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Breeding Better Plants for Military Bases

By Marcia Wood
November 9, 2001

For plants on a military training site, getting run over by an assortment of hefty, wheeled or tracked vehicles is all in a day's work. But, the Army has a secret weapon for restoring and revegetating these sites when training maneuvers are over.

The military has enlisted the help of a team of Agricultural Research Service plant geneticists, led by Kay H. Asay, to develop training-resilient plants. Now in its sixth year, the project is based at the ARS Forage and Range Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah. It is funded by ARS and the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environment Research and Development Program, Washington, D.C.

Asay and colleagues are developing improved lines of native and introduced grasses. The new plants are better able to withstand trampling by soldiers and grinding and crushing by vehicles. Military training installations are some of the most intensively used lands in the United States.

Antonio J. Palazzo, who works at the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, Hanover, N.H., recruited Asay and colleagues because of their impressive track record. The Logan work has resulted in new plant varieties that stabilize erosion-prone slopes, landscape roadsides and provide forage for livestock and wildlife.

Several of the Logan varieties are among the best performers in tests at the Yakima Training Center in central Washington, and Fort Carson, south of Colorado Springs, Colo. The findings from these sites should be applicable to many other military bases throughout the West.

At Yakima, Snake River wheatgrass has been the top-performing native grass. Logan scientists are working to make it even more resilient. Meanwhile the scientists are working at Fort Carson to improve native western wheatgrass. Other work at Fort Carson is yielding a promising blend that combines the Logan lab's RoadCrest crested wheatgrass and the lab's Bozoisky Russian wildrye with the Army's mix of natives like slender wheatgrass, Indian ricegrass, sideoats grama and lovegrass.

ARS is the chief research branch of USDA.