460,000 acres just isn’t as big as it used to be. That’s what Brig. Gen. David A. Harris, Base Commander of the 96th Test Wing is finding out. Spread out over 724 square miles, with jurisdiction over 120,000 square miles of test ranges in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, Eglin has numerous and varied operations including testing munitions, training pilots, acting as home base for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Wing (which could eventually grow to more than 100 F-35 aircraft), as well as operating training facilities for Eglin’s combat operational Special Forces, being landlord to the Army, developing and testing everything from electronics to “The Mother of All Bombs.”
Eglin primarily operates in a three-county, 11-city region, but has satellite operations in five other states, and installations as close to Apalachicola Bay as Cape San Blas. In short, the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process concentrated a lot of activity at Eglin.
In order to adjust to its many missions, Eglin began the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI) to efficiently parse out airspace over the region. It has become increasingly difficult for officials to schedule certain types of training exercises that require use of airspace without conflicts for airspace and/or territory on the ground.
Eglin has reached out to the State of Florida and the Scott Administration to lease portions of Florida State Forest conservation lands for use in training exercises. Scott, who has pledged Florida to be the most military friendly state in the nation, has endorsed a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Adam Putnam the Agricultural Commissioner on October 23, 2012. The Ag Department’s press release cited a 14.8 billion dollar yearly economic impact, generating almost half of the jobs in Northwest Florida, as major reasons the use of Blackwater River State Forest and Tate’s Hell State Forest as training areas has been put on the fast track to approval.
In short, the deal is done, folks. Unless there is a profound change in the Statehouse, or there is a significant challenge to the results of the Air Force’s Environmental Impact Statement, you can expect training operations to begin as early as 2015.
What The Air Force Wants To Do In The State Forest
The press release announcing Putnam’s signing of the Memorandum of Understanding outlines the major restrictions on Eglin’s usage of the two State Forests. It reads: “These missions will make use of existing forestry areas, such as the grass air landing strip at Blackwater River State Forest and various helicopter landing pads on Tate’s Hell State Forest. Missions will not negatively impact recreation, public access or sustainable forestry practices on either state forest.
“Before any missions are conducted, Air Force and Florida Forest Service personnel are required to develop an operations plan that outlines training specifics to guarantee minimal impact to the state forest and its users. Only special operations, air operations, and use of existing forestry facilities will be allowed, no live ammunition will be fired on the state forests.”
The Eglin plan involves two main uses for Florida Forest Service (FFS) lands. The first is to establish places where the Air Force can locate temporary and mobile emitters. An emitter is a radio transmitter that can track aircraft and provide navigation signals. Other emitters simulate enemy air defenses so pilots can learn avoidance techniques.
The temporary emitter sites are planned to be scattered all over the Panhandle, usually housed at FFS fire watch towers. One location is planned in Tate’s Hell, another west of Apalachicola (probably the Odena watch tower on Hwy 98), and one north of Port St. Joe on Hwy 71. Because of the altitude of the aircraft, most people won’t even notice any unusual activity unless they see one of the mobile installations.
The mobile emitters are trailered behind trucks (usually about the size of a U-Haul or delivery truck). They are about the size of large BBQ trailer, and can be folded out when deployed. Aircraft, usually at altitudes greater than 20,000 ft., train while flying over the area, or out over the Gulf. These are the least intrusive operations planned.
Blackwater River And Tate’s Hell
The Blackwater River State Forest lies north of Eglin west of Crestview and east of Milton extending to the Alabama state line. This area is Eglin’s first choice for several reasons.
The Blackwater River area has two previously developed areas used as camps for juvenile offenders by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. The Blackwater STOP School Camp is already vacant, and the Santa Rosa Youth Academy (SRYA) will be closed soon. These areas, plus an already established grass airstrip can be used for hostage rescue and urban warfare training that cannot be accomplished at Tate’s Hell for lack of structures.
The year-old agreement between Florida and the Air Force prohibits using live ammunition or digging foxholes or even latrines. In Blackwater River troops will train with soft pellets and paintballs because they aren’t allowed to use blanks.
Two main groups have been identified as users of State Forest lands, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), which has two active wings at Hurlburt Field, and the US Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, an Airborne unit relocated to Eglin by the 2005 BRAC.
When contacted for this article, Mike Spaits of Eglin AFB’s Environmental Public Affairs office pointed out that the Tate’s Hell location is under consideration for use and so the Air Force must, under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), include the area in their Environmental Impact Study. He also pointed out that Blackwater River State Forest is much closer to Eglin, so transportation issues for both equipment and personnel would be less problematic than Tate’s Hell where a three hour drive (six hours round trip) to a site would significantly impact how much could be accomplished in a one-day training program.
That said, under Eglin’s plans, the Tate’s Hell tract has been divided into Tactical Areas (TA) with three places that have been identified for potentially creating unpaved landing strips for light aircraft (typically small single engine airplanes) by bush hogging and widening existing dirt roads.
Helicopter exercises would use helipads already frequently used by the Forest Service, and would also use clearings where timber has been cut. Locations within the forest would change as existing clearings are replanted, and new clearings are made within the normal framework of the Forest Service’s day to day operations.
Among the activities under consideration are:
Helicopter Landing and Drop Zones – Establishment of areas where helicopters can land or equipment can be parachuted into. Three permanent zones would be established near the Blackwater camps.
