On a sweltering July morning in the middle of the National Training Center, the distinctive beat of a fast-approaching helicopter cuts the heat. Suddenly, overhead, an LUH-72 Lakota helicopter approaches laden with 300 pounds of steel corral panels dangling beneath the maneuvering aircraft. With impressive speed and precision, the pilot hovers and descends into a narrow canyon until the slingload of panels lightly touches down. The load is disengaged and the helicopter, like a bird cut loose, peels off and rapidly ascends in a wind-tunnel of sand, debris and cottonwood leaves.
This was the dramatic scene a few weeks ago at Fort Irwin’s Panther Spring. What began as a vision to conquer a challenging task for Directorate of Public Works Environmental personnel, became a successful integration of multiple agencies and departments coming together in the name of conservation. The Bureau Land Management Horse and Burro program at Ridgecrest, Calif., assists DPW with management of its burgeoning feral burro herd. These large, non-native herbivores negatively impact small desert springs as they drinking the water, eat the vegetation and fouling the spring with manure. Tasked with managing and protecting these rare habitats, DPW Environmental had to find a solution.
Fencing desert springs with typical post and wire material is the most common method used to persuade persistent burros to look elsewhere for a resting spot. However, this type of fencing needs continuous maintenance and burros are experts at systematically pushing and shoving until fences stretch and topple. Unfortunately, rocky soils prevent effective t-post installation so, a solar electric fence system seemed the perfect solution! After three trips in as many months to re-install destroyed fence lines, the burros made their final point by ripping down and shattering the charger’s solar panel. It was time to start thinking outside the box – or at least making a better effort to out-think a burro.
Under the guidance of Clarence Everly, Natural and Cultural Resources Program manager, a cooperative effort was born between A Company, 2916th Aviation Battalion, the BLM Horse and Burro Program and DPW Environmental to begin the restoration of two of Fort Irwin’s most valuable desert springs. In a perfectly-executed operation, more than one ton of steel-corral panels was flown and hand-carried to protect the most critical natural and cultural resources at the springs. With the gradual recovery of the habitat, DPW biologists expect to see the return of native wildlife that relies on these oases in the desert.
With a little planning, a lot of cooperation and a good bit of luck, a formidable task was turned into a well-oiled environmental machine that was a big inspiration to all involved.
Every drop of water at Fort Irwin is a precious commodity that we are all responsible for conserving – for ourselves, for our environment and for future generations.