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Military Bases Battle Encroachment of Cities

The ever-expanding suburbs of San Antonio have created light, noise and endangered species challenges for Camp Bullis, where all military medics train. Other bases around Texas are also facing an array of encroachment issues.

Luxury houses against the fence line at Camp Bullis on the northern outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. Camp Bullis is a 28,000-acre U.S. Army training camp located in Bexar County, Texas and is used primarily as a field training site for military medics stationed at Brooke Army Medical Center at nearby Fort Sam Houston.

CAMP BULLIS — Reddish-brown cedar chips from recently cleared trees spread across a patch of ground in this United States military installation, in sharp contrast to the jungle-like growth nearby.

“Before, you couldn’t hardly walk through it,” James Cannizzo, a civilian environmental lawyer for Camp Bullis, said above the faint, distant hum of a giant cedar-eating machine. “Now, we can have a group of guys do field maneuvers.”

Clearing cedar to expand training areas is a priority for the camp, just north of San Antonio, which helps train all medics in the United States military. Concerns about preserving habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, which has increasingly sought refuge on the installation’s land as San Antonio’s suburbs swell, have stymied expansion.

But a series of deals with The Nature Conservancy, the latest of which was announced this month, is allowing the camp to clear thousands of acres of cedar (though oak trees are spared) inside its boundaries in exchange for permanent preservation of warbler-friendly ranchland outside the installation.

“To me, this is an example of a real win-win-win,” said Laura Huffman, the Texas director of The Nature Conservancy. The latest deal was financed with $2 million from the Army and $5 million from Bexar County.

Managing endangered species is one of several issues Camp Bullis — the field training grounds for Fort Sam Houston — has dealt with as multimillion-dollar homes and other sprawl have encroached. Nearby residents have complained about noise from helicopters and other military operations, and troops worry about nighttime lights.

Recently, camp officials successfully lobbied against plans for a nearby school because, “Who’s going to tell the parents why Johnny hears gunfire?” Cannizzo said.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio and chairwoman of the Senate’s Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee, said pressure from developers could be intense, especially given the state’s zeal for property rights. However, Van de Putte argued, addressing encroachment issues is important not only because it supports the military’s mission, but also because bases bring in money and jobs.

“We’ve got to take into account the economic development part of what our bases mean to us,” she said.

Cannizzo said Camp Bullis has resolved many of its problems thanks to several steps, including a 2010 San Antonio ordinance requiring better soundproofing for nearby new homes, a mandate for downward-facing lighting near the camp, and the Nature Conservancy agreements (plus another with Texas Parks and Wildlife).

But vigilance is still necessary. During the past legislative session, Cannizzo fought against bills that would have undercut a San Antonio ordinance that makes it harder to chop down trees near Camp Bullis, because he feared that more warblers could be forced onto the camp. The legislation did not pass.

Other Texas bases also face encroachment issues, even as some prepare to host more returning troops as overseas missions wind down. Many installations are dealing with endangered species, like the warblers (also found at Fort Hood) and the American burying beetle (found at Camp Maxey).

In Bastrop, near the Camp Swift training area, “we may be right behind Bullis in 10 to 15 years” because of the area’s rapid development, said Col. Robert Crow, commander of the training centers for the Texas Army National Guard.

Challenges relating to energy development have cropped up, too.

Captain Mark McLaughlin, commander of Naval Air Station Kingsville, said in an e-mail that he spent a “considerable amount of time” dealing with the rise of wind farms along the coast, a concern for aircraft radar. Last month, McLaughlin said, the Kingsville installation joined with other military groups, including the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, to work with wind farms toward compatible development.

Solar farms near runways have also surfaced as a concern at one military installation, Van de Putte said, because the panels can act like mirrors. However, she said, solar developers can use panels with less glare.

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