Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Disarming Nature: Converting Military Lands to Wildlife Refuges

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Disarming Nature: Converting Military Lands to Wildlife Refuges

Article excerpt


The existence of a vast domain of federally managed public lands is one of the defining characteristics of the United States. For more than a century the nation has reserved certain lands for public uses ranging from aesthetic appreciation and recreation to timber harvest, military activities, and wildlife conservation. To many, these national parks, national forests, and other public lands "have become a cherished birthright of the citizenry, a fundamental part of what it means to be an American" (Wilkinson 2003, xvi).

These lands are also places of change, subjected to shifting political agendas, legislation, physical processes, ecological succession, and public attention. In this article I focus on one type of change that has grown increasingly common since the late 1980s: the conversion of military lands to new classifications as national wildlife refuges (NWR). During this period nearly two dozen major military sites have been closed and reclassified, adding more than 1 million acres to the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System (Havlick 2007) (Figure 1).

Military-to-wildlife (M2W) conversions are important for a number of reasons. First, they promise to contribute to the conservation potential and land base of the National Wildlife Refuge System, an array of public lands administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) with the strongest ecological mandate of any federal land system (Fischman 2003; Meretsky and others 2006). Second, and paradoxically, military installations include the most contaminated as well as the most biologically diverse lands of any managed by the federal government (Shulman 1992; Leslie and others 1996; Sanders 2009). As such, these sites challenge traditional conceptions that put lands into categories such as "pristine," "degraded," "natural," or "artifactual" and instead call for place-based interpretations that integrate nature and society in distinctive ways, what Sarah Whatmore considered "hybrid geograhies" (Whatmore 2002; see also Huber 2010). The mixed qualities of M2W lands also bring a new set of challenges to FWS managers, for these lands often come with explosive or chemical contaminants that fall beyond the training of most wildlife biologists and personnel employed by the service. Finally, in these geograhies of military-to-wildlife conversions, we find relationships between militarism and environmentalism that press for a reconsideration of how these spheres may overlap or merge.


Military lands converted to new uses as wildlife refuges carry multiple valences and meanings. These lands have the potential to cover up military impacts and contamination as they emerge with new names, new managers, and new management goals, but they do not consistently come with a requirement for military cleanup, decontamination, or environmental restoration. In fact, some M2W sites, such as the aptly named Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge retain a full complement of unexploded ordnance with no active plans for removal. At other sites, such as Vieques NWR and Big Oaks NWR, military cleanup crews have only partially treated unexploded ordnance contamination (this is ongoing at Vieques). At each of these sites, the Fws severely limits public access due to safety concerns. Despite the limited scope of access or restoration at many M2W sites, media accounts of these land-use changes tend to highlight the compatibility of military production with environmental protection (Schmidt 1989; Weslander 1999a, 1999b; Wolman 2010).

The merging of categories at M2W sites can press us to reconsider how we describe or come to understand the world at a more basic level. To move away from established categories--of nature and society, for example--may require an epistemological shift toward hybridity that substantially recasts relationships we have long taken for granted. …

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