Nobody stood up in support of proposed military use of Tate’s Hell State Forest during a town hall meeting held in Apalachicola on Dec. 12.
The meeting was organized by the Florida Forest Service in partnership with the Air Force but the only uniforms in evidence were worn by clean cut foresters.
The Air Force sent two civilian representatives, Mike Penland, deputy director for range and airspace sustainment at Eglin Air Force Base, and John Mathers, project director for Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Planning (GRASI).
People began trickling into the meeting room 20 minutes before the scheduled time, 6 p.m. When the meeting began, there were 43 participants present, not counting forest service and Air Force staff.
By the break, about 60 were present, considerably fewer than the 200 who turned up in August for an Air Force scoping meeting, but most of them still as adamant the Air Force was not welcome in the forest.
The meeting was opened by Ken Weber, the state forest’s first manager. “We don’t often get people together like this to discuss the forest so I just want to thank you for turning out tonight,” he told the crowd.
Weber said no decision had been made about military use of the forest. He said the town hall meeting was to discuss a memo of understanding that might lead to a memo of agreement.
“The last scoping meeting was not that great,” said Penland, who addressed the audience next.
That August 29 meeting was marked by hostile objections from the audience, particularly about the Air Force’s policy not to address the questions at the meeting.
Penland said conversations with County Commission Chair Cheryl Sanders prompted the second assembly and assured the audience no final decision has been made about military exercises.
John Browne, land programs administrator for the forest service, said Gov. Rick Scott had originally instructed the forest service to negotiate with the Air Force a few years ago.
“The first meeting caused a lot of bad blood. It was a mistake, but it was a mistake caused by following government regulations,” he said.
Browne said the process of negotiation was just beginning and that the draft of the required environmental statement would not be finished until sometime early next year. “All your thoughts are very important. The forest is in your backyard,” he said.
No room at Eglin
Mathers said the Air Force wanted to use Tate’s Hell because they were running out of room at Eglin.
“We have been planning for three years trying to make everything fit in the range we had for use,” he said. “We realized we had a set of things in the coming years we would not be able to do as the operational air space needed continues to ramp up.”
He said current airspace would be insufficient beginning in 2015 or 2016. “We are like a basketball team. At some point, they’ve got to practice on the whole field because that’s where they play the game,” he said.
He said activities proposed for Tate’s Hell were “really not unsafe” and might include low -impact single engine planes landing on roadways; groups of up to 10 vehicles searching for other vehicles at night with no visible headlights; tilt rotor Osprey aircraft landing on existing helipads; and small group survival training and groups of up to 50 soldiers camping around the helipads for a week at a time.
Mathers said the Air Force is studying the use of blank ammunition and smoke grenades in the swamp. He said participants would avoid inhabited recreation sites and other areas, outparcels and historic sites. He said there would be no activity for two hours before sunrise and after sunset during hunting season.
“If you can see us, we’re doing something wrong,” he said.
Mathers said the Air Force had three criteria for choosing a training area; that the site be within 150 miles and no more than a two-hour drive from the base, that exercises be conducted with low or no impact to the site; and that the owner of the site be a willing partner in the activity.
State Forester Jim Karels said the forest service has its own criteria for activities sanctioned on land they oversee.
There must be no more impact than from hikers, hunters and fishermen; no impact on other forest users or adjacent landholders and all use must be in keeping with the service’s 10-year resource policy plan. The plan can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/m4am66e
“We protect the land and public access is a big part of what we do,” Karels said. “Military use is part of the multi-use concept. If we can mix the military in, that’s what we’re looking at. I don’t want the people who use this forest upset. This place means a lot to us forest service guys as well. We will walk very slowly in this thing.”
After the initial, presentations and a short break, the audience was allowed to express opinions and ask questions. Initially, Karels asked that presentations be kept to three minutes or less.
Debate about restricted airspace
Mark Nobles, director of Carrabelle’s Thompson Field was the first of 12 presenters. He began to comment on air space encroachment, but when he received a warning that he had only 30-seconds left to speak, Sanders spoke up.
“This is a meeting to answer questions,” Sanders said. “I don’t care if I’m here until midnight. This has never been brought up. I want to here what Mark has to say.”
The three-minute time limit was dropped for the ensuing presentations.
Nobles warned initiation of war games would increase restrictions on use of local air space. “You’re going to be dropping somebody’s children out of helicopters. You’d have to put in restricted airspace,” he said.
Nobles said use of airspace in the Panhandle is already complicated. Penland agreed, but said there would be no airspace associated with the war games.
