Camp Ripley wins top environmental award
The award states Camp Ripley has long been recognized as one of the most ecologically pristine training sites in the nation.
CAMP RIPLEY — Standing out above the rest, Camp Ripley once again cemented itself as leading the nation in its ability to conserve its natural resources.
On Monday, April 17, 2023, the Department of Defense awarded the 2023 Secretary of Defense Environmental Award for Natural Resources Conservation on a large installation to Camp Ripley. The DOD considers large installations to have more than 10,000 acres of overall land.
"Camp Ripley's Environmental team is truly world class, and they have set the standard on how Military training can co-exist with being good environmental neighbors and partners," said Brig. Gen. Lowell Kruse, the Minnesota National Guard's assistant adjutant general and Camp Ripley's senior commander, in an emailed statement Wednesday to the Brainerd Dispatch.
The award states Camp Ripley has long been recognized as one of the most ecologically pristine training sites in the nation, sustaining training for the Minnesota Army National Guard on 53,000 acres that also support more than 600 plant species, 233 migratory and resident bird species, 51 mammal species, and 23 reptile and amphibian species; incredible habitat diversity; and 18 miles of untouched Mississippi River frontage.
The DOD established the annual Secretary of Defense Environmental Awards in 1962 to honor individuals, teams and installations for their outstanding achievements and innovative environmental practices. Camp Ripley has won the DOD-level natural resource conservation award four times in the past seven years — 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2023.
Getting out of the Army National Guard in 2005 with a degree in natural resources management, Joshua Pennington, environmental supervisor for Camp Ripley, has been working on sustainability at the camp since 2013, and as a supervisor since 2015.
Pennington said his department is composed of 11 state employees funded by the National Guard Bureau.
“Our first priority is to sustain the military mission of Camp Ripley without degrading the natural resources that the state is entrusting us with,” Pennington said. “We ensure that the military doesn't negatively impact the natural resources and the natural resources do not impact the military's ability to train. And based on the awards that we've received over the past decade, we do that better, arguably better, than any other military installation in the Army.”
The environmental team at Camp Ripley works on the areas encompassing wildlife, forests, grasslands and waterways. Then the team reports back with environmental assessments of the land based on its proposed uses.
Pennington said the collaborations his department has with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Central Lakes College are invaluable to the sustainability of Camp Ripley. Two of the department's employees are DNR officers who work as animal survey coordinators on the base.
“That really integrates us within what DNR is doing as well,” Pennington said. “So we're not operating in a silo. A lot of the wildlife objectives that the state has, we're able to incorporate and implement right here on our footprint.”
Each year, the DNR animal survey coordinators lead a team of Central Lakes College student interns who monitor the camp for Blanding's turtle nests, a Minnesota endangered species.
“Those eggs are really susceptible to predators, skunks, raccoons, anything that will come up and dig up the nest,” Pennington said. “So we have a cage system where we cage the nest.”
The team monitors the turtle nests and collects data on the turtles during the summer months, before going back in the fall to remove the cages and assist with the turtle releases. Another component of CLC working with the environmental team comes with the ability of the college's natural resources program staff to use Camp Ripley for their curriculum.
“Two years ago, they modified their curriculum to be more field-based rather than just classroom and they wanted a location they could come to, without a lot of public interfaces,” Pennington said. “And Camp Ripley has those environments. We can provide them with areas to come out and do different class exercises.”
A project the class is working on now is installing fisher den boxes, built by Little Falls High School students around the base. They are installing cameras as well to monitor the use of the den boxes.
Pennington said two of the biggest projects the environmental team undertakes every year are controlled burns and bear den monitoring.
“We're going to be kind of behind the curve because of the excessive snow we had,” Pennington said. “Usually we start our prescribed fire program at the beginning of April and we had 2 feet of snow on the ground in April.”
Though behind the curve on prescribed burns because of lingering winter conditions, Pennington said his team is ready to start burning thousands of acres for wildfire mitigation, training enhancement and ecological burns.
“We go and we pretreat the vegetation by burning it first,” Pennington said. “That way, there's no fuel there for the fire to start and it almost eliminates the possibility of having a wildland fire on our ranges. … All the vegetation that grows back, it all comes up green and there's hardly any fire threat at all from that.”
Wildfire mitigation is primarily used on impact landing zones to stop tracers and explosive munitions from starting wildfires. When units have a fire on a range while they are training, they must stop training. The training enhancement burns clear the area where units are firing from.
Maintaining the health of these ecosystems, ecological burns are used in areas where there are fire-dependent native plant communities that need a rotational fire to thrive. Pennington said if they do not prescribe the burns before rounds start flying down range, fire and emergency services would be responding daily to the ranges for fire control.
After a prescribed burn, environmental staff along with CLC students monitor the area's vegetation for its response to the burns. From the data collected, they are able to determine and alter burns to best work within the ecosystem.
During the year, Pennington has teams tracing and monitoring the various animal species on Camp Ripley, including black bears.
“We have several female black bears that are part of a statewide bear study,” Pennington said. “And we have four bears right now that are outfitted with a GPS telemetry collar. So we go into their dens in the winter to monitor their reproductive success.”
The team monitors and counts the cubs as well as the mother for the first two winters, as the cubs den with their mother the following winter. The bears are anesthetized and then taken out of their dens for testing. There are currently four bears around the camp wearing GPS collars.
One of the other programs the team works on in the wintertime is the Golden Eagle Project after the birds were spotted around the camp. Through a partnership with DNR, the Audubon Society and the National Eagle Center, the environmental center was provided with some satellite telemetry collars transmitters for golden eagles, Pennington said.
“With a host of volunteers, we have been successful in capturing five golden eagles over the years, and outfitting them with this backpack/vests that they wear,” Pennington said. “It's like a little Teflon vest that's uniquely fitted to each bird.”
Golden eagles were known for coming to the Brainerd lakes area during the winter, though Pennington said they did not know where the birds went during the summer months.
“About late March, those birds start flying north and nobody really knew where they were going,” Pennington said. “We just knew that they went north. So with the data we've obtained from these satellite transmitters, we're able to identify exactly where they're going. They're traveling 1,800 miles north, north of the Arctic Circle, and they're nesting in the summertime along the Beaufort Sea, near the Arctic Ocean. Then around November, they make their trek all the way back.”
The 53,000 acres on and around Camp Ripley have come across as some of the best in the DOD portfolio of over 26 million acres in the country and from an environmental standpoint, the awards and recognitions have highlighted it as one of the best.
“I think that the success is geared directly toward the integration, the command support, and then just the willingness to work with partners to take on new projects,” Pennington said.
TIM SPEIER, staff writer, can be reached on Twitter @timmy2thyme , call 218-855-5859 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .