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Vieques Exodus Reduces Roosevelt Roads’ Activities…Future Of Naval Base In Doubt… Worry Trails Talk Of Closure

Navy Reduces Roosevelt Roads Activities

January 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Navy says it will shut down most activities at its Roosevelt Roads base in Puerto Rico after it leaves the nearby island of Vieques in May.

To compensate for the loss of Vieques -- once dubbed the crown jewel of naval training in the Atlantic -- the Navy will expand use of bombing ranges on the U.S. mainland.

``Without Vieques there is no way I need the Navy facilities at Roosevelt Roads -- none,'' Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, said Friday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. ``It's a drain on Defense Department and taxpayer dollars.''

The naval station is the largest employer in Puerto Rico and contributes an estimated $250 million a year to the local economy.

Other Navy officials, however, said privately they cannot close Roosevelt Roads because Congress requires decisions on base closings be made by an independent commission that has yet to begin its work.

Once the Navy leaves Vieques, all operations at Roosevelt Roads associated with Vieques will be discontinued, the officials said. One tenant at Roosevelt Roads not associated with the Navy is Southern Command's special operations headquarters.

Roosevelt Roads is home to the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, a Navy hospital and many other Navy facilities. Roosevelt Roads isn't the homeport of any ships, but hundreds use its facilities each year. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the base built in 1940 and it was used for World War II naval operations.

When the Navy leaves Vieques, the 15,587 acres it used will be transferred to the Department of the Interior, not to Puerto Rico. A 900-acre section near the eastern tip of the island where live bombs were dropped will be declared off-limits indefinitely because of hazards.

Navy officials on Friday formally notified Congress that they had certified alternatives to Vieques for conducting live-fire and other training.

In a brief announcement, Navy Secretary Gordon England said he was satisfied that Navy and Marine Corps training will be adequate without Vieques, and he said the Navy plans to invest more than $400 million through 2009 to improve training opportunities at a variety of ranges in Florida and elsewhere. About one-third of that sum would have to be moved, with the approval of Congress, from other spending accounts this year.

The Navy has used Vieques as its main Atlantic Coast training range for more than 50 years, but it has been hindered by local protests stemming from an April 1999 bombing accident that killed a civilian security guard. In January 2000, the Clinton administration set a May 2003 target date for withdrawing from Vieques, but Congress required the Navy to certify that alternative training sites were at least as good as Vieques.

Many Puerto Ricans objected to the continued use of Vieques, citing environmental and other risks.

Natter said technological advancements, including the added range of newer air-to-ground missiles like the Joint Standoff Weapon fired by Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 fighters, have made Vieques less useful.

Technology also has lessened the Navy's reliance on fixed sites for training. Natter said all carrier battle groups, for example, will eventually have a mobile computer-based system for simulating targets at sea. That will enable the ships to conduct that aspect of their training while operating virtually anywhere.

Among the main alternative sites certified by England as ``equivalent or superior'' to Vieques:

-- Pinecastle naval bombing range in Florida's Ocala National Forest near Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

-- Avon Park Air Force range in south-central Florida. It is a 106,000-acre bombing and gunnery range about 10 miles southeast of the city of Avon Park.

-- Eglin Air Force Base, about seven miles from Fort Walton Beach in the Florida panhandle. The Navy hopes to make the base suitable for training in amphibious landings, as well as use its ranges for target practice.

-- Tyndall Air Force Base, about 12 miles east of Panama City, Fla.

-- At-sea Navy ranges off the coast of Key West and Pensacola, Fla.

--Townsend Bombing Range in McIntosh County, Ga.

--Two Marine Corps bases in North Carolina: Cherry Point air station and Camp Lejeune. Also, the Navy Dare County Range in eastern North Carolina.


Navy: Shut Puerto Rico Base

By Matthew Hay Brown and Tamara Lytle | Sentinel Staff Writers

January 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The commander of the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet called for closing the sprawling Roosevelt Roads Naval Station -- among Puerto Rico's largest employers -- after bombing runs on the nearby island of Vieques end in May.

Navy officials had been saying for months that if the Vieques training range closed, as activists have long demanded, then Roosevelt Roads would no longer be needed.

