Innovation keeps Travis’ natural resources thriving

  • Published
  • By Heide Couch
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Growing up, Leslie Peña, 60th Civil Engineer Natural Resource Program manager, a child of two U.S. Air Force active duty parents, always had an interest in plants, wildlife and the environments they live in. She was also aware that most of the people around her didn’t share that same interest, didn’t care, or were unknowledgeable about the connections between the loss of habitat and the possible extinction of species.

“People didn’t know that losing something not only causes a huge ripple effect on the animal world, but on us also,” said Peña. “Once I got to high school, I wanted to join the Air Force, but my parents wanted me to go to college. Knowing how important it was for my parents, I decided to go the biology route. I didn’t know what I wanted to be exactly, but knew the field I wanted to work in was biology.”

“I went to school, got a biology degree first and then an Environmental Science degree through an Internship with AmeriCorp,” said Peña.After completing her education, Peña began working in her chosen career field, and was appointed to the NRP manager position at Shepard Air Force Base.

“Though it was difficult work, I learned valuable information that enabled me to deal with environmental and natural resource issues that others may not have experience with,” said Peña.

From Shepard AFB, Peña traveled to Travis Air Force Base for her next job.

Through a combination of programs and partnerships with the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 60th Civil Engineer Squadrons’ Natural Resource Program is helping to protect threatened and endangered species at Travis AFB.

The NRP maintains or restores ecosystem composition, structure, and function within a natural range of variability, with special emphasis on rare or endemic species unique to California.

Air Force installations are home to 123 of the more than 2,000 species on the USFWS’ endangered species list. Travis AFB is home to four of these endangered or threatened species: California tiger salamander, Contra Costa goldfield, vernal pool fairy shrimp and the vernal pool tadpole shrimp.

“For this particular area, these fauna and flora are endangered because of habitat loss in the surrounding areas,” Peña continued. “Due to federal regulations, military installations tend to have the highest concentration of threatened endangered species as we have mechanisms in place to conserve habitat when building and growing the installation. The process is set up to safeguard the habitat and allow particular species to survive.”

According to The National Wildlife Federation, an endangered species is an animal or plant that's considered at risk of extinction. A species can be listed as endangered at the state, federal and international levels. On the federal level, the endangered species list is managed under the Endangered Species Act.

The installation has 5,137 acres and an additional 357 acres of Geographically Separated Units consisting of unincorporated open space.

“Due to the size of Travis AFB, there are only small areas in which the base residents can use for recreation,” she said. “Since we have several endangered and threatened species on base there are multiple locations that are considered protected habitats and are off-limits to residents such as the GSUs. Our job is to ensure the Air Force does not damage the environment as it completes its mission. We ensure that the habitat is functioning and threatened or endangered species’ homes stay intact.”

“At Travis, we have over 600 vernal pools and wetlands, which make building anything on base a challenge.”

In order to offset development in these areas’ mitigation is required. Mitigation is coordinated with USFWS and a mitigation bank. The mitigation bank is an area that is protected outside the boundaries of the base and its sole job is to restore and expand habitat that is being taken or removed. 

“Most projects on base have to go through this process to ensure that if we are removing these features on base, they are technically being replaced in a conservation area where they will stay intact forever,” Peña continued.  “This ensures that we do not truly lose these environments and there is no net loss of habitat in the county.”

The NRP has two missions, which is different from most environmental programs. Their primary mission is to ensure our base stays in operation and our aircraft are flying; however, the NRP has the added mission to ensure we are not destroying the habitat or further endangering species.

“’We all have to come to the table to meet in the middle,’ which is my motto,” said Peña. “If we are not able to do so, the base would not be able to function and our primary mission would fail.”

In 2017, heavy rainfall at Travis AFB was followed by a great year for California tiger salamander breeding. A Programmatic Biological Opinion was developed to conserve and protect the California tiger salamander on the installation.

“Up until 2017, CTS sightings on base were rare and the older population on base will tell you they don’t truly ever remember seeing them,” said Peña. “The emergency Programmatic Biological Opinion had to be done to ensure the base was not exceeding and or killing a high number of CTS per USFWS.  Our goals now are to continue to do what we're doing. Our studies are showing us areas that are not a concern and can now help lower the complexity of conservation measures in place for areas that no longer need them.” 

The studies describe how the Air Force can achieve both goals of maintaining the mission while simultaneously ensuring the habitat stays intact, ensuring USAF is doing its part to help protect these rare species.

“Our natural resources team is continually coming up with unique methods to protect the endangered species from both danger and impacts to the mission,” said Capt. Chris Meyer, 60th CES Installation Management flight commander.” For example, the NRP team developed creative fencing to prohibit salamanders from crossing the runway resulting in aircraft and CTS encounters. Their innovation saved countless endangered CTS and ensured no impact on air operations. The team continues to come up with innovative ways to safely guide CTS from breeding to nesting grounds which allows both the mission and CTS to thrive.”

Current drought conditions in the state of California have also affected Travis AFB. Last year’s LNU Lightning Complex Fire effected communities near the installation. Units with the 60th and 349th Air Mobility Wings, rallied to evacuate the base’s fleet of C-17 Globemaster III, C-5M Super Galaxy and KC-10 Extender aircraft to safeguard them against the impending danger of the fire.

To prevent this from reoccurring, the NRP implemented tactics to protect the base and local surroundings.“The NRP continues to accomplish their goal to drastically reduce fire risk to Travis AFB. NRP worked alongside civil engineering operations flight to safely disk grass fields, without harming endangered species, along the perimeter fencing to eliminate potential fire fuel and prevent future fires from spreading off-base to on-base,” said Meyer. 

“Their efforts mitigate the risk of another full base evacuation due to encroaching wildfires,” Meyer continued.

“Without natural resources, you would be looking at a base that would be devoid of life and desolate,” said Peña. “Landscaping would be non-exist or flooded with invasive species which would spread and devastate natural resources outside of the base. Having a healthy ecosystem not only helps wildlife but us (humans). Without natural resources, most endangered species that we currently protect would now be extinct. We may not be able to save the world all at once but we can save one piece at a time.”