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Originally published July 10, 2013 at 10:18 PM | Page modified July 11, 2013 at 2:31 PM

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JBLM to gain space for at-risk species, training

The prairie habitat near Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the site of a novel effort by three federal cabinet departments to protect threatened species while also preserving space for troops to train for combat.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the West Coast’s largest military installation, where troops train with live fire, Stryker armored vehicles roam the terrain and mammoth C-17 transport planes take off on airlift missions.

But the sprawling base between Tacoma and Olympia also includes some of Washington’s only remaining prairie lands created in the wake of retreating glaciers. JBLM hosts several at-risk species, including the state’s only wild lowland population of Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly.

On Wednesday, the south Puget Sound prairie habitat was named the first pilot effort by three federal cabinet departments to preserve both wildlife and space for troops to train for combat.

The Sentinel Landscapes program is meant as an integrated response to protecting the hundreds of endangered or at-risk species that make their home on the 29 million acres of land managed by the Department of Defense.

Most immediately, $12.6 million in federal, state, local and private money will be used to buy or gain easement on 2,600 acres in Thurston County south of Olympia.

The mostly private farmland will be permanently curtailed from development. The goal is to protect species living outside the military installation, which would help ease restrictions on training exercises within the base where the same species are found.

JBLM, a joint Army and Air Force base, has some 33,000 active-duty troops and 15,000 additional personnel. Other inhabitants include the streaked horned lark and the Mazama pocket gopher, both deemed at-risk species, as well as a rare native plant, the golden Indian paintbrush, that has been designated as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

“This is an area that has the majority of the last remaining native prairie habitat. It’s important to protect that,” Tom Vilsack, secretary of Agriculture, said during a conference call with reporters.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, also joined the call.

The Pentagon has chipped in $4.1 million, the bulk of which was announced last month in the form of a challenge grant to JBLM. The Interior Department gave another $1.8 million and the Agriculture Department gave $3.1 million. The remaining $3.6 million was funded by Washington state, Thurston County and private contributions.

Hannah Anderson, regional rare-species program manager in Olympia for Center for Natural Lands Management, a nonprofit conservation group based in California, said the 2,600 acres being acquired are about 30 miles from JBLM. The areas immediately adjacent to the base are dotted with retail and residential development.

The Center for Natural Lands Management is helping to direct conservation efforts in the south Puget Sound region. Anderson said more lands could be purchased to extend the prairie-protection zone to the south of the base.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.

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