"Without Vieques, there is no way I need the Navy facilities at Roosevelt Roads -- none," said Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, on Friday. "It's a drain on Defense Department and taxpayer dollars."

Natter's comments came shortly after the Navy announced that training operations at Vieques would be moved to military installations in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

Officials here greeted the threat to close Roosevelt Roads with skepticism. While the Navy could transfer personnel and operations from Roosevelt Roads, shutting it down would require approval of Congress and an independent base-closure committee scheduled to meet in 2005.

The World War II-era facility, home to the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and a Navy hospital, pumps about $250 million into the local economy annually. Island officials said Friday that they would fight moves to close it.

"Especially after Sept. 11, Roosevelt Roads is very important," said Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate to Congress. "It's the most important base in the Caribbean."

Navy has alternatives

Natter spoke of closing the base Friday after Navy Secretary Gordon R. England told President Bush his branch had alternatives to air-sea-land training on Vieques, the certification required by Congress before the Navy can end practice on the narrow island off the east coast of Puerto Rico.

The closure of the Vieques Inner Range at Camp Garcia follows an international protest movement that united Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland across political backgrounds in the largest demonstration yet of Hispanic power in the United States.

"This action constitutes a triumph for all the people of Puerto Rico and, particularly, for the people of Vieques," Gov. Sila M. Calderón said in a statement about the end of the bombing runs. "Today is a day of jubilation, unity and happiness for all Puerto Ricans."

Calderon's statement did not address the proposal to close Roosevelt Roads.

The death of David Sanes, a civilian guard killed by an errant bomb during exercises in 1999, galvanized long-simmering opposition to military training performed on the island since the 1940s.

Islanders and environmentalists have complained of public-health risks associated with the practice bombing. Epidemiologists have said Vieques appears to have experienced higher-than-normal levels of cancer, but no formal studies have been completed.

Continued training -- the final round is scheduled to begin Monday -- has drawn protesters from throughout the world. Some have attempted to disrupt exercises by cutting the perimeter fence at Camp Garcia and entering the range; some have skirmished with police and guards.

Real and virtual exercises

Under plans recommended by Adm. Vernon Clark, chief of naval operations, and Gen. James L. Jones, commandant of the Marine Corps, training conducted on Vieques will be replaced by real and virtual exercises divided among several existing bases.

The Navy plans to spend $400 million during the next several years on improvements to Pinecastle naval bombing range in Ocala National Forest; Avon Park Air Force range in southeastern Polk County; and Eglin and Tyndall Air Force bases in the Panhandle, as well as to Navy ranges off Key West and Pensacola.

Additional training is planned for Townsend Bombing Range in Georgia, operated by the Georgia Air National Guard, and Marine Corps bases at Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Clark said the new plans would provide better training.

"Vieques has become increasingly less suitable in providing the high-quality training necessary to deploy combat-ready forces," he said. "The growing sophistication of potential threats, the growing complexity of modern warfare, advances in training technology, and the development of new weapons and tactics require more-capable training facilities and methodologies than are currently available at Vieques."

Security cited as problem

Clark said security at Vieques also was problematic.

"The support of the local police organizations has been unable to provide the kind of safety we would demand at any other site in the United States."

Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has argued for continued use of Vieques, was unmoved.

"I am not persuaded that there are equal or better training alternatives readily available," Inhofe said. "I believe we are unwisely capitulating to political considerations at the expense of national security, and that this sets a terrible precedent.

"While the Navy rationalizes this action . . . it is a sad day for America when we allow a handful of rock-throwing, anti-American agitators and their propaganda-wielding fellow travelers to run us off of property we own and which we legitimately use for the highest purposes of national security."

Natter said he does not expect major protests from neighbors of the new training sites.

"This is the beauty of this: We've dispersed our training to various bases and facilities and taken great pains to explain to people in the local areas exactly what we've got in mind," he said. "I think we've got very good reception from the local people."

The campaign to end training on Vieques has attracted supporters as disparate as the Rev. Al Sharpton, sentenced to 90 days in jail for trespassing in 2001, and Republican New York Gov. George Pataki, who lobbied President Bush to end training at Vieques.

