Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command

Amphibians, Reptiles & Readiness

05/08/17 12:00 AM

By JC Kreidel, NAVFAC Atlantic Public Affairs

NORFOLK (NNS) -- Chris Petersen is a guy who likes reptiles and amphibians. A lot. Even before he first started his education at Old Dominion University as a biology major, he was fascinated by them. This led to a mentorship with a professor who in turn was working a study in partnership with the Navy, studying timber rattlesnakes in Eastern Virginia.

Petersen became a part of that study, trekking out into the woods of Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads Northwest Annex to study the species. It was his job to capture them humanely so that monitors could be placed in the snakes to track their movement patterns, habitat use and feeding biology. This work would see him finish both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at ODU and subsequently earn an internship at NAVFAC Atlantic. His love for herpetology - the study of amphibians and reptiles - led to a new passion: continuing to advance the conservation and management of these species while simultaneously preserving the Navy's ability to maintain readiness.

"I enjoy going to work every single day because it's a thrill for me that I get to work with these species," says Petersen.

He also lead the effort to establish the Department of Defense Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, or DoD PARC. Since 2009, he and his colleagues have been working to implement a strategic plan to improve DoD's environmental conservation and management of its lands, protecting the amphibians and reptiles that live on military bases in the U.S. while simultaneously honoring the commitment to military training.

According to the DoD PARC strategic plan, finalized in 2015 after six years of effort on the part of its partners, success will be "achieved by implementing proactive, habitat-based management strategies that maintain healthy landscapes and training lands in ways that sustain and enable DoD's testing, training, operations and safety mission."

Petersen serves as National Representative to DoD PARC. His colleague at NAVFAC Southwest, Dr. Robert Lovich, serves as National Technical Representative.

According to Petersen, the goals of PARC are straightforward with sweeping responsibilities.

"The purpose of the group is to develop partnerships and not only within the Navy and across DoD but with nongovernment organizations and other federal agencies looking beyond our borders to see what they're working on with their concerns are with reptiles and amphibians, and how we can partner to work towards common goals and objectives."

To date, DoD is the only federal agency that has a strategic plan for managing reptiles and amphibians. Petersen says other federal agencies were so impressed with the DoD PARC plan they are starting to get on board and the Bureau of Land Management is starting to work on their own strategic plan.

"It's been a really open relationship within DoD and outside with sharing information, sharing resources, creating networks, and developing partnerships and it's been, in my mind, a completely positive experience that benefits all parties," says Petersen.

Petersen says DoD PARC's efforts are very much in line with the CNO's Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority - namely, the call to expand and strengthen the Navy's network of partners - as well as NAVFAC's own Strategic Design and Concept of Operations.

"The whole objective of the program is about developing partnerships, saving money, enhancing natural resources management, funneling and focusing on military readiness and supporting healthy, realistic training and testing environments," says Petersen.

It's important to note that his role with DoD PARC isn't his only responsibility at NAVFAC Atlantic. As a Senior Natural Resources Specialist, Petersen sometimes travels the world to study species present on Navy lands in other countries. He's done so for NAVFAC for 14 years.

Beyond the strategic plan itself, DoD PARC has racked up some amazing accomplishments since its charter including updating 300 herpetofauna species lists for the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Army as well as the production of creation of a massive photo library that are available for download. DoD PARC has also developed on-line training modules, including a venomous snake and safety video, conducted three continental amphibian disease surveys and developed dozens of educational outreach products. These products and information is incorporated into the Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMPs) of Navy installations and allows for effective and efficient management of herpetofauna in support of military readiness.

"We exist to provide tools to the Navy installation resources manager so they can better manage reptiles and amphibians on their lands," said Petersen. "We try to empower them by giving them training and materials so they can better manage amphibians and reptiles on their installations."

Making this partnership happen took a herculean effort, particularly when available funds are tied to the warfighter's most pressing needs. Petersen is quick to point out the value of the partnership.

"DoD PARC is not an unfunded requirement and it took a lot to convince leadership of that" says Petersen. "We weren't requesting any additional funds, we are just organizing and focusing what we're already doing individually, but now we're doing it in a coordinated approach to maximize our return on investment."

Petersen says it's difficult to put an actual dollar amount on savings, but the collegial, collaborative work does pay off. "Instead of having DoD services or installations developing their own materials, products or services individually, we're doing it as a whole and sharing those resources."

Petersen also says the military is making great strides in serving two masters: protecting the lands entrusted to DoD and being compliant with environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act, and the species that reside there, while also protecting readiness.

"The amount that the Navy and the DoD does for conservation and management of common and at-risk species is just phenomenal. It's incredible," says Petersen. "Several studies have shown how incredible biodiversity is on military lands and so I take that all into perspective, and it's a balancing act and at the end of the day for me the mission is the most critical component."

While Petersen laughingly admits that many of the species he cares so much about are a "tough sell," he does feel like progress is being made all the time.

"I think where we've broken through some barriers is with all of the vast amount of educational materials that our group has pushed out, everything from educational trifold brochures on what are the snake species of a particular installation to presentations that we develop for Navy child day care centers," says Petersen. "We try to share little tidbits of interesting information about a species to open up their minds. I think this education diminishes their fears so they can see how really cool these species really are."

Next up for DoD PARC is the development of more educational videos, publication of a scholarly article on herpetofauna biodiversity on military lands and the development of a priority species list for DoD.

"That's a whole new frontier for us," says Petersen. "This is exciting because it's the first time ever we're focusing energy on this group of species. What we stand to learn will ultimately benefit military readiness."


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