Rangeland repair enters phase 2

FORT HOOD Texas Agricultural Experiment Station scientists are creating a cookbook of sorts to improve water quality and training land at Fort Hood.

Dr. Bill Fox of College Station, senior research scientist with the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University, said, "Our purpose in this (project) ultimately is to develop a standard operating procedure, or a cookbook, on the best management practices" for land recovery and restoration within the 214,000-plus-acre military installation.

Experiment Station researchers are not strangers to the rangeland restoration process at the military installation.

In the 1990s, Fort Hood and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service teamed up to work on the site's unique environmental challenges. Experiment Station researchers joined the project about 11 years ago to monitor water quality and evaluate management practices. Dairy compost and revegetation studies were initiated in 2003 to help combat erosion.

The constant military training activities have taken their toll on the land compacting soils, damaging vegetation and increasing the potential for soil loss. That increases the possibility of sediment filtering into local water bodies, Fox said.

Phase 1, during 1995-2001, demonstrated the best management practices of the conservation service, which included sediment retention structures, gully plugs and contour ripping. These practices resulted in 60 percent less storm water runoff and a 90 percent reduction in sediment loss in the Shoal Creek watershed, said Dr. Dennis Hoffman, research scientist with the Texas A&M University System's Blackland Research and Extension Center in Temple. Other areas have been reseeded with grasses native to the area.

"We've demonstrated that nutrients (in compost) can be turned into something positive: growing plants," Fox said. "We know with some assurance that the compost we are applying, and the nutrients in it are staying in place, not leaving treated areas and entering into the streams."

Also, reseeded vegetation is covering the ground more extensively than the previous ground cover.

The recently begun Phase 2 will focus on how and where compost is used. Researchers will also study combinations of compost and management practices.

The department of rangeland ecology and management at Texas A&M will develop sequential approaches to the revegetation process.

In other words, Fox explained, land areas will be studied after they have been "disturbed" or changed by the training process.

Some areas, Fox said, have been severely damaged by training. Soil compaction has reduced desirable plant species' ability to get established and grow.

In these areas, "You basically have to start from scratch," he said.

Researchers hope to determine in which order species need to be planted for the best recovery of land.

"Once the site is prepared a little bit, you might come in with some early successional species," he said. "If the site begins to 'heal', we can come in with later successional species, some of the taller grasses and things like that."

Researchers are trying to determine the rate of recovery of land after training activities and after using dairy compost. If the factor can be determined, it could provide a basis for the restoration process.

"Ultimately, you could walk up to a site and make a determination based on the soils and vegetation as to what condition that is," Fox said. Then land managers could make a decision about where in the restoration process needs to begin.

This type of scale is nothing new for agricultural use, but for military land, it is, he said "Ours is going to be soil specific for the site," Fox said.

The department of soil and crop sciences will study the amount of soil compaction and the impact of vegetation in recovery. Management practices such as soil ripping deep plowing of the ground will be studied to determine which practice best helps recovery and to what extent.

Contour soil ripping, combined with compost and reseeding, slows down storm water runoff and allows it to infiltrate the soil, Fox said. The moist, contour-ripped areas provide an ideal environment for the new grass seedlings to establish and grow. Providing vegetation buffers reduces the runoff of rainwater even further, he said.

Hoffman and his research group also will continue to monitor water quality in creeks.

In addition, the group is hoping to establish a 50-acre demonstration plot that will combine everything they have learned in previous work for educational purposes.

The researchers noted since national security will always be a priority, the land will most likely always be disturbed by Army maneuvers. They are developing a program that will be able to maintain the training lands into the future.

"What we're trying to find out is if we can shorten the recovery time and if we can mitigate some of the impacts through strategic location of best management practices," Fox said.

"We don't know when a tank brigade will train, a helicopter land on it, or when soldiers are out there training on it," he said.

"We're trying to develop a flexible strategy with some redundancies built into the system. That's the idea of the vegetative buffers. If you put out vegetation buffers and establish them behind these rips, you may have 15 or 20 strands of vegetation. Ten of them might get run over in a training maneuver, but you have 10 more that may still be there. And, hopefully, the 10 that got run over will recover as well."

Fox said the range and soil and crop science programs are set up for two- to three-year studies. The third year would be spent putting all of the information together for the military's use.

The "cookbook" would be available to agencies responsible for maintaining the environmental integrity of the land, he said.

"We've already got a pretty extensive standard operating procedure already put together in draft form with a lot of recommendations from what we have already done," he said. "We will be adding more specific recommendations.

"Ultimately what we want to end up with is a maintenance program that would allow Fort Hood to sustain their training areas and reduce erosion," he said.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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