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Opponents worry Joint Base Cape Cod firing range plans may undo cleanup efforts

The Massachusetts National Guard has announced a proposal for an eight-lane machine gun range at Camp Edwards.

MASSACHUSETTS NATIONAL GUARD

By BETH TREFFEISEN | Cape Cod Times | Published: May 4, 2021

JOINT BASE CAPE COD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — The drive out to the Sierra Range, one of the few active gun ranges on Camp Edwards, is long, dusty and bumpy. Upon arrival, there's an open field filled with grass-covered berms. Brightly colored plastic targets sit upright, riddled with bullet holes.

The range, one of four currently active on Joint Base Camp Cod, is used to train members of the National Guard in using M4 and M16 rifles. Members use the range following virtual and short-range pistol training.

A soldier has to hit 23 of the 40 targets from distances of 50 and 300 meters to meet their annual training requirement, and they have just over three minutes to complete the task.

"It takes a lot of training to do that," said Maj. Alexander McDonough, the plans, training, mobilization and security officer to Joint Base Cape Cod.

Each range is specifically designed for the type of gun being used, McDonough said, with distances determined based on the capabilities of each weapon. A pistol range is 25 meters, for instance, while a rifle range is 300 meters.

The Sierra Range is the closest in size to a planned 800-meter range that the Guard says will satisfy its machine-gun training needs on the base. But the proposal has been met with resistance by members of the public and Cape officials who fear the project is coming at the expense of its surrounding environment. The Guard has also been criticized for what some say has been a lack of transparency in the project's planning.

The multipurpose machine-gun range, planned for the site of the base's existing KD, or "known distance," range, would cost $11.5 million. That figure includes $9.7 million for range construction and $1.8 million for targetry.

More than 5,000 acres would be required to accommodate the operation, since it would include the area where projectiles fired on the range would land, based on the weapons and ammunition used. To create that space, the Guard plans to clear 170 acres of forest and disturb about 199 acres of land.

Soldiers need to have "no shadow of doubt in their mind" that they are prepared to defend themselves and others when danger presents itself, McDonough said.

"Weapons are scary," McDonough said. "Our soldiers are in the community. A soldier that enlists may not have fired a weapon before they were a National Guard soldier. You need to build confidence ... and that's what these ranges allow them to do."

The gun range will best suit the needs of the military if it is located on the base because many soldiers are struggling to meet the annual qualifications, McDonough said. Currently, soldiers have to travel long distances during their few training weekends a year to meet this annual requirement. Doing all of that travel on top of the training is almost impossible, he said.

The Guard is still awaiting approval from the National Guard Bureau on an environmental study that showed there was no finding of significant impact from the project. If approval is given, it will set off another round of public meetings that will go over the project's next steps.

The machine-gun range cannot move forward without the approval of the state's Environmental Management Commission, which will consider the study as part of its decision-making. The panel comprises the commissioners of the state departments of Fish and Game, Environmental Protection and Conservation and Recreation.

In the past year, community members, environmental activists and state and federal legislators have spoken out against the proposed project. Concerns include how the proposed range would affect the region's aquifer and wildlife habitat, as well as the traffic and noise the range would generate.

There also has been concern over how the project has been presented to the public. While the Guard's efforts to inform the public about the machine-gun range met the requirements of the law, there wasn't much outreach, according to Andrew Gottlieb, a Mashpee selectman and executive director of Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

"If they want to say they comply with all the mechanical steps, maybe they did," Gottlieb said. "But there is such a thing as checking the boxes and having a meaningful engagement."

Over the past seven years, Gottlieb said, he wasn't made aware of the plans in the routine presentations the Guard has made to the Board of Selectmen to keep them up to date on what is happening on the base.

Gottlieb said information from the National Guard on the machine-gun range amounted to one bullet point on a short presentation to the board. The representative from the Guard didn't talk about, highlight or provide any other information about the project, he said.

"They did not have effective means of communicating with the public," Gottlieb said.

Those against the project would like to see the environmental assessment redone. Gottlieb said the assessment should be done in an open way and show what the impact would be on the environment, and that the Guard should engage with the community on the best way to mitigate those impacts.

Right now, he said, the Guard is trying to "ram a predetermined outcome down our throats, and there's nowhere to go with that."

Others have echoed Gottlieb's concerns about the project's transparency.

Bourne resident Richard Conron said the whole process of planning for the range was done behind closed doors. Towns surrounding the base were never advised that the machine-gun range would be built, he said.

Despite writing letters to the local boards and the state Legislature arguing against the proposed project, Conron said he believes the project is a done deal and ultimately will be approved.

