The land around Ft. Lewis, or just "off post," as those in the military refer to it, has two competing identities. First and foremost, it has been set aside and used for decades as a training ground for war games. Students at neighboring Pierce College can hear the munitions detonations as persistent rumblings in the distance, a poignant, aural reminder of the war overseas.
The land has a second identity that would seem to compete with the first: It's a sanctuary for rare butterflies, birds, and at least one animal. In today's Tacoma News-Tribune, Susan Gordon reports that these species are so rare, they may be eligible for Endangered Species Act protection, and that the Army has not only joined forces with conservationists but has committed a fair amount of its own resources to doing what seems improbable in a simulated war zone: protecting the species.
Gordon writes: In the middle of the artillery impact area, the Army's biggest explosives tear up the ground. In the lob-over areas, the no-man's land on the edges of the target zone, the animals find refuge.
The Army is working in coordination with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy to set up buffer zone habitats for the creatures. Their efforts are funded in part by federal money allocated in 2004 to preserving lands around Department of Defense installations.
The land itself is short-grass prairie, which may have numbered 150,000 acres in the South Sound at one time but has been reduced to 10 percent of its former size. When the Army isn't training, it's a quiet, windswept spot, more reminiscent to me of Midwestern prairies than the forested, mountainous terrain of Western Washington. On a clear day, Mount Rainier is unmistakably close, glacier details clearly visible, and the Olympic range appears as a purple jagged line in the opposite distance. It's a place where the beauty beckons you, but signs warn not to trespass.