An unprecedented multi-year interdisciplinary ecological research program at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune is helping the Department of Defense (DoD) manage its coastal installations in more effective and sustainable ways. The SERDP-sponsored effort, the Defense Coastal/Estuarine Research Program (DCERP), is using mission-relevant fundamental and applied research to produce ecosystem-based management tools that will enable the military both to continue using the installations for essential training and testing missions for decades and to sustain the environmental health of these coastal areas. At the same time, DCERP is serving as a model for ecological research management, by bringing together participants from multiple institutions and disciplines to work for several years at the landscape scale and ensuring the research is linked to practical management questions at coastal installations.

Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, is both a critical Marine Corps installation on the eastern seaboard and home to a dynamic and diverse set of ecosystems. Its more than 156,000 acres include mostly undeveloped barrier island, upland forest, and coastal marsh ecosystems that harbor a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. In addition, the installation encompasses the majority of the New River Estuary and includes a segment of the Intracoastal Waterway. The installation also includes dozens of tactical landing zones, more than 30 gun positions, 80 live-fire ranges, and about 11 miles of beaches on Onslow Island that are used to support amphibious operations.

In the past, each part of an installation’s ecosystem, such as the wetlands or an estuary, often was studied as an individual entity. But in reality, all the parts of the ecosystem on an installation are connected, affecting each other in myriad ways. What happens to Onslow Island affects the coastal marshes behind it, just as what occurs in the upland forest affects the New River Estuary. In turn, environmental changes can affect training over the long term. For example, the Marines at Camp Lejeune must train for beach landings and marsh crossings—and that training can happen only if the unique beach, sand dune, and marsh features of Onslow Island can be sustained year after year. Changes in these features brought on by current storms or future impacts due to climate change can affect the island’s condition over time. Here, as in the upland areas, installation land managers responsible for thousands of acres of diverse and interconnected ecosystems need long-term monitoring data across large spatial scales to understand ecological trends and potential impacts from human-induced stressors.

DCERP is providing these data and analyses. The program’s principal investigator, Dr. Patricia Cunningham of RTI International, brought together the intellectual power of the major universities and federal research organizations in the region. DCERP scientists work closely with installation land managers to ensure the research is linked to the managers’ real-world needs.

For example, DCERP is helping land managers better understand how nitrogen and phosphorous move through the New River and estuary to affect the biology and functioning of the system. It also is showing how increased sea levels could affect the ability of coastal marshes and barrier islands to act as storm barriers protecting the training ranges. DoD expects to transition both the practical research findings from DCERP and the program’s research management approach to other military installations.

Military installations such as Camp Lejeune are critical DoD assets. Maintaining the installation’s ecological health is important for several reasons: to enable the installation’s land and waters to be sustainably used indefinitely; to meet the Department’s stewardship responsibilities; and to continue the training and testing necessary to keep Marines mission ready.

For this impressive work, Dr. Patricia Cunningham and the DCERP team received a 2012 SERDP Project of the Year award. DCERP Project Overview