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Air Force: Military should expand training into Florida state forests

F-35A Lightning II fighters from the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base perform an aerial refueling mission with a KC-135 Stratotanker off the northwest coast of Florida, May 14, 2013.

The Air Force has officially recommended the military be allowed to train on state forest lands in Northwest Florida.

They warned in a recently released report that if the proposal does not go through, the region likely will not be able to sustain the increased demands for training space in the coming years.

“We’ve done a study that told us all of the things we are looking to do in the near future can’t be done, we don’t have the space,” said Mike Spaits, environmental spokesperson for Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Eglin’s vast 460,000-acre range is used primarily for weapons testing.

In recent years, it has become increasingly congested with higher demand for training space for Air Force Special Operations forces at Hurlburt Field, the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Range managers often don’t have the available resources to meet all the requests for training space.

The proposal to use some land in Blackwater River State Forest near Milton, Fla., and Tate’s Hell State Forest near Apalachicola would help alleviate that problem, the Air Force contends.

The Air Force proposes using the land for “non-hazardous” on-the-ground training, some aircraft training and for installing up to 12 emitter sites for simulated air-to-ground weapons training.

As the idea has developed in the past few years, some state park users have expressed alarm about how military training would affect their beloved parks.

They worried about noise of helicopters whirring overhead, the startling sound of rounds of blanks fired from large guns and the sight of armed men traipsing through their parks.

Spaits said concerns about the proposal were considered as the draft was crafted.

“Where there were concerns about noise or conflicts of interest regarding use of the parks, we made sure we addressed those in the analysis,” he said.

Over 100 operational constraints are included in the proposal, such as those protecting the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species that calls the forests home.

The proposal was released in draft form Friday. Public hearings will be held early next month.

Public input will be considered before a final proposal is released.

Spaits said he expects comments to roll in as people have a chance to peruse the hefty document, which comes in at more than 500 pages.

After a final proposal is released, it still requires approval by the Department of Defense and the Florida Forest Service.

View the full report at grasieis.leidoseemg.com.

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