An environmental assessment released last month says the Air Force’s proposed military exercises are compatible with the existing uses of Tate’s Hell State Forest.
According to the executive summary of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), completed by Eglin Air Force Base, military exercises proposed for Tate’s Hell under terms of the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI) will not have a negative impact on plants, animals or the environment in general.
The EIS was completed for both Blackwater River State Park and Tate’s Hell, after consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in accordance with Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. USFWS confirmed the proposed exercises weren’t likely to adversely affect sensitive species.
The EIS appears largely based on an Informal Endangered Species Act Section 7 consultation, known as a biological assessment (BA), developed by Eglin and released by USFW in Jan. 2013.
The BA describes “potential impacts from the use of (Tate’s Hell) for the emitters and training activities on the federally listed red-cockaded woodpecker, wood stork, reticulated flatwoods salamander and critical habitat, frosted flatwoods salamander and critical habitat, eastern indigo snake, Gulf sturgeon and critical habitat, piping plover and critical habitat, purple bankclimber and critical habitat, Choctaw bean and critical habitat, narrow pigtoe and critical habitat, southern sandshell and critical habitat, fuzzy pigtoe and critical habitat, Godfrey’s butterwort, Florida skullcap, white birds-in-a-nest, and telephus spurge. This BA also considers the gopher tortoise, bald eagle, several federally petitioned species, and multiple state-listed species.”
In the EIS, Tate’s Hell is divided into tactical areas approved for various levels of use. Sensitivity of areas where training occurs are rated from “prohibited,” where no access is allowed, to “Limited Use II” where blank ammunition can be deployed, cat holes may be dug and other ground disturbance is acceptable.
According to the EIS, refueling would be restricted to designated sites with asphalt or concrete surfaces. The transfer of fuel from aircraft to aircraft during refueling operations, or from refueling truck to aircraft, can only occur on hardened surfaces and would likely take place at nearby airports.
The Air Force has ruled out Apalachicola Regional Airport for this activity because of the thickness of pavement on the runways.
The BA states that all vehicles, including ATVs, must remain on existing roads during maneuvers. Low water crossing and boat landing sites must be preapproved by the Florida Forest Service (FFS) and prior to crossing low water sites, personnel must check for turtles and allow them to clear without disturbance.
In the BA, GRASI was mandated to “develop forest-specific guidance on environmental restrictions and compliance requirements, to include conservation measures.”
Dirt roadways would be landing strips
The proposed military exercises include the use of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, with three dirt roadways as landing strips in Tate’s Hell. The BA said there would be no new paving but widening or compacting may be necessary. Improvements would be limited to existing shoulders and would not affect wetlands, said the BA, and the site of landing strips would not change “in the near future.”
Helicopters would land on existing, cleared areas, some of which are already in use by firefighters.
According to the BA, aircraft would touch down at the runways for up to two-hour periods, both during the day and at night. These sessions could occur up to five times a day, spread between the three sites.
Helicopters would land or hover to allow passengers to disembark using ropes and ladders. Helicopters would fly between treetop level and 3,000 feet approaching training sites and would hover between 15 and 75 feet during exercises. Training sessions would last between 30 minutes and two hours, with up to 50 personnel involved. Sessions would occur twice monthly, half of them at night, with 20 percent occurring after 10 p.m.
Airdrops of up to 72 personnel would occur up to four times daily during training. Aircraft participating would approach the drop site at 500 to 1,000 feet above ground.
Up to eight times a year, personnel would move on foot between locations as part of the simulation. The activity could take place day or night and would involve up to 72 individuals crossing streams and wetland areas.
Training events with up to 10 vehicles could occur up to a dozen times a year and might include “blackout driving” of ATVs and HMMWVs with headlights reduced to small slits providing enough light to navigate using night vision goggles. Roads would be temporarily closed during blackout driver training.
Military training would also involve amphibious boat operations, camping with up to 72 participants and foraging off existing plant and animal resources.
Buffer zones maintained around nests
GRASI plans to establish up to 12 radar, telemetry, and emitter training sites throughout the Panhandle to be used for air training. Radar and telemetry emitters track aircraft and navigation; training emitters are radar simulator systems that train personnel to identify and counter missile or artillery threats from land or sea.
Emitter sites would be leased, either temporarily, in use for several days, or mobile, used for a single day. All sites would be on improved or semi-improved land, many associated with fire towers. Not all 12 sites would be in use simultaneously, and based on a map in the EIS, only one emitter site is proposed for Tate’s Hell and two others in the Apalachicola area.
According to the BA, the war games would involve minor land disturbance but no development, “use of wheeled vehicles on established roads only, cross-country troop movements, bivouacking, helicopter and light aviation landings on existing roads and cleared areas, amphibious operations, and use of blank ammunition and pyrotechnics in select areas.”
The BA says use would gradually increase over time to “acceptable levels that can be compatibly supported by the (FFS).” The BA promises activity “would be well below the utilization rates of dedicated military ranges, which are utilized up to 232 days.”
Military activity in the forest would be reduced during hunting season. The military would coordinate with the FFS to schedule training at appropriate times.
Prior to training sessions, the military will obtain leases or agreements incorporating conservation measures to preserve the habitat and develop evaluation techniques to determine the environmental impact of their training activities.
The Air Force must identify appropriate training areas based on the presence of sensitive species or habitats. Wildfire is also a consideration in planning training since blank ammunition and dummy explosive devices would be used. The BA states that wildfire generally has a positive impact on wildlife habitat since wildfires are normal in the area due to lightning strikes.
According to the BA, participating military personnel would receive conservation training specific to Tate’s Hell and surveys using GPS technology would occur every three years to identify locations of protected species.
Aircraft will maintain a 1000-foot buffer zone around eagle nests and a 500-foot buffer zone around red cockaded woodpecker nests. If gopher tortoises would be disturbed by military activity, a relocation permit must be obtained and the tortoise relocated. Gopher burrows are to be avoided during maneuvers.
Buffer zones will also be established around bald eagle nests and wood stork habitat. Indigo snakes are also to be avoided and if one is spotted by military personnel, it is to be reported immediately to Eglin personnel.
Sensitive plant species would also be surveyed and considered prior to disturbance. Any issues relating to sensitive species or habitats would be reported to the forest service and there would be constant monitoring of environmental impacts by the Air Force.
Use of the forests would be arranged through lease agreements with the FFS.
The plan to hold war games in Tate’s Hell was first discussed here at a August 2013 public scoping meeting, when about 200 county residents turned out to object to military use of the forest. County Commission Chair Cheryl Sanders has spoken out, both here and at a state senate committee hearing, against military exercises in Tate’s Hell.
Florida State Forester Jim Karels stressed at a town hall meeting in Apalachicola in Dec. 2013 that no final decision had been reached about the games, one year after Gov. Scott announced a deal with the Air Force to use the two state forests.