Balancing AF mission with mother nature

  • Published
  • By Kisha Foster Johnson
  • 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office

Land is one of the biggest assets at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.

The installation is situated on nearly 10,000 acres, which provides hundreds of deep wooded areas and wetlands that are often used for Airmen field training.

Those ideal spots are home to a variety of wildlife.

And those locations also serve as Emma Browning’s part time office.

“I love being outside,” she said.

Browning is a senior research associate for the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, which collaborates with the 78th Civil Engineer Group and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in managing the natural resources and wildlife program at Robins.

“My role indirectly plays a part in mission readiness,” said Browning. “Whenever you conserve habitats and manage land it helps the Air Force mission, because they need remote areas to conduct exercises in an environment that may be similar to a combat deployment.”

The base ecosystem includes 400 plants, 39 mammals, 110 birds, 60 fish, 34 reptiles, 26 amphibians and 411 species of insects.

“Of course, we have alligators and deer, those are seen a lot,” said Browning. “There are feral hogs that must be controlled to prevent damage. The hogs will use their tusks to make holes in the ground. On occasion we have black bear and fox sightings.”

There’s the existence of one critter that may surprise folks. It’s the tri-colored bat, which will soon be added to the federal endangered species list.

According to the USFWS, the bats’ population has declined dramatically due to white-nose syndrome, a non-native fungal disease in North America. They emphasize that safeguarding healthy bat populations supports a natural balanced world for people and wildlife and that the bats contribute at least $3 billion to America’s agriculture economy annually.

Currently, Browning is conducting a wildlife survey on the grounds to keep track of what species are present on base.

“I’m updating the list of wildlife that we have here on base,” she said. “One way is with dip netting the wetlands. This is done by using a large net and simply scooping it in the water and then searching what was gathered in the net.

“Sometimes I get fish, salamander, spiders or snakes,” she added. “By doing this, it helps to see what we have on the base and how we need to manage animals that are threatened or endangered species.”

For instance, salamanders are the bioindicator for a healthy environment.

“Salamanders have sensitive skin, and they are kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” said Browning. “If a wetland or water source is contaminated with a pollutant or toxin, amphibians will be one of the first indicators that something is wrong.

“Their skin is thin and porous - they actually breathe through it, which means they can easily absorb nasty chemicals through their skin,” she continued. “If you see dead salamanders, or if an ecosystem that has a historic population is vacant, most likely it means that the wetland is unhealthy.”

Browning said pollutants or toxins contaminating a wetland or water source directly and indirectly impacts the health of humans as we use these resources for outdoor recreation, water, and food.

Another bonus of having a healthy population of salamanders is they are great for controlling the mosquito population.

“Keeping the mosquitos at bay means reducing harmful diseases that are spread by mosquitoes,” she said. “The fact that we found a population of salamanders in the gum pond indicates a healthy ecosystem within that area.”

Environmental assessments are performed for many reasons across the installation. For example, the four new incoming missions triggered multiple assessment.

The 78th CEG and partnerships with researchers like Browning help Team Robins ensure that nature and the missions can coexist.

“I’m here to be of support to the commander through land management of areas and by encouraging the base population to be good stewards of the installation’s land,” said Browning.