SAVANNA, Iowa (AP) - The little office is what you’d expect, mostly.
One wall of the National Wildlife & Fish Refuge office at Savanna is occupied by your typical taxidermy. The stuffed owls, hawks and eagles should come as no surprise in such a habitat, right?
On a table under the mounted birds of prey, however, is a collection that doesn’t fit the motif. Scattered upon the little display table are hand grenades, mortar shells, shrapnel and bullets.
Hawks and hand grenades? Welcome to the Lost Mound Unit, formerly the Savanna Army Depot.
The old depot property an hour north of the Quad-Cities, bequeathed to the Refuge when the Army shipped out about 15 years ago, contains a bunch of little surprises, rolled into one. The natural beauty is striking, for sure. What a treat it would be to help manage the old prairie’s return - if only the bombs weren’t hiding underfoot.
The Quad-City Times reports that when the Refuge was the Depot, it contained a massive operation. During World War II, Savanna was the largest munitions storage base in the country. During that period, about 7,500 people worked there, making, testing and storing artillery and explosives. An untold number of unexploded ordnance - UXO - never was accounted for.
Along with the pieces of scrap that are scattered on the table in the office are several large photographs of items found on the property that cannot be displayed. One such photo shows a practice grenade, found in shallow water of the Mississippi River by contractors digging for fiber-optic cable. Live rounds have been found, too, and there’s the rub: How do you know the difference?
“You don’t know whether it’s live or scrap,” said Wildlife Refuge Specialist Alan G. Anderson. “From bombs to bullets, it’s all here. The first bombs dropped after Pearl Harbor were made here.”
On the backside of Anderson’s business card, the reality of the risk is in black and white: “UXO-MEC (Munition of Explosive Concern) DO NOT TOUCH!
“Do Not Move Closer, Remove or Disturb. Mark Your Location (leave a hat).
“Walk Away (on same path you entered) … After hours or weekends call 911.”
The explosive risk is so worrisome in large sections of the former depot, the public never will be allowed there. But the public also has more access than ever before.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service accepted the mission from the federal government to manage nearly 10,000 acres of the former Army Depot.
And that’s what they’re doing - one cautious step at a time.
“If there’s risk, we won’t take it. We’ll manage it,” Anderson said.
In fact, he manages 4,000 acres, focusing primarily on restoring the prairie to its natural state and urging it into a condition that makes it increasingly accessible to the public.
He pointed to a map on his office wall and said, “That shows where you can and cannot go. The Illinois EPA, U.S. EPA and the Army have to declare a site clean before it can be included in what’s open to the public.”
A large swath of land near the center of the Lost Mound Unit of the refuge is restricted. Called the “range fan,” it’s the area where munitions made at the depot and at the Rock Island Arsenal were test fired and proof fired.
“Thousands of rounds of live munitions were fired, and some hit the ground without going off,” said Ed Britton, manager of the Savanna District of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge, which includes Lost Mound. “A couple of years ago, during a land survey in the range fan, more than 1,000 black powder grenades were found.
“You can clean up everything you find, but you’ll never find everything.”
The government already has spent at least $200 million cleaning up the munitions left by the Army’s operations, Britton said. Estimates suggest the final cost could reach $350 million.
“As World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam all wound down, the leftover munitions had to be stored somewhere, and tens of thousands were at Savanna,” he said. “They had to be tested to see if they still worked.
“Some munitions were dumped into a giant burn pit to be destroyed. They’d just put an explosive on the top of the pile. But some didn’t explode; they just scattered around about a 2,000-acre tract that’ll never be open to the public.”
Most of the ominous-sounding “range fan” acreage - an old firing range, basically - has been a dream for the Fish & Wildlife folks.
When the Army had the Depot, grazing animals were permitted on sections. They ate the grass, which reduced the fire risk. Storing enormous quantities of explosives, they couldn’t be too careful about fire.
But the grazing ended when the land went to the Refuge, and the grass grew back.
“With a grass habitat, mice came,” Anderson said. “That’s what brought owls here.
“In 2002, 40 long-eared owls were counted in a grove of pines in the range fan. That was the biggest concentrated population of the species in the nation. They had been on the endangered list.”
An endangered species of turtle also has occupied the old depot, courtesy of its rich supply of sand. The refuge, after all, contains the largest sand dune in Illinois. The sand prairie at Savanna is ten times larger than the next size of dune, and its presence is a magnet to wildlife.
One such creature is the Ornate box turtle, which is like a tortoise in that it lives in sand, not water. The species is on Illinois’ list of threatened species, but it is thriving at Savanna.
