The Air Force is hosting two public town hall meetings this week to discuss proposed plans for military training in the Blackwater River and Tate’s Hell State Forests. The first town hall to be held Wednesday, Dec. 11 at the Milton Community Center will focus on the Blackwater River State Forest.
“Well, we want to make sure the public has a good understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Mike Spaits, Environmental Public Affairs Officer for Eglin Air Force Base.
The meeting will spell out details of the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI) and how the state forests could play a role in so-called “low impact” military training. As an example, Spaits says the Air Force is looking at conducting the kinds of activities that are already happening in the forest.
“We know that they’re already using helicopters to do their prescribed fire program. So, where they have helicopter landing areas is it possible that we might be able to use those same areas for a CV-22 land and takeoff, so that our troops could get some training opportunities that they wouldn’t be able to get on the Eglin Reservation.”
As a result of the squeeze on Eglin, the military reached out to federal, state and private agencies a couple of years ago in search of space just for non-hazard training, to be conducted without live ammunition or ordnance. David Core, Assistant Director of the Florida Forest Service, says what the Air Force is asking for now will be a big step up from what’s taken place in the forest to date.
“What we have done in the past, at Blackwater specifically is to allow a small group of military Special Forces to come in and do an overnight (exercise) or to stay for a week at one of our training facilities on a very limited basis, special use permit type deal. We have done that in the past, but nothing to the scale of what we’re talking about here.”
Core says at this point, state officials have committed only to listening to the Air Force proposal and making an effort to accommodate military use with other uses in the state forest, pending the outcome of an Environmental Impact Study required by the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA due out in February.
As for what the military is proposing, Core says the Forest Service has three primary concerns including the impact on the forest resource itself, the other users of the forest, and those individuals who own property in or next to the forest.
The League of Women Voters is also concerned about the military’s proposal to conduct training in the state forests. Mary Guitierrez is co-president of the Pensacola Bay Area chapter.
“Especially if there’s any kind of wetlands impact, if there’s any impacts to areas that provide habitat to threatened and endangered species; well species of any nature. And, it’s not just the threatened species, it’s the potential impact to our land and water quality and air quality.”
Further, Gutierrez says state statute requires that all uses for state forests be in the “public interest,” and the league doesn’t believe military training there would meet the criteria.
Guitierrez is encouraging residents to attend the town hall, to find out for themselves what the proposal calls for and to express their own concerns.
Eglin’s Environmental Public Affairs Officer Mike Spaits agrees, urging people to come get the information first hand in order to put an end to rumors about what the Air Force wants to do.
The Air Force, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida Forest Service, is hosting two public town hall meetings. The first regarding training in the Blackwater River State Forest is set for Wednesday evening from 6-8 at the Milton Community Center. A second town hall regarding Tate’s Hell State Forest is set for Thursday, Dec. 12 at the Apalachicola Community Center in Apalachicola, FL.