Story by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher Okula
Navy Public Affairs Support Element West
SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND, Calif. — Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus arrived Saturday, June 6, at San Clemente Island’s Naval Auxiliary Landing Field to observe several of the Navy’s landmark environmental conservation efforts around this once-fragile ecosystem, which is beginning more and more to resemble its old self.
“The Navy is committed to protecting the environment,” Mabus said. “And we will continue our leadership in managing the natural resources entrusted to us. Programs like those instituted by Navy Region Southwest (NRSW) on San Clemente Island serve as a great example of that stewardship.”
The Navy’s operations on San Clemente Island, which were once constrained by considerations for the island’s dwindling populations of endangered species, are back in full swing thanks to successful habitat and breeding restoration activities overseen by NRSW’s Shore Environmental Program.
“What we’ve found on San Clemente Island is that being a steward of natural resources and supporting the mission are not mutually exclusive,” said Melissa Booker, a San Clemente Island wildlife biologist.
San Clemente Island is uniquely important to the Navy’s mission. Lying 80 miles off the Southern California Coast, it is the only remaining ship-to-shore live-firing range, as well as home to special warfare training activities for Navy SEAL candidates. It is also home to more native species than any of the other Channel Islands, with 16 species in protected or endangered status.
“As we recover these species, we’re able to get more operational flexibility for the Navy,” Booker said.
Operational flexibility means more live-fire time for ships, improved infrastructure ashore, and a better-prepared fleet.
Booker also said San Clemente Island is one of the few places in the world where one can see four previously endangered or threatened species that are now not only recovering, but thriving.
“This is possible due to the efforts of biologists and natural resource managers who spent years working to restore the island’s natural balance of native plants and animals,” she added.
One animal, the island night lizard, spent 37 years under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. It was removed from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife in March of 2014. For Capt. Christopher Sund, commanding officer of Naval Base Coronado, good environmental stewardship translated into big savings.
“When I want to run power poles to the south end of the island, it costs a lot more money to survey the site when you’re dealing with endangered species,” Sund told Mabus. “[It’s] to the point where it’s almost not economically viable to run electricity. Once we got this species de-listed, I had it within my budget to quickly string those power poles together.”
San Clemente Island hosts several invasive species, including feral cats, black rats, and argentine ants, the last of which is being aggressively eradicated to remove its impact on native plant-life and potential impact on nestlings like the San Clemente loggerhead shrike and San Clemente Bell’s sparrow, birds unique to the island that are also enjoying a successful recovery.
When the shrike’s population was extremely low, there were many restrictions on the Navy’s ability to use San Clemente Island as a training ground, Booker said, such as limitations on the use of incendiary rounds, and constraints on target areas. The recovery of various endemic species has meant that many of these restrictions have fallen away, and the Navy is now more able to meet its operational training obligations year-round.