“I don’t know how you can drop my child from a helicopter when anybody can fly though it,” said Nobles.
Restriction of air traffic due to war games was a theme in several presentations. Charles Brannan, president of the Franklin County Dog Hunters Association, expressed concern military aircraft might interfere with life flight transport to hospitals.
Another fear expressed by commenters was pollution related to the training activities. Betty Collins said there was no way to guarantee accidental damage during the exercises. “These are inexperienced people. That’s why they are training,” she said.
Penland responded that exercises were more rehearsal than training, and that the pilots involved were experienced.
Browne pointed out there are already aircraft in use over Tate’s Hell by the forest service.
“We fly helicopters out there,” ,” he said. “(Karels) is responsible for the wildfires in Florida. He knows aircraft. We own aircraft. It’s not like we started doing this yesterday.”
Ecotour guide Michael Vroegop described Tate’s Hell as “a natural watershed protecting a fragile ecosystem. We don’t need petrochemical runoff into the bay. If you think all the avgas is consumed by the aircraft, stand next to one and use your nose. The bay has enough problems now.”
He asked if the environmental impact study considered noise pollution. Penland said activities would be planned so the public would not be exposed to noise pollution.
“Have you asked a red-cockaded woodpecker about how it feels about having a helicopter hover 100 feet over its nest?” Vroegop asked.
“We have met our goals for conservation of the red cockaded woodpecker at Eglin,” replied Penland.
Marylyn and Ed Feaver, who described themselves as a paddlers and primitive campers from Quincy. Marylyn described an experience camping at West Virginia’s Blackwater Falls State Park when training was in progress.
“If I had had my 4-year-old granddaughter with me, it would have been the end of her wilderness experiences. She would have been terrified,” she said. “It was frightening. There were helicopters at treetop level. Nothing in the management plan for Tate’s Hell currently calls for that.”
USAF will ‘shatter the nighttime’
The belief that war games would interfere with recreational activities was the theme of many comments.
“Tate’s Hell State Forest is one of the areas we’ve been trying to showcase,” said Lesley Cox, president of the Florida Green Guide Association. “We’re trying to bring people in from all over the world to see it. We feel very strongly this is not a compatible use.”
Bobby Miller, an avid hunter said, “I’m almost at a loss. Folks, if you love your forest, hang on we’ve got a big, big problem. Conservation and recreational lands money was used to purchase that land. They can open up some more land down south and take the forest away from us.
“They’re going to shatter the nighttime. They’re going to shatter the silence. This is the beginning of the end, for us,” he said. “Florida Forest Service is going to get such a monetary push from the military they’re going to throw us under the bus.
“We gave up a lot to do this. We would like to see one little spot in a hundred years that people can look at and know it hasn’t changed. (Tate’s Hell) is a prize for us to show off to people everywhere,” Miller said, his speech followed by loud applause.
Other speakers asked whether the forest service would receive money for the use of the forest.
Karels said money had not been discussed. He said the forest service would expect the Air Force, should they be allowed to use the land, to provide enough funding to monitor the effect of their activities on the ecosystem,
James Chambers argued that military training was not a designated use of Tate’s Hell.
“The taxpayers paid for this land. I’m not against military but to come in here and say there’s no place else is not right. They have giant pieces of property all over the place. If you bought property in the wrong place you should do something about that,” he said.
“All the people in the state of Florida should have a say in what takes place on their property. (Tate’s Hell) is their property and they want a say. I own a little bit of that land out there,” said John Little, of Holmes County.
“The military is not a person. It’s an institution. It’s not individual people like the rest of us,” said Ed Feaver.
Sanders spoke last, capping off the meeting with a moving statement.
“When we sold that land it was not for military use, it was for protection. It’s not terrain that needs to be trained on for the military. I have the honor of living in the middle of those woods,” she said.
“We’ve been having military operations in Franklin County for several years, Project Emerald Warrior. The county just got an award for cooperating with the military. We don’t need no more military in Franklin County,” Sanders said. “We sacrificed our jobs here for preservation of that bay. My daddy’s last words to me was, ‘Love the forest as long as you can. Leave it better than you found it.’
“Pull back and take no action,” she urged. “Y’all don’t need to be here.”
After the meeting, Todd Schroeder, a forest service spokesman, said he thought the meeting had been a success. “I think it was good. Everybody got a chance to speak,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Karels said the forest service would continue to host workshops and meetings on the use of Tate’s Hell.