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The New York Times

Laguna Madre Journal: Welcome Mat's Out for Bombing in Texas


June 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times. All Rights Reserved.

Dick Messbarger----------
Dick Messbarger is among business and political leaders in Kingsville, Tex., who favor a bombing range on the shores of Laguna Madre.
[PHOTO: Greg Spaulding for The New York Times]

KINGSVILLE, Tex., June 26 – The rugged country south of here on the shores of Laguna Madre is an inhospitable tangle of mesquite chaparral and sand dunes with more cows than people.

Just right for a bombing range, local officials say.

After the Bush administration announced last week that it would bow to protests and stop military bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in 2003, officials here unveiled a proposal to move the maneuvers to a nearby area that would become an "expeditionary warfare training center."

The plan, which is backed by many of the region's business and political leaders, would create a training ground for bombing, ship-to-shore shelling and amphibious troop landings on 222,000 acres of privately owned ranchland just south of here in Kenedy County. It would attract jobs and other military missions to the area's three naval sites and insulate them from future cutbacks or base closings, said Dick Messbarger, director of the Kingsville Economic Development Council.

But others in the area are far less welcoming.

"I've got people ready to set their hair on fire over this," Mr. Messbarger admitted.

Critics here assert, as they have in Vieques, that the warfare practices could threaten the health of residents, curb tourism and hurt the area's fishing industry.

Just north of the site, on Baffin Bay, where the state's record speckled trout was caught last year, a fishing guide, Dallas Furman, 36, said that a bombing range would put him and 250 other fishing guides in the area out of business.

Dallas Furman, a fishing guide, sees the plan as a threat to his livelihood.
[PHOTO: Greg Spaulding for The New York Times]

"When they practice bombing, it will run the fish off for a month, and just about the time the fish are settling back in, they'll start bombing again," Mr. Furman said. "I get madder and madder every time I think about it."

Assaults by marines and armored vehicles along the 20 miles of coast would require amphibious crafts to plow over the barrier beaches of Padre Island National Seashore and then cut across the Intracoastal Canal and the ecologically sensitive Laguna Madre, an estuarial breeding ground of sea grasses. Those maneuvers could also require three 1.24- mile-wide corridors across Padre Island, home to the endangered Kemp's turtle.

"It would certainly add a whole new realm to the management of the island," said Ken McMullen, a spokesman at the National Seashore. "There would obviously be significant impacts on the environment and the 800,000 visitors we get here each year."

The amphibious craft could also stir up sediment in the tidal flats, destroy sensitive sea grasses and form "dead zones" in which no sea life could exist, Mr. McMullen said.

"In the event of a short-falling shell, the chemicals in explosives could be extremely destructive to marine life in the Laguna Madre," he said. "And that's before we get into things like accidental spillages of fuel or chemicals."

Navy officials have said that without Vieques, a new site is needed in the western Atlantic to train troops for joint military operations in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. Kenedy County, with 415 residents, offers many of the elements such a site requires: limited population, an area outside major air corridors, deep water ship access, and beaches suitable for practicing sea assaults.

"We've looked everywhere and found no place that would be a perfect one-for-one replacement for Vieques," said Lt. Cmdr. Cate Mueller, a Navy spokeswoman in Washington. "Now, we're looking at different combinations of places and training techniques, and there have been discussions about South Texas as an appropriate location."

Kenedy County is only one of several alternatives being considered, said Commander Mueller, who would not reveal the other locations.

A panel to select a replacement site for Vieques will soon be appointed by Gordon R. England, the secretary of the Navy, with its recommendations expected in October, she said.

"There will obviously be various studies and environmental impact statements required on whatever spot is ultimately selected," Commander Mueller said. "It's all very preliminary at this stage."

Mr. Messbarger, the economic development official, dismissed fears that the exercises would cause long- term environmental damage.

"These operations will only be for four or five days at a time every few months," he said, "and the military can mitigate or repair any damage that would be done."

Besides, he said: "I'm just enough of a patriot to believe that I don't want my son or grandson getting their first experience with live fire in a combat situation. We're talking about the kind of training here that will save lives."

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