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Santa Rosa County’s efforts to protect NAS Whiting Field setting the standard for buffering a military installation

Part of the 429-acre area known as Clear Creek that will be protected in Santa Rosa County.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Part of the 429-acre area known as Clear Creek that will be protected in Santa Rosa County.

Santa Rosa County has partnered with the Trust for Public Land and the Department of the Navy to protect 429 acres of natural lands, including Clear Creek and a 40-acre lake, near NAS Whiting Field. This is the latest in a series of land acquisitions that will benefit the base, the surrounding environment, and the community.

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Right now, public access to the land and its waterways is limited. But, across from the base, just off Highway 87, a narrow gap in the roadside vegetation opens to reveal a small bit of shoreline and a great view of the lake.

Occasionally, breaks in the passing traffic leave only the sounds of nature.

“This spot is going to be one of the most sought-after spots in Northwest Florida, because it’s charming, it’s beautiful, and it’s clear,” said Santa Rosa County Commissioner James Calkins, board vice-chairman and representative of District 3, where the property is located. “We don’t have a whole lot of clear water in north Santa Rosa County. That’s what makes this place special is how clear the water is.”

According to Calkins, the county is focused on working with partners to preserve as much natural land as possible, not only for outdoor recreation and nature but to also ensure sufficient land for farming, and to protect operations at Whiting Field. He says they were close to losing this tract around Clear Creek to development.

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

“We’re not against development, we just want to make sure development happens in the right place,” Calkins said, looking out over the lake and the surrounding green space. “If we did not preserve and protect this area, it would be a massive housing development, because they had rights to do that before we stepped in, worked with the military, and purchased this land.”

Randy Roy, community planning and liaison officer at Whiting Field said the 429 acres complements the 72 other transactions that have taken place between the Navy, the State of Florida, and Santa Rosa County since 2009.

“We've secured over 12,000 acres or so right around Whiting Field property,” he said giving credit to the vision of former Santa Rosa Commissioner Don Salter. Additionally, acreage at Escribano Point near Naval Outlying Landing Field Choctaw has been protected.

In addition to funding from the state’s Defense Infrastructure Grant program, theDepartment of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program has granted nearly $38 million to acquire and preserve land — from willing sellers — to buffer Whiting and its outlying fields from encroachment.

“We don't want to have incompatible development or have opportunities where they could restrict mission capability,” declared Roy, pointing out that NAS Whiting Field is the busiest aviation complex in the world.

“We do about one million to 1.5 million operations a year," added Roy. "It's busier than Atlanta, it's busier than Chicago. So it's a very busy piece of airspace, a very busy airfield. We have a little bit over 300 airframes on the airfield. And to support that mission, we got to have that flexibility and that protection, have that mission readiness.”

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Whiting’s mission is to train nearly 2,000 students annually to safely fly helicopters and airplanes and it employs 3,327 people, military and civilian combined.

“It is by far the largest economic driver we have in our region,” said Debi Graham, executive director of the Northwest Florida Defense Coalition, about the military’s estimated $7 billion economic impact in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties.

At a recent meeting, Graham said base commanders at both Whiting and NAS Pensacola highlighted the issue of encroachment and the zone planning that has been put in place by both counties.

Graham applauds Escambia County’s efforts to protect the base in Pensacola but believes Santa Rosa and Whiting have set the standard on how to best protect against encroachment around an installation.

“They have really been at the forefront of this for many, many years, identifying parcels of property in fly zones and just outside of the installation that help ensure the missions that are currently there can continue to operate safely and also for the potential for future growth.”

Santa Rosa County Commissioner James Calkins.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Santa Rosa County Commissioner James Calkins.

While the recent preservation of 429 acres around Whiting Field buffers the base from development, there are other benefits, including restoration of the climate change-resilient longleaf pine habitat and the creation of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Doug Hattaway is the southeast region conservation director for the Trust for Public Land, which helped to broker the $2.9 million land acquisition.

“Our tagline is land for people,” said Hattaway. “Our mission is intent on making sure that every American man, woman, child, etc. have easy access to some open space, passive recreation place, a place where they can connect with nature.”

In this case, Hattaway is excited about the potential public enjoyment of the Clear Creek property.

“You have a beautiful lake, surrounded by some beautiful hardwood forests surrounding it so that people can go and enjoy nature,” he stated. “They could hop in their canoe or kayak."

As he looked over the lake, Commissioner James Calkins was contemplating how county funds could be used for improvements such as kayak launches and trails, and having similar visions of its future use.

“I can completely imagine people out kayaking, paddle boarding, enjoying their time, hearing the birds and the animals that are around here,” said Calkins. “And, on top of that, they’ll get to see our military aircraft flying above.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.