The Air Force is holding a series of public hearings this week to provide information and receive public comment regarding plans for additional military training in the Blackwater River and Tate’s Hell State Forests in Northwest Florida. The final hearing will be held this Thursday evening (June 6) at the Santa Rosa County Recreational Facility in Bagdad.
Let’s review. The Air Force held so-called “scoping” meetings in August of last year, followed by town hall meetings in Milton and Apalachicola in December of 2013.
At the Milton town hall, Pensacola resident Patricia Edmisten was one of several who expressed their fears regarding a potential increase in military training in the state parks.
"We need to provide places for these men and women to train. I’m not against that. But, I think using the state parks is antithetical to the original purpose of these parks."
Mike Spaits, Eglin Air Force Base Environmental Public Affairs Officer, says Edmisten's concerns were representative of the feedback received Tuesday night at Carrabelle City Hall during the first of three public hearings.
"There were some concerns about the military being compatible with the forest users. There was some fear that the military is looking to take over –which we’re not – the state forest. And, then there were some noise concerns," says Spaits.
A second hearing was held Wednesday at the Franklin County Commission Main Courtroom in Apalachicola.
The hearings are designed to give residents an opportunity to find out more about and give feedback on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, detailing the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative. For short, it’s the GRASI - Landscape Initiative. The document details a Proposed Action to provide Eglin Air Force Base’s 96th Test Wing with additional space for training operations. John Mathers, project manager, says the EIS is divided into chapters, in which the first two describe in great detail what non-hazard operations the military has in mind.
"The types of training being considered for the state forest at this point include overflights of different military aircraft, driving military vehicles on the roads and some foot traffic. We’re also considering doing some parachute operations and the use of some noise generating expendables like blanks and ground burst simulators."
Mathers adds that the draft EIS also includes extensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts in over a dozen resource areas in the forests. He maintains there are no significant impacts proposed. However, he says they do identify some adverse impacts that may happen, specifically for noise and land use, if they choose to conduct the training.
It’s important to note that – at this point - the Air Force has made no decisions as to what it will officially request from the Florida Forest Service, but Mathers says they already have a lot of experience at determining what training missions would be appropriate in the state forests.
"I would state that we’ve been operating in the area specifically on Eglin AFB for a long time and we’ve got a very good record of managing the environment and recreation together and that makes us confident that we could go forward with this proposal, Mathers says.
Looking at the process, the final public hearing will be held Thursday in Santa Rosa County, with June 23rd set as the deadline for public comments to be included in the final draft of the EIS to be completed by the end of this summer.
After that, there’s a 30 day waiting period before a ‘Record of Decision’ can be signed. But, even at that point Mike Spaits, with Eglin Public Affairs, says it’s not a done deal. He explains.
"The process that the Air Force is looking at is not whether or not we are going to go into the forest (to do these things). It’s whether or not we apply to the forest service to do those things. And, once we’ve completed our process. That’s when the Forest Service will start their process."
Thus far, the Forest Service has not received an official request.
To find out more and give input, the final public hearing is this evening (June 5) at the Bagdad Recreational Facility in Santa Rosa County. Doors will open at 6:00 for an Open House, with Air Force representatives to make a presentation at 6:30, and public comments to start around 7:00.