Low Level Helicopter Insertions/Extractions – Choppers flying at treetop levels use ropes, rope ladders, etc. to deliver and retrieve personnel to and from ground level.
Light Aviation Proficiency Training – Small aircraft, typically single engine airplanes, would practice landings and take-offs from primitive airstrips. Blackwater River already has a grass landing strip. Air Force planning would create airstrips in Tate’s Hell by widening forest roads so they are 30 ft. wide by 2,000 ft. long.
Vehicle Stream and Wetland Crossing – Military vehicles like humvees practice crossing streams at designated fords already used by the Forest Service.
Blackout Driving – These exercises involve covering headlights with devices to create “cat eye” slits that provide just enough light for driving with night vision goggles.
Natural Resource Consumption – This is a fancy way of describing survivalist training and “living off the land.” Groups of soldiers would engage in trapping and snaring of rodents and other small game, and eating plants found in the habitat as they move on foot from one place to another.
Amphibious Operations – Using boats to load and unload personnel, and move them from one place to another on water.
Unsaid in any of the press briefings or handouts provided by the Air Force is that the real value to the Air Force of being able to use Tate’s Hell State Forest is that it has lots of swampy terrain that would be ideal for certain types of special forces training. The Air Force has two Special Forces units stationed at Hurlburt Field. The ability to put a small group of four to twelve troops on the ground that then has to make their way overland to a designated point for pickup could be one of Tate’s Hell’s biggest attractions for the Air Force.
The Environmental Impact Statement
By May of 2014 the Air Force will release its final Environmental Impact Statement and issue its Record of Decision, which is a document detailing the Air Force’s final plans. It is unlikely that the government will find much in the way of an environmental obstacle to using portions of Tate’s Hell for training exercises, especially in light of Eglin’s generally favorable reputation as an environmental steward of the lands they control.
Sadly, Tate’s Hell (at just over 200,000 acres) is one of the least environmentally sensitive of the conservation lands that make up a majority of Franklin County’s land mass. That is because the damage is already done. Timbering practices for years converted extensive areas of native habitats to slash pine plantation.
As a publication for the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NFWMD) stated, “From the 1950s to early 1990, large areas of native habitat were converted to pine plantation. The swamp was gridded with more than 800 miles of roads. Each road dammed sheet flow and each ditch channeled silty water, with no attenuation, to creeks, rivers, East Bay and Apalachicola Bay. Aquatic habitats were degraded, titi thickets choked wet savannas due to fire suppression and wiregrass died.” Just as was the case in the Everglades when large scale changes were made to the waterscape, large areas of wildlife habitat were severely damaged, and much of the near continuous flow of fresh water into Apalachicola Bay was lost.
A number of threatened or endangered species of animals and plants can be found in Tate’s Hell like Bald Eagles, Black Bear and Chapman’s Butterwort to name just a few. The area is important for its recreational uses, and is regularly hunted for deer, hogs, and small game. Freshwater fishing in Tate’s Hell is also very popular.
Since its acquisition by the State in 1994, a lot of money has been spent to try to remediate some of the damage and restore traditional water flows. Unfortunately, funds for restoration are always at a premium and Tate’s Hell doesn’t seem to be a priority. As of mid-2010 the Northwest Florida Water Management District estimated that only 15,000 acres out of 200,000+ were in the process of being restored to the natural historical habitat.
At a meeting in Apalachicola in August of 2013 held by the Air Force to solicit public input for the Environmental Impact Statement process, there was a large turnout and a great deal of opposition was voiced by the residents of Franklin County. Within a week the Franklin County Commission voted unanimously to send a letter of opposition to the plan. Just weeks later, on Oct. 7, 2013 Commission Chairman Cheryl Sanders appeared before the Florida Senate Agricultural Committee to denounce the plan.
But wait. There’s money to be made as the most military friendly State in the nation. In addition to promising their use of the forest wouldn’t impact current uses or users, in a presentation to Florida officials before Putnam’s memo was released, the Air Force identified one of the “next steps” going forward would be to: “Identify those areas prime for NRDA and RESTORE Act funds and partner with conservation/private stakeholders.” Translated that means the Federal government is prepared to kick in environmental money (NRDA) and Restore Act (BP Oil Spill fines) funds in addition to any nominal rents the state might charge Eglin.
Now, your average Franklin County resident thinks of Tate’s Hell, and all the other forest lands we are blessed with, as pristine preserves unchanged since Creation. In all the historical information published about our timbering past, information about the environmental damage inflicted on our forests by careless and unthinking stewardship is seldom included.
So Franklin County has a choice: fight any intrusion into Tate’s Hell tooth and nail until the Federal Government and the Governor go away, or try to get something valuable in return for what seems a done deal.
If we hold the State’s feet to the fire on that not affecting civilian uses of the forest promise, AND require Florida to obtain and spend funds to the restore Tate’s Hell, it might actually work in our favor. Restoring original tree species and habitats, and restoring devastated wetlands to provide habitate to threatened and endangered species, and to return the unimpeded flow of upland fresh water into Apalachicola Bay would be a significant long-term benefit to the region.
It’s at least worth thinking about. After all, when we get done restoring Tate’s Hell, then we can talk about fixing up the Apalachicola National Forest.