A small population of the turtles was identified south of Savanna at Thomson, which is part of the Refuge and where Britton’s district office is located.
When Ornate box turtle nests are found at Thomson, four eggs are removed. Two go to Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley and the other pair go to a zoo in Chicago for incubation and care, Anderson said. After about a year, two are released at Savanna and two at Thomson.
While Anderson is not a biologist, he is a big player in the turtle-conservation effort.
“This project took 20 acres of turtle fence - the largest there is,” he said. “It’s a 24-inch steel strip that we dug 12 inches into the ground, leaving 12 inches above. There’s then what looks like a barbed-wire fence and a third layer of fencing.
“My job is to build that fence. My job is not to manage turtles. But I’m happy to help. It’s another way the Army left us a treasure.”
Many things at the refuge catch your eye, including the height of the prairie grass (to your shoulders in areas), the silence of the remote refuge, the abundance of wildlife (including birds I didn’t recognize) and the vast absence of civilization.
But the bunkers are what really grab you.
The concrete structures with grass roofs look like pyramids that had their points seared off. Besides being oddly shaped, they appear oddly located - sitting vacant among the cactus and milkweed.
Anderson and others with the refuge call them “igloos,” and he has 409 of them to maintain.
“There were 410,” he said. “One went boom!”
Seventy years ago, Britton elaborated, one of the bunkers got too cold. It was filled with land mines, containing liquid chemicals and a fuse, which typically were stored at about 55 degrees. Somehow, the temperature in the bunker dropped to the point the chemical froze, causing a massive explosion.
“It was heard all the way to Hanover (about 14 miles away),” Britton said. “It blew storefront windows out for miles around.”
Thereafter, fuses never were loaded into munitions while in storage.
The old bunkers were long ago disarmed, and Anderson doesn’t have much to do on the maintenance front, given they’re thoroughly sealed and unused.
The property contains hundreds of other igloos, differentiated by single doors, which belong to the refuge. The bunkers with double doors are on land that is privately owned, which accounts for another few thousand acres of former depot.
The sloping grass rooftops give a false impression.
It wasn’t until Anderson permitted me to pull open one of the 1,000-pound doors that the vastness of the interior revealed itself.
He rattled off the dimensions: 15 feet tall at the center; concrete 2 feet thick on the sides and back wall; 1 foot of concrete on the front wall and ceiling; 60 feet in length and 30 feet wide.
None of the igloos face one another. That way, an explosion in one would have less of a chance of taking out another.
The Army stored massive amounts of munitions in the bunkers - from bullets to 500-pound bombs. The walls contain lots of scribble, but it’s not just graffiti. A few personal messages, mostly initials and dates, mingle with the copious ledger-like jottings.
“They basically took inventory on the walls,” Anderson said. “As they hauled things in and out, they sometimes kept a count on the wall. It’s almost an historical document.”
Other telltale signs appear on the walls, including deep and shallow scratches and gouges in the concrete. As weapons and munitions were loaded in and out, their pallets and racks sometimes made contact with the concrete.
As I stepped outside to give photographer Kevin Schmidt uninterrupted interior shots, I spotted something on the ground. It looked like a large o-ring; a circular piece of black plastic.
“You’ve proven once again there’s military stuff everywhere,” Anderson said as I handed him the relic. “That’s a bomb cap, probably from a 100-pound bomb. They placed them on the nose of a bomb as they put it in storage.”
In addition to the igloos, the old base contains many buildings of varying size. Some are in private hands. While there once as an inventory of 30 “black powder magazine storage” buildings, only two remain. The refuge uses the remaining 100-year-old structures (with pine rafters) to store hunting blinds, animal monitoring equipment and other supplies.
Everyone wants to see the land in Savanna become much more refuge than depot.
“We’re trying to recreate the old black oak savanna,” Anderson said. “We spend a lot of time on burns that encourage the prairie to return.”
And there is evidence everywhere that it’s working. In addition to the on-site success of the Ornate box turtle and the long-eared owl, other animals and plants are coming back with gusto.
A total of 47 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals have been observed at Lost Mound.
Anderson burns about 1,000 acres each winter to coax the natural grasses back onto the prairie in the spring. Meanwhile, exotic and invasive species are fought back.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fascinating history of the depot and give short shrift to the ongoing success of the refuge. But that would be a mistake.
“Trappers can take five otter. That’s how abundant they’ve become,” Anderson said. “It’s not unusual to have another species observed out here, especially with so much prairie coming back.
“The Army didn’t destroy it. They just suppressed it.”
Information from: Quad-City Times, http://www.qctimes.com
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