Battlefields around the world are finding new purpose as parks and refuges



Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland, site of a savage Civil War battle on Sept. 17, 1862.
NPS

Todd Lookingbill, University of Richmond and Peter Smallwood, University of Richmond

The horrors of war are all too familiar: lives lost, homes destroyed, entire communities forced to flee. Yet as time passes, places that once were sites of death and destruction can become peaceful natural refuges.

One of the deadliest battles fought on U.S. soil, for example, was the Battle of Gettysburg. Tens of thousands of men were killed or wounded in three days of fighting. Over 150 years later, millions of visitors have toured Gettysburg Battlefield.

Across the U.S., 25 national battlefield and military parks have been established to protect battlefield landscapes and memorialize the past. Increasingly, visitors to these sites are attracted as much by their natural beauty as their historical legacy.

Our new book, “Collateral Values: The Natural Capital Created by Landscapes of War,” describes the benefits to society when healthy natural habitats develop on former battlefields and other military landscapes, such as bases and security zones. Environmental scientist Gary Machlis coined the phrase “collateral values” – a spin on the military expression “collateral damage” – to describe the largely unintended and positive consequences of protecting these lands.

These benefits include opportunities for picnicking, hiking and bird watching. More importantly, former military lands can support wildlife conservation, reduce water and air pollution, enhance pollination of natural and agricultural areas and help regulate a warming climate.

Watershed adventure camp at Staunton River Battlefield State Park, Virginia.
Virginia State Parks, CC BY

From battlefields to parks

In addition to federally protected sites, hundreds of battlefields in the U.S. are preserved by states, local governments and nonprofits like the American Battlefield Trust. Collectively, these sites represent an important contribution to the nation’s public lands.

Preserved battlefields include old fort sites, like the 33 that have been designated public lands in Oklahoma and Texas, marking wars fought between European settlers and Native Americans. They also include coastal defense forts built in the first half of the 1800s along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards. While some battlefield parks are quite large, others are small sites in urban settings.

Internationally, the United Kingdom has an active program to preserve its battlefields, some centuries old. Other Western European countries have preserved World War I and World War II battlefields.

For example, one of the most brutal battles of WWI was fought in Verdun, France. That trench warfare site is now 25,000 acres of regenerated forest that attracts more than a quarter-million visitors annually. It protects a biologically rich landscape, including wetlands, orchids, birds, bats, newts, frogs, toads, insects, mushrooms and “survivor trees” that still bear scars of war.

Landscape in Verdun Forest.
Lamiot, CC BY-SA

Borders: The Iron Curtain

The largest, most ambitious plan in Europe for transforming a military border centers on the Iron Curtain – a line of guard towers, walls, minefields and fences that stretched for thousands of miles, from Norway’s border with the Soviet Union above the Arctic Circle down to the Mediterranean coastal border between Greece and Albania.

Communist Russia and its allies claimed they had to build a system of military barriers to defend against the NATO alliance of Western European countries and the U.S. But keeping their own citizens in was equally as important. Hundreds died trying to escape.

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 ended the Cold War, and the utility of the Iron Curtain and associated military facilities. With the fall of the Berlin Wall that divided the city into halves, a reunified Germany began to develop its section of the Iron Curtain into a system of conservation areas and nature trails, known as the European Green Belt initiative.

One great challenge of this project was balancing the values of conserving nature while preserving the tragic historical legacy of conflict. Most efforts to build collateral values on former landscapes must grapple with this trade-off.

Iron Curtain Greenway: Europeans are creating a system of parks and natural areas stretching across the continent, all connected by the greenswards that have grown along the former Iron Curtain.
European Green Belt Association, CC BY

Other militarized borders around the globe are also becoming conservation sites. For example, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea has been strictly off-limits for people for decades, allowing it to grow into the most important, albeit unofficial, biodiversity reserve on the Korean peninsula.

Similarly, forests have grown up in the extensive minefield created along the Iran-Iraq border during those nations’ war in the 1980s. These forests support Asian leopards and other rare wildlife species. There are proposals to formally protect them as nature reserves.

Hope after tragedy

As open space becomes scarce in many parts of the U.S., Civil War battlefield parks have become havens for grassland birds like this grasshopper sparrow.
NPS/Sasha Robinson

The ecosystems of protected areas, such as parks and preserves, provide vital benefits for humans and nature. Unfortunately, the world is in danger of losing at least one-third of its protected areas to development and other threats. Recognizing the collateral values that have developed on protected former battlefields and border zones may help reduce degradation and loss of these lands.

One recent study estimates that nearly 1 million square miles – 5% of the Earth’s dry land surface – is currently designated as military training areas. These zones could be protected with relatively little investment when combined with social, cultural and political goals, such as memorializing historical events, and could become ecologically valuable places.

No one should forget the brutality of the conflicts that gave rise to these landscapes. However, given the scale of threats to natural habitats around the world, conservationists cannot ignore opportunities to cultivate and preserve natural places – even those that arise from the horrors of war.

This article has been updated to provide the correct location of Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.

Todd Lookingbill is a member of the American Association of Geographers

The association is a funding partner of The Conversation US.

[ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day. ]The Conversation

Todd Lookingbill, Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment, University of Richmond and Peter Smallwood, Associate Professor of Biology, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A season in hell: bushfires push at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction



Birds are disoriented by smoke and often cannot escape a fire.
James Ross/AAP

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; David Bowman, University of Tasmania; David Keith, UNSW, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

Images of desperate, singed koalas in blackened landscapes have come to symbolise the damage to nature this bushfire season. Such imagery has catalysed global concern, but the toll on biodiversity is much more pervasive.

