Editor’s note: The following story originally appeared in the July 13 edition of the Pensacola News Journal.
New questions about the military’s proposal to use the Blackwater River and Tate’s Hell state forests for maneuvers are coming from three Florida agencies and a Pensacola lawyer who specializes in environmental law.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has asked for specifics from Air Force planners on a range of issues from “collection and removal of waste and unexploded expendables and pyrotechnic devices” to aircraft noise that is projected to be above the level “made by nightclub.”
Moreover, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has contradicted a section in the Air Force’s draft of its Environmental Impact Statement that is supposed to establish guidelines under which the forest can be used.
In a letter to the Air Force dated June 12, the agency said the impact report “states that there are no eagle nests” in either Blackwater or in Tate’s Hell State Forest, which also is a proposed site for maneuvers.
“In actuality, there are documented eagle nests in both forests that are monitored by the FWC; the area biologists can provide these locations,” the letter said.
Mike Ackerman, an Air Force environmental specialist, told the News Journal that the final version of the impact statement will address the questions raised by Florida officials.
Meanwhile, the FWC letter stated the agency’s confidence that the Air Force’s plans for training in the forests “can be compatible with sound and sustained stewardship of natural resources.”
But another issue for some who question the manner in which the military is seeking permission to use the forests is that Army Special Forces troops already have outflanked the draft of the Air Force’s EIS.
Florida Forest Service records show that the 7th Special Forces Group, based at Eglin Air Force Base, has been granted four “use permits” since September that authorized up to 46 Green Berets to conduct activities in the forest for up to a week at a time.
Attorney Will Dunaway said the National Environmental Policy Act “requires that federal agencies, including the military, evaluate the environmental impacts of their proposed actions before they commit resources to the project.”
Further, “Conducting the training and then scoping an environmental impact statement is backwards,” he said.
But Ackerman said the Army training exercises didn’t result in “any negative feedback from the public with regards to these training events or impacts to public recreation.” He added that the Army’s activities “provide an indication” that military maneuvers can be conducted in the forests without causing environmental damage.
Separately, Dunaway also expressed doubt that the Air Force, which is requesting more access for its own forces and the Army, has fully complied with requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act in its impact statement, even though the document exceeds 500 pages.
Specifically, Dunaway said, the Air Force’s document doesn’t present “reasonable alternatives” as required by the NEPA. Federal guidelines on NEPA oversight specify that the impact statement should examine alternatives “using common sense,” rather than simply document the impacts of the proponent’s desired action.
As previously reported by the Pensacola News Journal, the Air Force impact statement, released in May, essentially reflects the rules that the Air Force detailed last year, including limits on the number of vehicles, aircraft and troops that can participate in maneuvers. The plan would ban live ammunition but allow paintball for simulated combat.
The Air Force’s impact statement focuses on documenting the minimal impact that the planned war games would have on the forests’ environment and civilian recreation.
Ackerman, informed of Dunaway’s criticism, said the Air Force’s final impact statement will address “the consideration of reasonable alternatives.”