Allow me to clarify the Air Force’s intent regarding Eglin Air Force Base’s efforts to use the Blackwater River State Forest and Tate’s Hell State Forest for occasional, non-hazardous military activities.
I’d like to make clear that the U.S. Air Force is not pursuing control, authority, or land exchange of state property. We simply are looking to share the forests with you. Our goal is to be completely compatible with current forest uses. The Florida Forest Service will maintain complete control and authority over the forests and must approve each and every Air Force activity.
That means we will not conduct any operation that keeps you, as a member of the public, from enjoying your forest exactly as you do today. Hopefully you won’t even notice we were there.
By going through the National Environmental Policy Act process, it ensures our activities result in little, to no impact to the environment. We started that process by issuing a Notice of Intent to publish an Environmental Impact Statement in the Federal Register Aug. 12, 2013. We ran advertisements in the Pensacola News Journal, the Northwest Florida Daily News, the Panama City News Herald and the Tallahassee Democrat both on Aug. 9 and Aug. 16. We also ran an ad in the Apalachicola Times on Aug. 22. In these ads, we invited the public to our scoping meetings in Milton, Blountstown, and Apalachicola on Aug. 27, 28 and 29 respectively.
Over time, you’ll see more of these announcements and we’ll look for other ways to get the word out about future meetings and releases. These meetings have already been invaluable to us as we’ve learned a tremendous amount about what is important to you. We learned you love your forests and you want them to stay in pristine condition for many generations to come, and we agree with that 100 percent. Here at Eglin AFB, we recovered the red cockaded woodpecker population and championed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s upgrade of the Okaloosa darter from endangered to threatened, on the way to removing it from the endangered list altogether.
We are very proud of our stewardship record, and we completely understand why that’s important to you. We grow these species along with more than 22 threatened and endangered species, and host more than 17,000 hunters, campers and hikers annually in the middle of one of the Department of Defense’s most heavily used ranges.
The types of occasional activity that may take place at Blackwater and Tate’s Hell vary from CV-22s conducting landings and take-offs to dropping off small teams of four to six people who would use communication tools and maneuver through the forest, hopefully unnoticed. Some of the Air Force Special Operations Command’s smaller aircraft may also be able to conduct landings and take-offs on existing forest roads when those areas are not open to recreational activities. And again, we want to “leave no footprints behind.”
Each time we enter your forests, all of these activities will be fully coordinated, scheduled, and approved by our partners in the Florida Forestry Service.
In our draft document, which we hope to have ready for review this fall, you’ll see a careful analysis of all the potential impacts - from traffic to water quality to noisea nd more. But that’s just our analysis - we strongly urge you to continue adding your input. In fact, we’ll consider your comments until a decision is made as we want to make the best, most informed decision possible.
I look forward to more discussion and encourage you to stay informed on our process by going online at http://grasieis.leidoseemg.com/.
Col. Shawn Moore is commander of the 96th Civil Engineer Group at Eglin Air Force Base.