Conservation project benefits veterans as well as wildlife

Conservation project benefits veterans as well as wildlife

15 Deceember 2016

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USA —  A simple project to clear seven acres of nondescript scrubland along Route 151 has turned into a mutually beneficial event for US veterans, federal wildfire response forces, local wildlife organizations and the towns of Falmouth and Mashpee.

On Thursday, December 15, 10 veterans from across the country arrived at the Coonamessett Reservation fields in Hatchville, armed with chainsaws, on a mission to restore the area’s natural habitat.

The conservation land, which is across the street from the Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area, is stewarded by the Falmouth Conservation Department and lies within the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge. The property was the site of a lively resort in the 1950s, but the development was later demolished and converted to conservation land. Nature has since taken its course, allowing invasive vegetation to overrun the fields.

Since the early 2000s, the Falmouth Conservation Department and The 300 Committee had been trying to restore the reservation to sandplain grassland, a habitat that fosters a variety of endangered species such as the grasshopper sparrow. The project is relatively simple: cut back invasive plant species to allow native wildlife to flourish.

“It’s really critical, vital habitat that we don’t have anymore on the Cape,” said MaryKay Fox, president of the Friends of the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge. As large swaths of land disappear from Cape Cod, sandplain grasslands have diminished as well, she said.

Over the past few years, town officials and volunteers have been trying to mow down the fields with whatever machinery was available. Although the project is relatively simple, a lack of resources and a complicated permitting process have held the town back from getting the job done.

In January, however, the Falmouth and Mashpee conservation departments signed a memorandum of understanding with the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge and other groups, which has allowed the partners to share permits and other resources.

Falmouth conservation agent Mark Kasprzyk said the partnership has given a leg up to conservation efforts, which are now progressing at a rapid pace.

“This is unbelievable. I’ve been here eighteen years and there’s more going on in the last couple years than in the 10 before,” Mr. Kasprzyk said.

This week, project leaders were able to employ the help of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management and the veterans organization Team Rubicon to clear the fields with heavy chainsaw equipment—and at no cost to the towns.

Team Rubicon, a partner with the Bureau of Land Management, is a veterans-based natural disaster response organization.

Team Rubicon started as an informal relief effort organized during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Despite the dangers of traveling at the time, a small coalition of veterans took the trip, crossing the proverbial Rubicon.

Now, there are 45,000 veterans involved in Team Rubicon nationwide who respond to a wide variety of natural disasters. The organization seeks to provide veterans with employment opportunities, camaraderie and a sense of fulfillment by participating in relief efforts.

“What we’ve found is many of our nation’s veterans, they have a desire to serve; they served their country and they come home and they kind of lose that purpose that they felt when they were in the military,” Bureau of Land Management program manager Charles Russell said. “It helps them fill that missing link.”

About 400 veterans are currently trained to fight wild land fires specifically, and they now constitute 25 percent of the national wild land fire response capacity. The participants travel from all over the country to supplement fire response teams, deploying to areas such as North Carolina and Tennessee.

“Their skill sets match up well with the wild land fire arena. They’re used to hard work—arduous work—and they’re used to the type of structure that we ask of them,” Mr. Russell said.

Members of Team Rubicon must gain experience operating chainsaw equipment as part of wildlife fire response training, but Mr. Russell said it is not always easy to find community projects where the veterans can gain the practical experience. So when the bureau heard about the Falmouth conservation project, it jumped at the opportunity for a training exercise.

“It helps them get the points they need; it helps us get something done that we can’t,” Mr. Kasprzyk said.

Earlier this week, 10 veterans arrived at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve for the training, some traveling from as far as California. Three instructors from the Bureau of Land Management also drove from Wyoming to deliver the chainsaws and other training equipment.

Team Rubicon took to the fields with their chainsaws on Wednesday and Thursday, December 14 and 15, to practice clearing debris and trees selected by the local conservation groups.

Large tree trunks left over from the project will be donated to the Coonamessett River restoration project, which will be used to make the river more sinuous and protect native fish species. In January, Team Rubicon will return with heavier machinery to fell some of the 30- to 40-foot trees for the restoration project as well.

In the meantime, Mr. Kasprzyk said passersby should not worry about the newly barren landscape.

“It’s going to look worse before it looks better,” he said. But “nature heals itself pretty quickly.”

While Team Rubicon made significant progress over the past few days, Mr. Kasprzyk said the project is ongoing and will continue field maintenance in coming months.

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