The Air Force hosted a town hall meeting Wednesday night at the Milton Community Center in Santa Rosa County to discuss proposed plans for military training in the Blackwater River State Forest.
During the meeting, an Air Force official from the Pentagon spelled out details of the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI) and the Landscape Initiative that came out of the GRASI process. The Air Force is looking for additional space for what is described as “low-to-no-impact” training involving ground troops and the use of small aircraft, including fixed-wing planes and helicopters.
Florida Forest Service officials assured that at this point they are simply considering a request from the military, with a final decision pending completion of the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA process and further public input. Also, there were assurances that only military activities that are in line with the mission of the state forest system would be allowed.
About 200 people listened to the presentations from the Air Force and Florida Forest Service before weighing in with their questions and concerns.
Bill Young, who says he has lived in the Blackwater River State Forest for 30 years, described the impact of current military activities on his property. “I have a major problem right now with the Air Force, helicopters flying over, C-130s driving my horses and cows through my barbed-wire fences,” Young said. Young added, “We don’t need this. Blackwater don’t need this. The Air Force don’t need this.”
Patricia Edmisten of Pensacola also attended the meeting. Edmisten acknowledged the need for places for military training, but questioned if state officials had considered how people actually use the Blackwater River State Forest. “They go for the peace, the beauty, the clarity of the Blackwater River, where you might even see a sturgeon. You can see the pebbles in the sand, the water is so clear. Yes, there’s the occasional plane. You can hear the water gushing in from the springs. It is a unique, gorgeous sight.”
Also attending the meeting was John Veasey of Niceville. Veasey suggested there was still plenty of space for training on the Eglin Air Force Base Reservation.
“I understand that the weapons you use, requires closure of the whole range at times. But, there’s no one weapon system that requires the use of the whole range,” Veasey said. As for use of the Blackwater River State Forest, Veasey said “I don’t want you there, don’t need you there.”
About two dozen individuals made public comments at the town hall meeting in Milton. In addition to the presentation by Air force officials, representatives of the Florida forest Service reassured that no decisions have been made and if approved, the forest service would have the power to halt any inappropriate training maneuvers.
A second town hall meeting regarding military training in Tate’s Hell State Forest will be held on this Thursday, December 12 in Apalachicola.
The next step in the process is completion of a draft environmental impact study, which will be released and made available to public comment in February of 2014.
You can access the Air Force proposal online at http://grasieis.leidoseemg.com.
Sandra Averhart is news director for WUWF Public Media. Sandra@wuwf.org.