County Commission Chair Cheryl Sanders appealed to a Florida Senate committee last month to back traditional uses, and not military exercises, in the Tate’s Hell State Forest.
“All we’re asking for is to stand on your word,” she told the Senate Agriculture Committee Oct. 7. “Your handshake is a handshake, I don’t care how old it gets. The people in Franklin County wanted this land in preservation to protect traditional uses and to be able to go there.”
Sanders appeared as a guest of committee chair State Sen. Bill Montford (D-Monticello), whose district includes all of Franklin County. She followed an appearance on the agenda by Florida State Forester Jim Karels.
In Dec. 2012, Gov. Rick Scott’s office and the Air Force announced a partnership agreement in which Eglin Air Force Base would lease, for limited times throughout the year, a portion of the Tate’s Hell and Blackwater River state forests. This would be part of the landscape portion of the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI), a plan to create options in the Panhandle to relieve airspace congestion over Eglin by expanding military training operations to these two state forests.
In his remarks opening the hearing, Karels outlined the Florida Forest Service’s mission, stressing the “stewardship ethic” and the importance of public access to the land.
“It’s called Tate’s Hell and the name fits,” said Karels. “It’s 214,000 acres, beautiful country, very remote country, as remote as you will see in Florida. They have dwarf cypress, and they look like God mowed the top off the trees.
“It’s a very beautiful place, critical to the estuary of Apalachicola Bay and the environment of that region of the state,” he said, describing how these timberlands, extending from the beach and U.S. 98 to the national forest, were acquired some years back by the state from former owner Buckeye Cellulose Corp.
Karels indicated that there’s still more talks to be held with the Air Force regarding use of Tate’s Hell.
“What we’re looking at with the military, and it’s still in discussion, is that about nine months ago the commissioner signed a letter of agreement. We agreed to talk to them,” he said. “All that agreement says is ‘We’ll talk to you. We’ll entertain looking at opportunities.’”
With air space increasingly crowded over Eglin, limits on ground-level training opportunities are forcing the expansion, Karels said.
Blackwater has a closed-down training site, with “old rotted buildings we don’t use any more. They want to practice urban warfare without any live rounds.”
The Franklin County site would be for more wilderness training.
“Tate’s Hell fits that rough stuff,” he said. “Outside of hunting season, outside of impacts to them, (we want to) try to allow them a few training missions where they come in with those special ops, they drop them off, and they come in with planes with big balloon wheels that can land on those rough roads down there, designed to drop those guys behind military lines.
“Those special ops then have to go to a point 20 to 30 miles away,” Karels said. “I don’t know how they’ll make it across Tate’s Hell on foot.
“It’s geared to low-impact, both to the environment and to the users,” he said. “We’ll have complete control if we decide to do anything, so if one of the missions has an impact where it does something to the recreational users that’s not good, we’ll say we’re not going to do that anymore.
“But we haven’t signed anything. We’re still in the discussion stage,” Karels said.
In her comments, Sanders specifically addressed Karel’s reference to hunting.
“There is not a time in Tate’s Hell that is not usable season,” she said. “He’s talking about hunting season. You have hunting season. It’s sort of like people living in the centers from Miami. A lot of people go to the malls, different places like that.
“Guess where we go in Franklin County when we do our outdoor activities? The forests,” Sanders said. “That’s our mall. That’s our thing.”
Sanders is the daughter of Ralph G. Kendrick, who once worked for the state forest service, served on the county commission and for whom the boardwalk to the stand of dwarf cypress trees is named.
“I’m one of the old-timers here so just give me a few minutes,” Sanders said in her introduction. “We the people of Franklin County supported the sale of over 185,000 acres to the state of Florida for conservation and preservation, all the way from the early ‘90s all the way to 2002 and 2003.
“We the people of Franklin County knew that we had to have a choice to utilize our land in traditional uses,” she said. “Or we could leave it on the tax rolls.
“But people of Franklin County chose, and knew, that it was worth more saving it, conserving it, then it was to have the money on the tax roll,” Sanders said.
In recounting the circumstances surrounding the public scoping meeting the Air Force held at Battery Park in the summer, Sanders said Franklin County has been left somewhat in the darkened woods.
“My fears is this: We have had no public input whatsoever with this concerning the military,” she said. “In Aug. 29, the military, Eglin, came down to Apalachicola and met there. We knew a week prior, we didn’t know what it was about. We get up there and were told by the military….”
It was here that Sanders interjected that “I love the Florida Forest Service, I love them, but we don’t need no military.
“The military told the people of Franklin County ‘we will take your comments, we will listen to your comments, but we won’t answer no questions,’” Sanders continued. “This was the first we heard of the state having talks with the military.
“It really concerns us that due process has not taken effect and that the people of Franklin County, who supported the sale of land to the state for preservation, have not been afforded an opportunity to have their say.
“The thoughts of CV 22s, big old helicopters, that just scares me,” Sanders said, referring to the Air Force’s tiltrotor aircraft, nicknamed the Osprey. “With 185,000 acres in Tate’s Hell, it’s everybody’s backyard in Franklin County.”