitigation requirements, saving military funds and military land for other needs.
Specific forestry activities include: encouraging natural regeneration of 14 native oak species; protecting bald eagle habitats; encouraging urban forestry in intensively developed areas; promoting healthier multi-leveled forests of uneven age; reducing fuel loads to minimize wild-land fire risks; and in general maximizing forest product and ecosystem service values.
Healthier native forests not only support floral and faunal biodiversity on post but also improves water quality in APG watersheds that flow to the Chesapeake Bay. Other ancillary benefits of sustainable forest management include healthier game populations for hunting programs, higher quality recreation opportunities, and forest product sales to fund future conservation efforts.
The forestry program and the NRB in general are also participating in outreach activities for students and adults to create greater understanding of conservation activities within the local and tenant communities.
Common and unique challenges
Forest management at APG faces common and unique challenges for natural resource programs on military installations. The intense and changing uses of APG lands requires ongoing work with contractors and tenant organizations to comply with federal and state laws, regulations and guidance.
Because 100 percent of the Aberdeen and Edgewood Areas of APG are in the coastal zone, compliance with the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act is particularly significant. Extensive wetlands are of particular concern. Clearing invasive plants and planting trees is complicated, slowed, and made far more expensive, by the need to professionally check all areas for legacy unexploded ordinance (UXO) or other dangerous materials that could be found in almost any area of APG.
Prescribed burns for reducing fuel load are hampered by frequently strong winds (coming off the adjacent fetch of Chesapeake Bay) blowing downwind towards inland communities. Natural oak regeneration in the forests is hampered unless deer populations are kept in check and individual saplings are protected by tubing.
Through all of these constraints the forestry program, the APG NRB serves the garrison and tenant unites to support military mission needs while sustaining a variety of healthy ecosystems for the future.
Into the future
Since APG was established in 1917 its forests have expanded six-fold from roughly 3,000 to over 18,000 acres. Big and champion trees that witnessed the American Revolution, as well as the last 100 years, still stand at APG dwarfing their descendants in the forest. Local students are learning about careers in forestry and other natural resource sciences from APG professionals, while trees are being planted yearly, to produce future scientists and future forest ecosystems.
In spite of a substantial increase in mission activities, there may now be nearly as many bald eagles in the upper Chesapeake Bay, many of those at APG, as there were in the entire nation in 1973 when they were listed as an endangered species. APG has been recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation as well as the State of Maryland for its exemplary forest management.
Due to its geographic position, seasonal climate changes, variety of ecosystems, land and water, APG will continue to be needed for Army testers and trainers well into the future. Due to a professionally crafted Forest Management Plan and the establishment of cooperative partnerships with federal and state agencies and other professionals, the forests of APG should serve the Army and the nation well for another 100 years and beyond.
Editor’s Note: This is a shortened version of an article that was first published in “The Public Works Digest,” an Installation Management Command publication.