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Post gets OK to study land purchase

FORT BENNING, Ga. - The Department of the Army has approved a plan allowing Fort Benning to go forward with a study on the possibility of expanding its training lands by 82,800 acres over the next five to six years.

The additional training land — approximately 40 percent more than the post’s current square acreage — would allow two heavy maneuver battalions and elements of the Maneuver Center to train simultaneously.

“More than 10 years ago, the Army identified a shortfall in training lands at a variety of locations in the U.S. One of those locations was here at Fort Benning,” said MG Michael Ferriter, Fort Benning’s commanding general, at a press conference Friday. “The shortfall is a result of the changes in our doctrine and equipment.”

Fort Benning was established in 1918. In the 1940s its boundaries grew to close to where they are today, however the post’s training mission has expanded over the past 60 years. Fort Benning was recently rated the sixth largest installation in the U.S. with the third largest troop density.

Among the changes in recent years at the post has been the decision by the Department of Defense to keep the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, housed at Fort Benning. The heavy brigade needs more land to accomplish its mission of providing realistic training for troops headed to combat, said COL Tom Macdonald, garrison commander.

“To put it in perspective, to do heavy maneuver training takes a swath of square terrain … and when you try to lay that out for the 3rd HBCT and wrap it around other impact areas on post, it just doesn’t fit,” said COL Terry Sellers, Fort Benning MCoE operations officer. “When you take into account we’re training the Infantry School, the Armor School, 3rd HBCT, the 75th Ranger Regiment, 11th Engineers and a few other tenant units, National Guard and reserve units, there’s just not enough terrain right now and there hasn’t been for a while.”

In January, the Secretary of Defense authorized a study at Fort Benning to determine which lands would be appropriate for the installation to acquire to meet its training needs.

As required by law, the post must look at all areas adjacent to the installation, including Chattahoochee, Muscogee, Marion, Russell, Stewart and Webster counties. However, Macdonald said the primary focus will be on areas of Marion, Russell, Stewart and Webster counties because of large tracts of unpopulated forested land.

The study is in its initial phase and several steps must be accomplished before the installation can go forward with any land purchases. This summer, the post will oversee an environmental and real estate study to look at conservation and socioeconomic issues in the surrounding areas.

Macdonald said the post is mainly looking for land contiguous to Fort Benning — such as timberlands —with low population densities and willing landowners.

No parcels of land have been identified and no land purchases will go forward until the study concludes in approximately 15 to 18 months.

Macdonald acknowledged that some residents may be concerned about the use of eminent domain in purchasing land. However, he said the installation wants the process to be a friendly one, adding the focus is on purchasing large land holdings from timber companies and other large tract landowners. Post officials will ask for input from the community throughout the process by holding town hall meetings, public discussions and roundtables.

“We want to play with our cards facing out,” Macdonald said. “We know this is a sensitive issue and we want open negotiations with landowners throughout the process.”

For more information on the land expansion, call 706-545-1638.

Conservation Efforts:

Fort Benning is home to several threatened and endangered species. The post maintains a mission of environmental stewardship in addition to its mission of training Soldiers for combat. In addition to external encroachment of developments along the installation’s boundaries, internal encroachment from protecting environmental land within the reservation adds to the post’s need for land expansion.

Relict Trillium

The Relict Trillium is a rare plant with only two known populations in Alabama, four in South Carolina and 14 in Georgia — five of which occur on Fort Benning. The post will spend nearly $50,000 this fiscal year to manage and protect the plant. MCoE and BRAC construction has been routed around relict trillium areas to avoid degrading its habitat.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Fort Benning spends about $1 million annually to safeguard red-cockaded woodpeckers, the only federally endangered species of woodpecker in the Southeast. A healthy Fort Benning RCW population is vital to the overall recovery of the species. Steps the post has taken to protect the RCW include improving habitat, installing and repairing artificial cavities, documenting breeding success and translocating RCWs elsewhere to restore the bird’s population.

Gopher Tortoise

From 2,500 to 3,000 gopher tortoises call Fort Benning home. This particular tortoise is recognized in Georgia as a threatened species and thrives in the state’s coastal plains, including Fort Benning with its areas of sandy soil, ideal for burrowing. The tortoises are found mainly on the northern two-thirds of the installation, including training areas. Training restrictions, such as prohibiting vehicles within 50 feet of a known burrow, protect the species. There are approximately 8,000 known burrows on the installation, which could have a significant impact on the ability to train Soldiers if the threatened species becomes listed as a federally endangered species, of which it is currently under review.

Watershed Management

There are nearly 750 miles of streams that flow through Fort Benning. By assessing the health of these streams, the post is working toward environmentally and economically healthy watersheds that benefit all who have a stake in their success, such as landowners, communities and counties. Prescribed Burns

Fort Benning annually burns about 30,000 acres across the installation to clear underbrush, prevent the severity of uncontrollable wildfires and renew habitats, such as the longleaf pine ecosystem, home to the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Source: Compiled from Bayonet files.

Economic Impact

-- Fort Benning continues to have a significant impact on the Chattahoochee Valley region.

-- Fort Benning contributes more than $100 million a month to the local economy, averaging more than $1 billion annually.

-- Fort Benning is the area’s largest employer with more than 41,000 Soldiers and civilians; 11,000 new jobs will be added when the Armor School relocates to Fort Benning in September 2011.

-- More than $3.5 billion in new construction will be invested in Fort Benning through 2016, resulting in a population increase of more than 30,000 and an additional $25 to $35 million per month to the local economy, when fully implemented.

Snapshot of Fort Benning

-- More than 120,000 military, family members, retirees, civilian employees and contractors work, live and use services on Fort Benning.

-- Trains 115,962 Soldiers annually with 14,000 training on a typical day.

-- 61 courses train seven days a week/50 weeks a year.

-- 25,000 new Infantry Soldiers and 7,000 other new recruits trained annually.

Source: Fort Benning Garrison Public Affairs Office

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