An Air Force proposal to stage war games in Tate’s Hell State Forest, first approved last year by state officials, met with a resounding no from county residents last week.

More than 200 people from all walks of life attended the Aug. 29 meeting in Apalachicola’s community center at Battery Park, far more than attended either of the earlier scoping meetings last week in Milton and Blountstown.

The overwhelming majority agreed military exercises are not welcome in Franklin County. But it’s not yet clear how much of that will matter.

In October 2012, the Air Force signed an agreement with the state to use Florida Forest Service land, 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 near Eglin Air Force Base.

At Tuesday morning’s county commission meeting, Chairman Cheryl Sanders, who lives in Tate’s Hell, was chosen as spokesperson for future discussions on war games in the swamp. She asked the county to seek a public records disclosure on the project, which she said has been in the works since 2006.

“Somebody had to have known about this,” she said.

Sanders said she planned to bring the matter up at a Tate’s Hell liaison meeting with the Florida Division of Forestry yesterday.

The Air Force wants a lease of the forest forest as part of its Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI), a plan to create options in the Panhandle to relieve Eglin Air Force Base’s crowded airspace. The GRASI Landscape Initiative seeks to ease congestion over Eglin by expanding military training operations to the Tate’s Hell and Blackwater River state forests.

Mike Spaits, public affairs officer for Eglin, told the Aug. 29 gathering the two state forests were identified out of two dozen possibilities as the best fit for training operations, based on distance from Eglin/Hurlburt Field, minimal need for improvements, available landing areas and other infrastructure for access.

Gov. Rick Scott praised the partnership in a 2012 news release. “Not only will this decision strengthen our nation’s security, but it will support our military communities that provide jobs for Florida families,” he said.

The scoping meeting began with a scripted presentation by Air Force spokesmen and rounded off with comments from the audience. Answers to questions from the audience was not permitted during the formal meeting although Air Force personnel fielded queries both before and after the session. Attendees were urged to submit questions and comments in writing, which must be postmarked by Sept. 12 to be included in the public record.

‘A national treasure’

Military spokesmen told the audience 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.

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.  In addition, the Air Force wants to deploy trailer-mounted, temporary and mobile radar, telemetry and training emitters to simulate an integrated air defense system.

Members of the public were distrustful, skeptical and even hostile to the presenters at the meeting.

Col. Shawn Moore, commander of the 96th Civil Engineer Group, introduced himself as a representative for Brig. Gen. David Harris, Eglin’s commander. He said that under the National Environmental Policy Act, government agencies are required to hold scoping meetings like the one in Apalachicola before implementing any policy that may affect the environment.

“We’re not doing this because we have to. We want to,” Moore said. “Environmental is very key to the success of our mission. Tell us your concerns and make it a part of the public record.”

He said the Air Force team looking to implement GRASI exchanged ideas with the Nature Conservancy, the Florida Forestry Service and the governor’s office about compatibility of the training sessions in state forests and reiterated that the state was enthusiastic about a possible partnership.

The Nature Conservancy could not confirm they had a representative at the meeting or provide details of their dialogue with the Air Force about the Tate’s Hell proposal.

GRASI “ is the kind of arrangement where they would work out lease agreements or management agreements where the Department of Defense would pay the state or provide other compensations,” said Janet Bowman, director of legislative policy and strategy for the Conservancy. “In the past, the military has put money on the table for the purchase of Florida Forever lands.”

Mike “Pappy” Penland, point man for Eglin's Air Armament Center, spoke for the operational side of the Air Force proposal, and praised Tate’s Hell as a national treasure. “There are things you can do in Northwest Florida that you can’t do anywhere else,” he said.

Penland said with the help of Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State University, the Air Force is addressing increased air traffic at Eglin after the Base Realignment and Closure Committee brought additional fighter jets to the base beginning in 2005.

The Eglin Air Force Base Joint Land Use Study estimates that in 2014, take offs and landings on Eglin alone will total 427,000. Spokespersons at the scoping meeting said by 2020, 59 additional F-35 fighters would move to Elgin, increasing air traffic further with more training sorties.

