LOS ANGELES — Many of the nation's 440 military bases were established in what were once sparsely populated hinterlands where soldiers trained without complaints from neighbors about the roar of warplanes and the sound of gunfire and explosions.
Now, with urban sprawl pushing up against perimeter fences, the U.S. Department of Defense has quietly become a major protector of wilderness and ranch lands. Working with conservation organizations and local governments, its Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative has helped buy nearly $1 billion worth of land to create buffer zones around 64 military bases where development threatened to encroach on combat training.
The program has been a boon for conservation, creating more than 260,000 acres of new sanctuaries — off-limits to development in perpetuity — for some of the rarest plants and animals on Earth: the California red-legged frog, the Pacific pocket mouse, the Chorro creek bog thistle and, in North Carolina, rare longleaf pine habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker.
"This is one of the fastest-growing federal conservation programs to protect habitat and land — but that is not why we are doing it," said Nancy Natoli, spokeswoman for the program. "Our mission is to train war fighters."
Judged by its founding mission, the 8-year-old program has been a success. From Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., to Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Florida's northwest panhandle, military bases are transforming themselves into places where nature and combat training prosper.
Nationwide, the Defense Department has spent $300 million in cost-sharing agreements with partners who acquired land and conservation easements to protect military testing and training capabilities.
In California, recent acquisitions include hundreds of acres of untrammeled desert near the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and Joshua Tree National Park. The land was needed to secure live-fire training.
Near Sacramento, the program obtained a cattle ranch outside Beale Air Force Base that had been targeted for a 5,000-home development. The Army's Camp Roberts in Central California partnered with the Ag Land Trust to acquire conservation easements on adjacent grazing lands and vineyards.
The Army's Camp San Luis Obispo has buffered itself from the growth of subdivisions in the nearby city of San Luis Obispo. The Pentagon's program helped buy 1,342 acres worth about $4.3 million, protecting habitat for endangered red-legged frogs and Southern steelhead trout.
At Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara, where the median home price is about $3 million, the military joined with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County a year ago to buy 171 acres for $3.4 million. As a launch site for nuclear missiles and government satellites, the base faced issues including the possibility of errant launches, falling debris and toxic clouds.
Under terms of that agreement, the Santa Barbara County Parks Department owns the land, The Land Conservancy holds a conservation easement on the property and, on launch days, the military maintains the right to evacuate the area.
On a recent weekday, a group of conservationists gathered on a ridgeline. On one side stood Vandenberg's no-trespassing signs. The other side offered sweeping views of the old Tognazzini ranch, where it seems as though nothing has changed since it was homesteaded in 1897.
Long, lazy breakers crashed on the base of sandy bluffs and dunes. Streams spilled out of arroyos and into estuaries teeming with shorebirds. Swallowtail butterflies hovered over coastal sage scrub.
Without the Defense Department's contribution of about $890,000, "the transaction would not have been possible because we had exhausted our funding sources," said Kaila Dettman, executive director of The Land Conservancy. "So it's mission accomplished: there will never be homes, hotels or large structures of any kind on this land."
That is just what Herbert Tognazzini, who died a year ago at the age of 99, hoped would eventually become of the property that was once was a working cattle ranch.
"Dad always said, 'Susie, this land should belong to everyone; it should not be developed,' " recalled Susan Duran, 60, one of 42 family members who sold the property a year ago for its appraised value.
After the sale, Duran visited the area to relive cherished memories — and deliver a message. Standing in a meadow bright with wildflowers, Duran looked out at the breakers and whispered, "Dad, it's saved. The land belongs to everyone."