Army Recognizes Ralph Costa -- Retiring Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A red-cockaded woodpecker watching a string of tanks led to a breakthrough partnership recovering the endangered bird. Ralph Costa wanted to recover the species. The Army needed to train the 82nd Airborne Division. The woodpecker was caught in the middle.
At a gathering in August 2007 of all the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leadership in the Southeast, the U.S. Army recognized the efforts of Ralph Costa, who is retiring as recovery coordinator for the red-cockaded woodpecker, once a controversial species for the military and the Service.
Across the range of this unique species, the Service is working with the Army and other landowners to replicate the successes at Ft. Bragg, which has met its red-cockaded woodpecker recovery goals five years early.
When Col. John Keenan, Director of Environmental Programs, Assistant Chief of Staff, Installations Management, Headquarters Department of the Army spoke at the awards dinner at the conference, he talked about how this small bird had such a huge impact on the Army.
"The Army has a training philosophy, to train as we fight, and fight as we train," said Keenan. "That philosophy is evident at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina."
Keenan said the primary mission of the United States Army is relatively simple: deploy anywhere in the world at any time as directed by the President and Congress, fight the enemy and subdue or destroy that enemy. The idea behind this is that sweat and realism in training saves blood and lives on the battlefield. One of the many places this is most clearly demonstrated is at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, Special Forces units, Army support units, and a major mobilization site for reserve units.
The mission of the 82nd is to have a 2,500-soldier brigade available 24/7, capable of having at least one battalion "wheels up" within 18 hours to anywhere in the world. Today, the brigades of the 82nd along with other units are on nearly constant training cycles in preparation for deployments to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"In the early 1990s, management for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker was designed to protect these birds from man," Keenan said. "So the ‘1994 Guidelines for Management of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers on Army Lands’ were developed to protect the red-cockaded woodpecker from the impacts of Army training."
But at Fort Bragg, the 82nd Airborne Division began reporting adverse impacts to training and an inability to fully "train-to-standard" because of restrictions necessary for protecting the red-cockaded woodpecker. Unit commanders and trainers were frustrated.
While red-cockaded woodpecker management produced outstanding habitat on training land, the restrictions to training were making maneuver training unrealistic and artificial.
This impasse had to be addressed.
As the Recovery Coordinator for the red-cockaded woodpecker, Costa spent many days on Army installations talking to soldiers, trainers and biologists. He attended training with an airborne unit to get a better understanding of training reality early in 1996 trekking the hills and swamps at Ft. Bragg.
"Ralph Costa observed training events, and studied maneuver activities and their effects on the land," said Keenan. "As a regulator, his interest in the Army's military mission was unprecedented."
Costa went above and beyond to train with the units and understand their needs.
"An important thing to know about Ralph is that he put the time in to learn what military training is, and what it is not, because it's not always blowing stuff up and killing people," said Stuart Cannon, Integrated Training Area manager, Forces Command, G-3, Ft. McPherson, Atlanta, Ga. "And that was the perception of a lot people, that we just blew stuff up and killed people and knocked down trees with tanks and shot holes in trees."
Colonel (Retired) Ted Reid recalled one such training observation missions that had a major impact as they observed a tank platoon rumbling by an RCW cavity.
"We were standing on the side of a tank trail looking at a cavity tree, trying to cajole a woodpecker out of its' cavity when a tank company started coming by," said Reid. "We obviously had to get out of the way, but we kept watching. That's when a little woodpecker hops out, sits on a limb and watches each tank go by almost as if it were counting them, and then woodpecker hops back in his cavity. Ralph says... 'Obviously this bird was not at all impacted, he was just curious.'"
Just like in the Army, good training, good observation and a little risk-taking pays off.
In 1995, then Assistant Regional Director Sam Hamilton, a veteran in dealing with the Army over golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos at Fort Hood, Texas, Dave Flemming, Ecological Services, Atlanta, and Ralph Costa met with an Army team. Their goal: try to find a solution to this national security requirement, the training of the 82nd Airborne Division, which was in apparent conflict with the Endangered Species Act and the Army's obligation to comply with Federal Law.
The Army biologists had provided Costa with a number of anecdotal examples that training soldiers did not significantly impact red-cockaded woodpeckers.
"We had anecdotal information that woodpeckers couldn't give a rats (behind) about training," said Cannon. "We had successful clusters (groups of nests) between the firing lines M-60 machine gun ranges, on tank gunnery ranges, right next to a major intersection out in the training ranges on the main supply route. But that's anecdotal. Ralph wanted to get the science."
"The Army offered fence-post-to-fence-post management if there were no training restrictions," said Keenan. "Ralph's genius was that he could see the power available IF common ground could be found."
"Ralph was willing to take a chance, to take some risk. And that was the biggest hurdle of the 1996 Army Guidelines," said Dr. Bert Bivens, FORSCOM Engineer Environmental Team Leader. "We broke a paradigm from protecting the woodpeckers by keeping the army away from them, to protecting woodpeckers by providing habitat."
Ralph devised the intermediate step, which he called supplemental recruitment clusters. This allowed some flexibility to remove training restrictions from the most critical areas for the trainers while establishing a scientific basis to justify this new paradigm and explore the potential to completely eliminate restrictions to training.
"Ralph doesn't just think outside the box, he doesn't acknowledge that there IS a box," said Cannon. "Everything is possible."
The results of Ralph's work have allowed the Army and the nation to have fully trained soldiers and expanding red-cockaded woodpecker populations.
“For his outstanding work, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health, and former Garrison Commander at Ft Bragg, Mr. Addison Davis asked that I present Mr. Ralph Costa with the Commander's Award for Public Service,” said Keenan.
Keenan also presented Costa with a framed collection of 18 coins commander's coins on behalf of the many Army Installations and others impacted by his work as an expression of their gratitude for his efforts and in appreciation of his selfless service.
The coins came from across the Army, including personal coins of The Secretary of the Army, The Honorable Pete Geren, the Chief of Staff, General George Casey, and Vice Chief of Staff, General Richard Cody. Costa also received recognition from many Army major commands, all eight Army installations occupied by the red-cockaded woodpecker and the National Military Fish and Wildlife Association.
"The success of this new paradigm is phenomenal and Ralph has been leading the charge on this effort from the front of the pack," said Keenan. "The Red Cockaded woodpecker population is past recovery requirements at Fort Bragg, near recovery at Fort Stewart, and growing on all other Army lands."
"The Army appreciates the great partnership that we have with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as we maintain a great environment on our bases," said Keenan, "And also that we can train to be ready to go when we are called upon to do the Nation’s work."
For more information: http://www.fws.gov/rcwrecovery/
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