Penland said most of the air maneuvers over Tate’s Hell would take place at 24,000 to 60,000 feet and would be undetectable to people on the ground. He called the forest a “relief valve” for Eglin.  He said a large flexible area, like the Panhandle, is needed to train pilots to elude an integrated air defense system.

Penland said jet training needed to be carried out over undeveloped areas. “The Nature Conservancy wants to limit construction,” he said. “Guess what? That’s what we want too.”

He stressed the military would work hard to make their training compatible with existing uses of public land like hunting, wildlife observation and timber harvesting.

‘We don’t want it messed up’

Members of the public who commented saw it differently, their negativity stemming from various causes.

Sanders, who insisted she spoke as a private citizen, made her opposition clear.

“I live in the middle of Tate’s Hell. In the 1940s, my husband’s family was taken off their land by Camp Gordon Johnston. When they came back, they had nothing. They never got their deeds back,” she said.

“Once you let the military in, you can’t stop them,” Sanders said. “We have kept our population down so we have an area that is not like anywhere else and we don’t want it messed up. We didn’t do it for the military; we did it for preservation.”

Charles Brannen of the Franklin County Dog Hunters Association said he spoke for 350 members.

“Buck Siding Road is our escape route in a storm. What will happen if it is blocked by your equipment?” he asked. “I appreciate the long notice you gave us; a lot of people didn’t even hear about this until three hours ago. I oppose anything you want to do coming on Tate’s Hell.”

He also expressed concern fuel and exhaust, deposited in ditches, would make its way to the bay and further damage the oyster bars.

Carrabelle’s Bill and Tammy Owens did not speak out, but said prior to the meeting they had grown up next to Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. “We’re concerned about helicopters and airplanes falling into the forest that weren’t intended,” Bill Owens said. “Jets and helicopters fall out of the sky and they make a big mess and release oil and fuel.”

David Butler, chair of the Carrabelle Economic Development Council, made the only supportive comment of the night. “If you’re doing anything that will help create jobs here, obviously I’m for it,” he said, adding his concern over the lack of detail in the proposal.

“What are we agreeing to and on what scale?” he asked.

Robin Vroegop, a certified green guide, said she witnessed maneuvers at Eglin. “There was constant boat and helicopter traffic and noise,” she said. “While that is appropriate for a military base, when you expand how will it affect hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing?

“We are already not allowed in the forest during fires. This will be another block of time when the public is not allowed access,” Vroegop said. “We need to be very careful about blurring the lines between military and other public property.”

Margo Posten, a staff member at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, urged the Air Force to look at the hydrological effect of road improvement in the swamp. The Air Force has written that the roadway airstrips would be 30 feet wide by 2,000 feet long, would require bush hogging and possible widening or compacting, and would have no paving or impervious surfaces.

 “Tate’s Hell has been preserved; that’s one of the reasons you’re here,” said Anita Grove, director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce. “Visitors come to see our dark skies at night and our natural beauty. There are bears, dragonflies and all kinds of creatures in the swamp. You have to wonder if all these maneuvers will impact wildlife behavior. We’re trying to find a sustainable way to survive. I’ve got to wonder if it will impact our airport.”

Alligator Point resident Betty Cummins questioned how much activity could be expected and where money from a lease on the property would go.

“You said tonight frequency (of training exercises) will increase over time. There’s no indication at what level,” she said, invoking the Navy’s experience in Vieques, Puerto Rico as an example of harmful environmental impacts from weapons training.

“You’re talking about leasing the land, but for how long and what happens to the money?” Cummins said. “It looks to me like the people that we depend on to protect us are the ones that are taking our tax money and using it against us, to destroy what is most precious here.”

Charles Elliot, who works for the Franklin County Veterans Service Office, said after the meeting that he backed the military’s plan.

“The men and women of the armed forces need all types of terrain and environment to train in, simulating all parts of the world. They train as they fight,” he said. “It is very important that we support our sons and daughters. 

“This will not affect tourism,” Elliott said. “I have hunted and may again. I've run dogs and enjoyed it; I believe that public land belongs to the public. That being said, an individual doesn’t own those resources.

“We are in the middle of the largest continuous acreage in this part of the country. We should share. The military will bring money into the local economy in lodging, food, shopping and entertainment,” he said.