It was former President Clinton who agreed with then-Gov. Pedro Roselló three years ago to stop practice by this May. Congress added the requirement that the secretary of the Navy certify alternatives as good as or better than Vieques, main training ground of the Atlantic Fleet for 50 years. Bush, as both a candidate and president, said he would honor the agreement.

Land will go to Interior

After May 1, the land is to be turned over to the Department of the Interior. The Navy and Interior are to assess the environmental contamination and how to remove it. Officials and protesters in Puerto Rico continue to demand a thorough cleanup.

Inhofe, meanwhile, had begun his own push to close Roosevelt Roads and other military facilities in Puerto Rico.

"There's not a sufficient need to keep the base open once the Vieques range closes," said Inhofe spokesman Gary Hoitsma. "All military assets in Puerto Rico are on the block right now."

Joe Bracero, a member of Central Florida's burgeoning Puerto Rican community and former president of Casa de Puerto Rico in Winter Park, called a decision to close Roosevelt Roads "senseless."

"The station represents a place where people train to defend their country," he said. "And more importantly, it employs hundreds of citizens on the island."

Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock said he would fight any move to close Roosevelt Roads "personally."

"If they were creative and not thinking of ways to impose a cost to Puerto Rico for the Vieques issues, they would find other uses," the pro-statehood legislator said. "I personally will fight a closure on military and geopolitical grounds, as well as U.S.-Puerto Rico federal-relations grounds."

Navy officials said the announcements Friday would not affect the last round of training, scheduled to begin Monday. The USS Theodore Roosevelt was expected to train for 27 days in preparation to take over as "surge carrier" for the Atlantic Fleet, on call in case of emergency -- such as a war with Iraq.

More demonstrations

As they celebrated Friday, protesters prepared for more demonstrations.

"We are very happy to hear this confirmation of the end of training," said Roberto Rabin, a member of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. "On the other hand, we are not happy at all that it hasn't stopped already. We denounce the intentions of the Navy to begin bombing on Monday. We will be carrying out civil-disobedience activities designed to deter and stop it."

Worry Trails Talk Of Base Closure

By Matthew Hay Brown and María Padilla | San Juan Bureau

January 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Allentown Morning Call (Pa.) All rights reserved.

CEIBA, Puerto Rico -- These past few years, José Rivera tried to tune out the talk that the Navy could abandon the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station if sailors weren't able to use the bombing range on the island of Vieques.

Rivera, 53, a civilian public-works inspector at the sprawling base,said the chatter only made him nervous. His wife, Judy, works at the Navy Exchange, the department store for sailors and their families. Their son, Eric, manages the base McDonald's. Eric's wife works at the Navy Lodge.

This week, Rivera could ignore the talk no longer. After the secretary of the Navy certified to President Bush that he had found alternatives to the controversial training on Vieques, the commander of the Atlantic Fleet said he would recommend shuttingdownRoosevelt Roads.

If the Navy were to leave, Rivera said, "the first thing I would do is curse. Why did all of this happen? I'm personally affected by this, and so is my wife."

For many here, joy that the Navy would stop shelling Vieques by May 1 has been dampened by worry about the prospect of losing Roosevelt Roads. With 3,000 active-duty military personnel and 3,850 civilian workers, the installation is among the largest employers in this Caribbean U.S. commonwealth.

'The Navy is needed here'

Economists say the prime oceanfront property at the eastern tip of Puerto Rico could be put to more lucrative use. But on an island that has lost tens of thousands of jobs in recent years to plant closings, residents who have looked to the base for high-paying work wonder where they would go if the Navy were to leave.

"The Navy is needed here, although people don't want to admit it," said Ramona Pérez de Ares, 59, of Ceiba. "It's the truth."

Officials here have dismissed the new talk of closing Roosevelt Roads. Public Affairs Secretary Jorge Colberg Toro on Saturday called it an attempt by Navy officials "of the second and third level" to create confusion.

"The end of military training on the island of Vieques owes itself only and exclusively to the call of the people of Puerto Rico for peace and the reality that alternative military technologies now exist that do not require the need to continue using the firing range in Vieques," Colberg Toro said. "The government of the United States has been clear and consistent that the end of this training will not bring with it the closure of Roosevelt Roads nor changes in political relations between Puerto Rico and the United States."

