About 180 area residents, concerned about the possibility of increased military training in the Blackwater River State Forest, filled the Bagdad Recreational Facility in Santa Rosa County Thursday night for the final public hearing on the Air Force plan.
The Air Force is looking for additional training space for Eglin Air Force Base’s 96th Test Wing. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is part of the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI) Landscape Initiative, details proposed training activities and locations within the Blackwater River and Tate’s Hell State Forests when base capacity is not available. Also, the EIS includes analysis of potential environmental impacts.
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 ground activity. The Air Force is also considering some parachute operations and the use of some noise generating expendables like blanks and ground burst simulators. Based on the EIS analysis, the Air Force does not expect the Proposed Action to result in any significant adverse cumulative impacts; and identifies no impacts that cannot be mitigated.
After a presentation by the Air Force, residents got a chance to have their say.
Ellen Roston called the forest a sanctuary. “ It is a place for people to get away from everyday life. It is a natural environment with animals and birds and the quiet whispering of the trees. The use of this sanctuary by the military for exercises of any kind is simply wrong; wrong; wrong,” says Roston, further questioning if there are any governmental representatives in the State who will oppose what she called the “misuse of this sanctuary.”
Resident Danny White questioned the need for additional training space in the forests, given Eglin’s vast expanse. “As many acres as Eglin's got? I’m not against the military. I love the military. I thank God for the military, and we need them desperately. But, they’re pushing something over on us that is not right. It’s illegal in fact,” White says, noting that the Air Force has no right to take state property.
Cindy Austino, a horse enthusiast, initially expressed concerns about how the safety of riders in the forest, while military training activities are going on. Austino says, “You’ll be over and top of where these horses go. You’ll be there. You’ll be in the bushes. You’ll be doing grenades; there’re smoke bombs. I was reading in here about the chemicals and the toxins; everything you’re gonna have that will destroy this land. It’s beautiful, okay.” Austino then urged the Florida Forest Service to protect the state park.
The vast majority of the speakers called on the Florida Forest Service to reject the training proposal. But, Vernon Compton, representing the Long Leaf Alliance, offered his qualified support.
“I very much appreciate the concerns expressed for protecting the Blackwater River State Forest to the very best ability we have. We have a responsibility to do so. However, we also have a responsibility to the men and women in uniform. I believe there is a way to accomplish both at Blackerwater River State Forest. I urge that the public and user groups continue to work to find an agreement.”
Compton says if the military use of Blackwater River State Forest is approved, a citizen review panel should be created.
Thus far, the Air Force has not yet completed its process, nor has it filed an official request with the Florida Forest Service. That is likely to be presented after a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is released this summer and a Record of Decision is signed this fall. Public comments for inclusion in the final EIS will be accepted through Monday, June 23.
To review relevant documents go online to the GRASI Landscape Initiative Draft EIS website.
Submit comments to:
Eglin AFB Public Affairs (96 TW/PA)
ATTN: Michael Spaits
101 W. D Avenue, Room 238
Eglin AFB, FL 32542-5499