Until the fires stop burning, we won’t know the full extent of the environmental damage. But these fires have significantly increased the extinction risk for many threatened species.

We estimate most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt. Such species include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black-cockatoo and the Spring midge orchid.

A dead koala after bushfires swept through on Kangaroo Island on January 7.
DAVID MARIUZ

The fires are exceptional: way beyond normal in their extent, severity and timing. The human and property losses have been enormous. But nature has also suffered profoundly. We must urgently staunch and recover from the environmental losses, and do what it takes to avoid future catastrophes.

The fire and its aftermath

The South Australian sub-species of the glossy black cockatoo, extinct on the mainland.
David Cook/Flickr

One estimate last month put the the number of birds, mammals (other than bats) and reptiles affected by fire in New South Wales alone at 480 million. The toll has risen since.

Most will have been killed by the fires themselves, or due to a lack of food and shelter in the aftermath.

Some animals survive the immediate fire, perhaps by hiding under rocks or in burrows. But the ferocity and speed of these fires mean most will have perished.

One might think birds and other fast-moving animals can easily escape fires. But smoke and strong winds can badly disorient them, and mass bird deaths in severe bushfires are common.

We saw this in the current fire crisis, when dead birds including rainbow lorikeets and yellow-tailed black-cockatoos washed up on the beach at Mallacoota in Victoria.

The charred remains of Flinders Chase National Park after bushfires swept through Kangaroo Island.
DAVID MARIUZ

Damage lasts decades

Fire impacts are deeply felt in the longer-term. Many habitat features needed by wildlife, such as tree and log hollows, nectar-bearing shrubs and a deep ground layer of fallen leaves, may not develop for decades.

Populations of plant and animal species found only in relatively small areas, which substantially overlap fire-affected areas, will be worst hit. Given the fires are continuing, the precise extent of this problem is still unknown.




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We estimate most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt. The continued existence of such species was already tenuous. Their chances of survival are now much lower again.

For example, the long-footed potoroo exists in a very small range mostly in the forests of Victoria’s East Gippsland. It’s likely intense fires have burnt most of these areas.

The Kangaroo Island dunnart.
Jody Gates

On South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, one-third of which burned, there are serious concerns for the Kangaroo Island dunnart, an endangered small marsupial, and the endangered glossy black-cockatoo, whose last refuge was on the island. Both species have lost much of their habitat.

Many threatened plants are also affected: in NSW, fires around Batemans Bay have burnt some of the few sites known for the threatened Spring midge orchid.

This time, it’s different

Fire has long been a feature of Australian environments, and many species and vegetation types have adapted to fire. But the current fires are in many cases beyond the limits of such adaptation.

The fires are also burning environments that typically go unburnt for centuries, including at least the perimeter of World Heritage rainforests of the Lamington Plateau in south-eastern Queensland. In these environments, recovery – if at all – will be painfully slow.

Feral cats flock to fire grounds where prey are exposed.
Mark Marathon

Many Australian animal species, particularly threatened birds, favour long-unburnt vegetation because these provide more complex vegetation structure and hollows. Such habitat is fast disappearing.

The shortening intervals between fires are also pushing some ecosystems beyond their limits of resilience. Some iconic Alpine Ash forests of Kosciuszko have experienced four fires in 20 or 30 years.




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This has reduced a grand wet forest ecosystem, rich in wildlife, to a dry scrub far more flammable than the original forest. Such ecosystem collapse is all but impossible to reverse.

Fires also compound the impacts of other threats. Feral cats and foxes hunt more effectively in burnt landscapes and will inexorably pick off wildlife that may have survived the fire.

What does this mean for conservation?

In a matter of weeks, the fires have subverted decades of dedicated conservation efforts for many threatened species. As one example, most of the 48,000 hectares of forest reserves in East Gippsland established last year in response to the rapid decline of greater gliders has been burnt. This has further endangered the species and makes the remaining unburnt areas ever more critical.

Beyond counting the wildlife casualties, responses are needed to help environmental recovery. Priorities may differ among species and regions, but here is a general list:

Care and rehabilitation of animals injured in a bushfire is key.
AAP
  • quickly protect unburnt refuge patches in otherwise burnt landscapes

  • increase control efforts for pest animals and weeds that would magnify the impacts of these fires on wildlife

  • strategically establish captive breeding populations of some threatened animals and collect seeds of threatened plants

  • provide nest boxes and in special circumstances plant vegetation providing critical food resources

  • care for and rehabilitate injured wildlife and establish monitoring programs to chart a hoped-for recovery.

Some of these actions may be mere pinpricks in the extent of loss. But any useful action will make a small difference, and perhaps help alleviate the community’s profound sense of dismay at the damage wrought by these fires.

Governments, conservation groups and landholders must all play a role. Recovery actions should be thoughtfully coordinated, and form part of the broader social and economic post-fire recovery program.




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In fact, there’s plenty we can do to make future fires less likely


Critically, we must also reduce the likelihood of similar catastrophes in future. Some have blamed the fires on national parks and a lack of hazard reduction burning. Skilful and fine-scale application of preventative burning does have merit. But such measures would not have stopped these fires, and the number of days suitable for such burning is diminishing.

Increasingly severe drought and extreme heat, associated with global warming, are the immediate causes of these wildfires and their ferocity. To prevent this fire-ravaged summer becoming the new normal, we must take drastic measures to tackle climate change.


A caption in an earlier version of this article said the glossy black cockatoo was extinct on the mainland. It was referring to the South Australian subspecies found on Kangaroo Island. The caption has been amended to clarify this.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania; David Keith, Professor of Botany, UNSW, and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.