Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bringing the Stryker Brigade to Alaska

Prior to moving to Alaska in 2004, I helped write an environmental impact statement that evaluated the effects of bringing a Stryker Brigade Combat Team to Alaska.

The Stryker Brigade is an initial phase of “Army Transformation,” which was envisioned by former General Eric Shinseki in 1999. Although Donald Rumsfeld often gets credit for the concept of transformation, Shinseki’s the one who started process a full two years before the current administration stepped into office. [As a side note, prior to the Iraq war Shinseki told the White House administration that the war would take considerably more than 100,000 soldiers, and it would cost much more than the amount they were predicting. He was summarily fired, but in the long run he has been proven correct.]

Back to transformation and the Stryker Brigade, think back to the 1990s and compare Desert Storm vs. “Blackhawk Down.” Shinseki saw the need for a rapidly deployable Army that had the proper equipment and training for urban situations. Desert Storm’s development took months to bring in the heavy armor. At the other end of the spectrum, the light infantry units stationed in Somalia during 1992-93 did not have the proper equipment necessary to operate in the urban setting.

In 2001 the Pentagon identified Alaska’s Army and its 1.6 million acres of land would transform from a Light Infantry Brigade (like the one in Somalia that we saw in “Blackhawk Down”) into a medium-armored unit, centered around an 18,000 – 20,000 lb. 8-wheeled light armored vehicle, known as the Stryker.

The goal of the Stryker Units is to be more mobile and deployable, and to use the latest in technology such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and virtual training.

Here is what we found in the environmental impact statement:

Physical and Biological Environment
Compared to the status quo, of using Humvees and helicopters, acquisition and use of about 320 Strykers would result in a 4-fold increase in soil and vegetation damage, and double the amount of space needed. However, considering that the Army has 1.6 million acres of land in Alaska, the impact was well below capacity would be sustainable for the indefinite future.

Most wetland areas and sensitive habitats would be avoided, especially during summer when the most severe impacts would occur.

Use of munitions would nearly double, but the sites where they detonate explosives would not change. In addition, recent studies demonstrated that the munitions residues degraded rapidly and would not affect water quality or environmental quality for humans or wildlife.

Sportsmen and biologists indicated concern about potential impacts to wildlife, especially moose and bison. Wolves, wolverines, grizzly bears, caribou, some waterfowl species, and forest dwelling birds (e.g., boreal owl, great-grey owl, Hammond’s flycatcher) were also susceptible to disturbance. The increased activity levels would probably cause greater disturbance to individuals or groups, but these would be relatively intermittent, and not frequent enough to cause population declines. No state or federally listed endangered species would be affected. Although the impacts caused concern and interest, there were no “show stopping” issues, which warranted a shutdown of the proposed changes. However, wildlife populations are currently being monitored each year to evaluate any shifts in numbers of animals or their distribution.

Human Environment
Interior Alaska includes some of the oldest archaeological sites in North America, some exceeding 13,000 years. Activities like driving a Stryker through an ancient burial ground, or digging a foxhole in a campsite would be a severe impact. Rather than waiting for such an event, the soldiers typically use high-tech GIS maps to avoid likely sites.
Of all impacts, wildfires could be the most severe to human health and safety. A small fire can spread to tens of thousands of acres within days if it is dry and windy. Most fires in the populated regions of Alaska (otherwise known as the “roaded areas”) are human caused. However, regulations (e.g., restrictions on training during high risk weather) and prevention (fire breaks and fuel reduction) reduce risks of potential large-scale wildfires.

An independent socio-economics study indicated that the transformation would benefit the surrounding communities, primarily from increased personnel and dependents, and from associated construction of new facilities. An Executive Order, signed in the 1990s, also requires analyses to evaluate disproportionate impacts to minorities, the poor, and children. No impacts were expected.

Cumulative Impacts
Recent federal court cases have indicated that the big picture analyses be conducted correctly—that analysts look at the past, present, and expected future impacts from the agency in question, as well as from surrounding land uses or communities. If these analyses are not done, the document could be thrown out by the courts. The cumulative impacts section was a voluminous 80 pages, but no significant issues were expected.

This hefty 2-volume document, totaling about 1,200 pages (500 pages of main text) concluded that there were no significant environmental impacts to bringing the Stryker Brigade to Alaska. The document was produced on time and under budget, and the Stryker Brigade arrived to Alaska soon after.


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