"We'll see what is going to happen," Conron said.

Keith Louissen, a member of the Cape Cod branch of the Sierra Club, said the whole process has been like "deja vu," especially for club members who worked to get the base to clean up contaminants from prior training in the 1990s.

"It is all well and good to say we are going to do it differently, safer and with new technology, but that is a really high bar of credibility and trust the military is asking from residents," Louissen said. "The legacy of the previous burden of toxic chemicals is pretty relevant, especially if you are downstream in Falmouth and Mashpee."

Protections were put in place more than two decades ago to protect the Upper Cape Cod Water Reserve, and Louissen said he doesn't see how a multipurpose machine-gun range fits into those efforts.

The base sits on top of the Cape's sole source aquifer, and the gun range would present an added burden in protecting the water source, he said.

"I understand the need for this type of training for our men and women who are serving in the National Guard, but I don't understand how that is (compatible) with these previous steps to protect this watershed."

The law requires that the Guard capture and maintain rounds of fire. The berms set up behind the targets are routinely picked up and sifted through, and the copper ammunition is captured and recycled on the base, according to Jacob McCumber, manager of natural resources and the integrated training area management program for the Massachusetts Army National Guard.

There is also routine soil and water testing through monitor sites scattered throughout the ranges.

"We put a lot of effort into all our planning efforts because we understand this is a valuable resource to the Cape and the community," McDonough said. "We wouldn't propose something that would put any of this at risk. Because if we put the safety of the Cape water's supply at risk, that shuts down everything."

But Gottlieb argued that the Guard has no way of recovering shots that land outside the perimeter of the ranges. Bullets and ordnance that are overshot from the firing range are degrading and getting into the groundwater, he said. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a multimillion-dollar cleanup of unexploded ordnance on the Cape from past activity on the base, Gottlieb said.

"This is just a repeat of history," Gottlieb said of plans to bring the machine-gun range to the base.

But McDonough notes that the amount of gun range activity and training on the base has declined sharply over the years. He said while there used to be 1,200 acres of land set aside for gun ranges, today there is about 80 acres.

In the 1940s, there were 58 gun ranges on the base. Currently, there are four small-arms ranges on Camp Edwards: Echo, India, Lima and Sierra. A fifth, Tango Range, is currently inactive, but is under reconstruction and should be active again sometime in 2021.

The active ranges were all approved through the same process as the proposed multipurpose machine-gun range.

The number of ranges has decreased as the number of soldiers needing training — as well as the types of weapons that can be used on the base without environmental impacts — has changed over the years.

Once no longer in use, ranges are returned to their natural habitat. The base is home to a rare ecosystem of pitch pine and scrub oak barrens, McCumber said.

The majority of the rare species on the base are dependent on this habitat, which is more open and spacious in the scrub area, he said.

Pointing to a spot located behind the Sierra range, McCumber said, "A whole bunch of rare species are thriving right on this patch here, right on the range."

A lot of conservation work is done on the edges of the firing ranges, including controlled burns, which McCumber said lessen the likelihood of an unplanned fire.

The wildlife surrounding the gun ranges are well adapted to both having the controlled burns and the firing range, McCumber said.

"It is always amazing to me how well it works together," he said.

To take a holistic approach to wildlife management on the base, McCumber said he has worked on establishing a mitigation bank, which takes a long view of where the Guard wants to do habitat restoration.

Mitigation for the proposed multipurpose machine-gun range includes a direct transfer of 260 acres of land to the Crane Wildlife Management area, which abuts the base.

Beyond environmental impacts, another concern about the proposed machine-gun range is the noise it will generate.

Test firing was conducted on-site by the Army Public Health Command, McDonough said. Noise sensors were placed in the community, including at the nearby Forestdale School.

"Will you hear weapons firing? Yes," McDonough said. "Is it at a dangerous level? No, because we've done analysis and a live noise study."

Once the firing range is completed, another noise study will be done, he said.

McDonough also noted that there are a number of firing ranges in the area outside of the base. From the base, depending on where one is located, one can hear firing from the Monument Beach Sportsman's Club, he said.

"You will hear the 'pop, pop, pop,'" McDonough said, reiterating that those sounds might not be coming from the base.

McDonough acknowledged that the Guard did not do a great job at actively engaging the community and informing the public about its plans for the machine-gun range. As a result, he said, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the project. But he says the Guard is committed to working closely with the public as plans move forward.

"I'm personally proud to work here and all the work we've done together, and I look forward to engaging the public further," McDonough said.

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