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DEER AMONG THE AMMO
Clyde Carley
March 28, 1955
While the Navy was building an ammunition depot in Oklahoma a civilian with a private plan made it into a wildlife sanctuary
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March 28, 1955

Deer Among The Ammo

While the Navy was building an ammunition depot in Oklahoma a civilian with a private plan made it into a wildlife sanctuary

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At the Naval Ammunition Depot at McAlester, Okla. the deer and the turkeys play down by the rifle range, and Canada geese waddle within sight of the Administration Building. Beaver colonists eye bulldozers jealously. Wild ducks throng the ponds and creeks, and bobwhite quail, flourishing to the point of overpopulation, peek from the knolls at ammunition trucks crawling cautiously along the roads.

This odd situation came about in an even odder way and is the perfect example of what astonishing things can happen when the Navy's right hand is unaware of what its left is up to. Twelve years ago the Navy decided to build an ammunition depot at, of all places, Peaceable Creek. One can scarcely imagine a more desolate location for assembling piles of shells than the eroded, gully-washed 45,000 acres near the village of Savanna. This alleged farmland was about 10% under cultivation, and it has been said that if the Navy had tapped its foot in indecision, the farmers would have given it the land and thrown in some razorback hogs. Even the coyotes were about to leave.

But the Navy bought this miniature Grand Canyon and acquired the services of a remarkable left hand in the person of one C. D. (Dewey) Johnson as Superintendent of Maintenance. Johnson's immediate thought upon viewing the wasteland was: "What a wonderful place for a game refuge!"

Only a man with considerable imagination could have had such a thought; but to Johnson it was more than a fancy—it was a project.

In the resulting construction over an area comprising four school districts, the only old building left standing was the solid stone Cedar Tree School. It was nicknamed C-Tree and housed the Roads and Grounds Maintenance office. At a plain desk inside, about where the teacher used to sit, Dewey Johnson directed three assistants, leading a crew which was later stabilized at 250 men. Once the first rush was over he became a sort of Johnny Appleseed on his own.

Every work project of his was plotted in a manner to also benefit wildlife. In the grading for 200 miles of railroad and 300 miles of improved highway interlacing the depot, in halting erosion and terracing, in providing water conservation, in beautifying grounds and leaving a natural amount of camouflage over storage units Johnson's game refuge was always present. Everything was done by the Navy book. At the same time, by selection of seeds and grasses and of shrubbery and soil-binder crops, by imaginative planning and planting, he could give the land back to the game and migratory waterfowl.

Where another superintendent might have standardized plantings with Bermuda and bluestem grass, Johnson judiciously used both Korean and bicolor lespedeza, left natural weeds and berry bushes at controlled spots, planted others to grain and vetch, put in oats and rye as well as Bermuda and King's Ranch bluestem to cure erosion. Where others might simply have cut down the natural growth around 626-acre Brown Lake, Johnson only thinned out the worst to plant bullrushes, sago pondweed, smartweed, duck millet and aquatics.

So it went over the entire 45,000 acres. C. D. Johnson heard his initials pronounced as "Seedy," never with disparaging intent yet seldom with any yo-ho praise on the old-salt level. He had no specific authority to create a bird sanctuary along with the ammunition depot, but neither was there official opposition to it. If a tough inspector came around from Washington and wanted an explanation of the influx of wildlife, Johnson was ready to say honestly, "They just seem to like it here, sir."

The man making Navy history in this unorthodox fashion is an ex-sailor and Legionnaire, an aggressive Swede-Irishman of 5 feet 8 who is compact and steady-driving, freckled, partly bald and completely weather-creased in face and hands. A civilian employee, he is on the Public Works payroll. Born on a farm near McAlester, nine miles north of the depot, Johnson has seldom left the region except to hunt Wyoming elk and antelope and make other sports trips. An active Izaak Walton Leaguer for 30 years, he is now a national director and regional vice-president.

As Johnson's Secret Grand Plan developed within the Master Plan, only one casualty in 10 years was chargeable to C-Tree. It happened to a visiting admiral, one who expressed doubts about the profusion of deer said to be found already on this former wasteland. He was standing in the backyard of the commanding officer's home on the depot. In the same area it happened that a pair of orphaned deer were being bottle-fed until they could take to the hills. Even as the admiral spoke further on the menace of too many deer, one of the objects of his exasperation wandered quietly up behind him. The naval person stood with hands clasped behind his back, a finger protruding. The orphan deer saw what appeared to be a bottle nipple and seized same for normal use. Startled, the admiral jerked his hand away, suffering a wrenched finger. Poetic justice, C-Tree personnel called it.

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