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The Tallahassee Democrat

State, Military Interests Converge On Flight Path; Plan To Conserve Panhandle Land Pleases Many

By Bruce Ritchie

September 14, 2003
Copyright ©2003 The Tallahassee Democrat. All rights reserved.

The military pilots zooming in at more than 400 mph from the Gulf of Mexico are moving too fast to see the black bears, Chapman's rhododendron and tropical waxweed west of Apalachicola.

Flying as low as 300 feet over what scientists say is one of the nation's most important ecological regions, the pilots turn west near Blountstown. Other planes, flying at higher altitudes, continue through the area toward Eglin Air Force Base, where they fire missiles or drop laser-guided bombs and other "smart" weapons on a test range.

Along with the rest of the Florida Panhandle, the area west of the Apalachicola River also lies within the path of development. Newcomers to other areas of the nation with bases have raised complaints about noise, leading to restrictions on training and operations.

Before growth comes to the Panhandle, state and military officials and The Nature Conservancy environmental group want to protect military training while preserving the region's wildlife. They are working to conserve a flight path that is 100 miles long and 10 miles wide, covering about 750,000 acres.

"If we can all reach agreement on this concept, the plan is for us all to go out and seek the resources to make this happen," said Jesse Borthwick, a senior environmental scientist at Eglin Air Force Base.

The overflight area can be protected from development through government land purchases or conservation easements, which involve paying landowners not to develop their property. Other cooperative agreements with landowners can help maintain the natural features and rural character of their land, said Deborah Keller, The Nature Conservancy's Northwest Florida Greenway coordinator.

In other parts of the country, development has surrounded bases, sparking complaints by neighbors that lead to restrictions on military training. Camp Pendleton, located in Southern California, is being squeezed by development from San Diego and Los Angeles.

"They are faced with such environmental and population pressures they are barely able to use that area effectively for training anymore," said Doug Nation, acting technical adviser at Eglin's 46th Test Wing. "That is the kind of thing we want to avoid."

Unarmed Tomahawk cruise missiles also fly through the Panhandle area. They are launched from submarines in the Atlantic Ocean and cross the Florida peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico. Eglin is playing a greater role in military training with the closure of Naval bombing range on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico.

A scientific study in 2000 by The Nature Conservancy and the Association for Biological Information identified the area between Eglin and the Apalachicola River as one of six biological "hot spots" in the nation. The presence of rare and threatened species, such as the black bears, Chapman's rhododendron and tropical waxweed, put the region on the scientists' map.

Eglin Air Force Base, a former national forest that was transferred to the military in 1937, covers 464,000 acres. It includes mature longleaf pine forests, pitcher plant bogs and cypress swamps.

The Nature Conservancy has worked with hundreds of military installations around the country to protect natural resources, said Bob Barnes, senior policy adviser on defense issues in the group's Arlington, Va., headquarters.

Among the bases where The Nature Conservancy has worked is Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Working with state and federal agencies, The Nature Conservancy has helped conserve about 8,500 acres around the base, much of it through conservation easements or land purchases by the group.

Congress last year allowed the Department of Defense to spend its operating funds working with other agencies and groups to establish conservation areas around bases, according to The Nature Conservancy.

Okaloosa County economic development officials also are joining the effort to protect Eglin Air Force Base and maintain high-tech jobs there in the future. The military provides a $30 billion annual boost to the state's economy, including $2 billion to Okaloosa County, Eglin base officials say.

"There is nothing more significant than the defense industry's contribution to Northwest Florida's economic health," said Bob Black, chairman of the Okaloosa County Economic Development Council's Defense Support Initiative Committee.

The state already has targeted areas within the military flight path for possible land purchases. The governor and Cabinet agreed in August to add 16,318 acres of the Nokuse Plantation in south Walton County to the state's purchase list. The Northwest Florida Water Management District is considering the purchase of an additional 6,275 acres of Nokuse Plantation to the north.

The governor and Cabinet also agreed in August to add more St. Joe Co. land in the area to the purchase list. The state and the company now have targeted about 75,000 acres in the area for possible purchase by Florida.

"It's something we're very excited about," said Mollie Palmer, deputy chief of staff at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. "It's an ideal convergence of conservation and military benefits."

The Nature Conservancy has heard no serious objections to the partnership's efforts, Keller said. A St. Joe Co. spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Gulf County Commission Chairman Jerry Barnes said he's heard no complaints from residents about either the proposed land purchases or the planes and unarmed cruise missiles that are flying overhead.

Some rural counties complain when private land is sold to the state for conservation. But Barnes said a state program that pays rural counties for the lost revenue has helped Gulf County.

"It doesn't hurt our budget so bad," Barnes said of the state purchases.

Much of the flight-path study area, Keller said, should remain in private ownership - so it will continue paying taxes. The area, whose boundaries still are being adjusted, includes vast areas of pine tree farms.

Conserving the area will allow hunting to continue in the future, said Vicki Tschinkel, Florida director for The Nature Conservancy. Hiking, kayaking and other nature-based recreation can flourish in the area.

Representatives of Eglin Air Force Base and The Nature Conservancy see the effort as a national model - not just for maintaining military operations but for guiding regional growth.

Urban development in other parts of Florida has created a "patchwork quilt" of relatively isolated natural areas, Tschinkel said.

She added, "We have an opportunity to do something completely different in the Panhandle."

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