The Air Force hit a brick wall when it proposed to conduct war games in Tate’s Hell State Forest.
During two meetings held to discuss an Air Force proposal, opponents raised numerous questions and objections to the project.
The military use of state property was proposed by Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI), a plan to create options in the Panhandle to relieve Eglin Air Force Base’s crowded airspace.
At the August 29 scoping meeting, about 200 area residents were shocked to learn that in Oct. 2012, the Air Force signed an agreement giving the go-ahead for the military to use about 400,000 acres in Tate’s Hell State Forest and in the Blackwater River State Forest for military exercises.
Outcry against the war games was practically universal at that meeting, with only David Butler of Carrabelle offering limited support. “If you’re doing anything that will help create jobs here, obviously I’m for it,” he said.
Attendees at the formal scoping meeting were offended on being told the Air Force representatives would not answer questions because it was against policy.
Military spokesmen read a script explaining that increased air traffic has become a problem over Eglin and additional space is needed to conduct non-hazardous training for special forces stationed there. Non-hazardous training consists of groups of fewer than 20 individuals dropping from aircraft or conducting covert land maneuvers, without the use of live ammunition.
Activities would also include groups of up to 70 soldiers camping in the forest for up to a week at a time.
In addition to existing helipads belonging to the Florida Forestry Service, the Air Force wants to use forest roads as runways for fixed wing aircraft. The Air Force also wants to deploy trailer-mounted, temporary and mobile radar, telemetry and training emitters to simulate an integrated air defense system.
Col. Shawn Moore, commander of the 96th Civil Engineer Group conducted the first meeting. After numerous speakers condemned the proposed war games, he appeared visibly shaken.
County Commissioner Cheryl Sanders, who lives near Tate’s Hell, was among the speakers and expressed strong opposition to the maneuvers.
The second meeting held Dec. 12 was hosted by the Air Force and the Florida Forest Service jointly. Military uniforms were notably absent at the town hall type get together and questions were encouraged.
Eglin was represented by two civilian representatives, Mike Penland, deputy director for range and airspace sustainment at Eglin Air Force Base, and John Mathers, project director for GRASI. State Forester Jim Karels led this meeting.
The audience was told that questions raised by Sanders had prompted organization of a second discussion.
Ken Weber, Tate’s Hell State Forest’s first manager, 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 meeting’s organizers openly admitted December meeting was an attempt to undo damage from the first discussion. “The last scoping meeting was not that great,” said Penland.
A dozen speakers expressed concern that war games in the forest would lead to chemical and noise pollution, restrict use of air space by private citizens and emergency aircraft and interfere with other forest activities including ecotourism, which is of growing importance to the regional economy.
Once again, opposition to the proposed military use was universal among speakers.
Karels assured the audience there would be continued discussion of the proposal and no decision had been made to allow military exercises in Tate’s Hell. A draft of the required environmental impact statement for the project is expected to be complete sometime early in 2014.