Final decision uncertain

Closure is far from decided. In his letter to President Bush, Navy Secretary Gordon R. England said only that the Navy would discontinue those operations associated with training on Vieques.

It was Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, who said he would recommend pulling out altogether. He said that without the Vieques training site, the base would not be needed.

Natter may not shut down Roosevelt Roads unilaterally, but his would be a powerful voice in the process. Decisions on base closings are made by an independent commission and subject to congressional approval. The next round is scheduled for 2005.

Jeffrey Farrow, the adviser to President Clinton who helped negotiate the end of training on Vieques, said there was "a certain logic" to rethinking the role of Roosevelt Roads once the bombing range is closed.

"It's not petulance on the part of the Navy," he said. "It's really part of the need to reassess how much military we're going to need down there."

Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and legislative leaders in San Juan have said they would fight any attempt to close the base.

Base contains 29,200 acres

Ordered built by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, the base consists of 6,800 acres on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico and 22,400 acres on Vieques, 71/2 miles to the southeast.

The portion on the "big island" of Puerto Rico is home to U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, which covers Latin America and the Caribbean, a Navy hospital and many other facilities. It is home port to no ship but is visited by hundreds annually.

One tenant not associated with the Navy is the special-operations headquarters for the Southern Command.

The economic impact of closing Roosevelt Roads has been a matter of debate. The Navy estimates Roosevelt Roads pumps $250 million into the island economy. But economists here say that if the prime coastal property on which the portion in Puerto Rico sits were restored to local ownership -- the sections on Vieques are to be turned over to the U.S. Department of the Interior -- it could be developed for more lucrative purposes.

"After 60 years, Ceiba is one of the poorest towns in Puerto Rico," said economist Francisco Catalá, professor emeritus at the University of Puerto Rico. "So the impact of Roosevelt Roads in the zone has been negligible."

Tourist hub possible

Facilities include an 11,000-foot runway, nine piers, a water-treatment plant and four sewage-treatment plants. With planning, economist Luis Rodríguez Baez said, the property could be converted to a regional hub for tourist activity in both eastern Puerto Rico and on the Spanish Virgin Islands of Culebra and Vieques.

"It's a problem of whether the bottle is half-empty or half-full. I believe it's half-full," said Rodríguez, an economist at Estudios Técnicos Inc., the largest economic-analysis firm in Puerto Rico. "A well-developed tourism project could more than compensate for that $250 million."

Pattern of withdrawal

Talk of closing Roosevelt Roads follows a pattern of military withdrawal from Puerto Rico. In September, the Army announced plans to move U.S. Army South, the Army component of Southern Command, from Fort Buchanan in Guaynabo to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Air Force Base Ramey in Aguadilla and the Isla Grande Naval Station in San Juan closed in the 1970s.

The final round of training on Vieques is scheduled to start Monday. One leader in the campaign against the bombing of the island said closing Roosevelt Roads would be a bonus.

"That facility does not add anything to Puerto Rico. It takes away," said Roberto Rabin, a member of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. "Closing it is not like a threat. It's more like a wonderful promise."

Others have more-mixed emotions. Gilberto Rivera, 57, a disabled Vietnam veteran, shops at the base weekly.

"When I was born, this base was here," he said. "Since I was a child, I was hearing about the base. Lots of my family worked there and retired from the base.

"I would feel very bad if the base closed. I would take it as a loss."

Base 'where I was raised'

As the daughter of a government worker in the nearby town of Fajardo, Ivy Rosa grew up at Roosevelt Roads. She went to Navy schools alongside the children of sailors. She took ballet lessons from an instructor on the base, played in the youth soccer league, went to movies in the theaters and shopped in the stores.

"It's really where I was raised," said Rosa, now 24 and a schoolteacher. "All my teenaged years, everything related to growing up, was on the base."

Rosa said she was glad for the people of Vieques that the bombing would end. But she worried about the loss of jobs if Roosevelt Roads closed -- and questioned whether the jobs that might be developed instead would be as good or pay as well.

"The base brings more positive things than negative," she said. "The Navy should get out of Vieques, not out of Ceiba."

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