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Some leery of Air Force proposal to train in state forests

Judy Russell is alarmed by a military proposal to conduct training on the state forest land she treasures.

She pictures herself paddling down the serene Blackwater River when helicopters start swooping overhead. She sees heavily armed men trampling over endangered plants and animals.

Late last year when she learned of the military’s proposal, no one she knew had heard anything of it. Other people in outdoor organizations were concerned, but she felt they were afraid to speak up.

Now, it’s her own David and Goliath story.

“The military wants it and they are probably going to get it, but I don’t think they should get it without the public at least knowing what’s happening,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Freeport.

Eglin Air Force Base is working with state agencies to develop a proposal for how various military units might use some areas of nearby state forests for training.

The details of the proposal should be released later this month. The process started more than a year ago.

In the fall of 2012, the Florida Forest Service agreed for the first time to allow use of forest lands for on-the-ground training.

The request came from Eglin, which has been struggling to support training needs in Northwest Florida.

Eglin’s vast 460,000-acre range is used primarily for weapons testing. It cannot always support the increasing training requests for special operations units in the area, which need space on the ground.

“This is a relief valve for us,” Tom Tolbert, range planner for Eglin’s 96th Test Wing, said last fall after a series of town hall meetings to discuss the idea of training in state forests.

Under the proposal, some non-hazardous training would be allowed in the Blackwater River State Forest and in Tate’s Hell State Forest near Panama City.

For example, in designated areas, several helicopters might fly in and drop troops and supplies. The units could then move through the area, set up temporary camps and train using plastic pellets, paintballs or smoke grenades, according to Eglin officials.

 More details are expected when an environmental impact statement is released later this month.

Mike Spaits, the environmental spokesman for Eglin, said whatever is proposed must not interfere with existing activities in the forests.

Still, people such as Russell already have started to express their concerns.

After Eglin held a series of town hall meetings on the proposal last fall, the conservation group Audubon Florida wrote to the base with its concerns. The letter said current proposals were “far-reaching, expansive and overly intrusive.”

While not stating the group was opposed to any or all military training on forest lands, the letter asked the Air Force to consider excluding significant sensitive portions of the forest.

It also proposed using third-party observers to watch the training and inform commanders if it was threatening the fragile resources, excluding fixed-wing aircraft, limiting rotary aircraft to existing clearings and limiting the time and duration of exercises so as to not interfere with other people using the forests.

“We believe conducting military training exercises in these areas would require extraordinary care, detailed natural resource-oriented planning and scrupulous monitoring,” Audubon Florida’s letter states.

The organization hopes the environmental impact statement addresses its concerns. Public hearings will be scheduled after the report is released.

Russell is prepared to wade through the likely complicated document to try to make sure her parks will remain conserved.

“This was set aside to preserve,” she said. “It’s supposed to be here for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren.”

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