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Associated Press Newswires

Residents Of Desolate Coastline Skeptical Of Bombing Range Idea

By DAVID ROYSE, Associated Press Writer

July 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

IN THE CALIFORNIA SWAMP, Fla. (AP) - You can navigate a 4-wheel drive for miles through this remote area along the Gulf Coast and never see a person.

Apart from a couple old log cabins used as hunting camps, it's just slash pines and scrub.

In this wilderness between Tallahassee and Tampa, just about the last undeveloped stretch of coast line in Florida, the Air Force sees a perfect place to test missiles and bombs.

But many people who live near this huge swamp just above the Suwannee River don't like the idea -- even if the Air Force says it's safe and they likely wouldn't even notice it.

The locals are also trying to transform the region from a dependency on timber to one that touts natural beauty and isolation. Eco-tourism is the future here, they say, and that doesn't mesh with a bombing range.

"This is an area that has been working very, very hard to attract nature tourism," says George "Grif" Griffin, a nature writer who leads bird-watching tours in the area. "The exact area that they're targeting is one of the primary draws."

Besides the environmental and economic impact, some locals in Dixie and Taylor counties are concerned about their well-being. Rumors abound that the Air Force may use nuclear or chemical weapons at the range.

Air Force officials say they won't be firing nuclear weapons or chemical warheads. They say most of the missiles won't have any warheads at all and locals are misinformed about what the military wants to do.

"Folks that are going about their daily business won't even notice anything," said Ken Bristol, a top civilian Air Force official working on the proposal.

"It kicks up some dirt," said Walt Monteith, chief of range safety at the Panhandle's Eglin Air Force Base, describing what happens when a test missile impacts.

The military needs a new range because it is running out of space near Eglin -- which is fast becoming surrounded by high-rise condos and widening highways.

The Air Force looked along the coast from Texas to the bottom of Florida. But there weren't many options: Too many condos, too many beach-goers. Except in Dixie and Taylor Counties, along Florida's rural Big Bend, where fewer than 20 people per square mile live. Three sites are being considered for the range.

"You just can't find that kind of scenario in a coastal region anywhere else in the country," said Bristol, natural resources planner at Eglin.

The Air Force is aware that if bombing isn't safe locals won't tolerate it. The Navy closed a training range in Puerto Rico after a civilian security guard was killed and others injured by errant bombs in 1999. The Air Force plans to create a 10 mile buffer zone around the target area of any range.

The buffer zone means people in nearby towns won't be disturbed or be at risk, the military says. In Taylor County, for example, the edge of the proposed site would be 14 miles from the county seat of Perry. The prospect of a missile landing outside the buffer zone is nearly impossible, officials say.

"We're very disappointed if we miss by more than a meter or two, so these are very accurate," said Jesse Borthwick, the Air Force's program manager for the proposed test range.

But a number of locals remain skeptical, and the Air Force admits it probably hasn't done enough to make a smooth presentation.

"If they know where they're going to hit, then why practice?" Griffin asks.

The proposal is in the very early stages. The Air Force still has a battery of environmental tests to conduct, before it can even pick a site and buy land. If it goes forward, any testing is probably at least two years away, officials say.

The Air Force doesn't need approval from the local community to build the test range, but military officials say if there is overwhelming opposition they might scrap the plan. In Taylor County, officials have wavered on the issue, reflecting an unsure sentiment among the people there.

The Taylor County commission initially passed a resolution against the range, but then rescinded it after some positive testimony at a recent county commission meeting. There's talk of putting the idea on the ballot in the fall for a non-binding referendum.

There's a distrust of big government in many rural areas, including this one, says Dixie County Commissioner Hoyt "Buddy" Lamb. Even if people don't think the current plan is problematic, they're worried they're opening themselves up to an expanded mission later.

"It's the government," says Lamb. "When they get ready to do something different they're going to do it. That's what we're afraid of."

While some don't trust the government, people here are far from anti-military, says Sid Dosh, editor of the local weekly newspaper the Dixie County Advocate.

"There's probably not anyplace that's more fiercely patriotic, so you've got this paradoxical situation," he says.

But in a place where the local tourist map sports the motto: "Dixie County means good huntin'" unfettered access to places where the animals live is important.

"Hunting is a very, very, big thing in this county," Dosh says. "When you start talking about closing certain areas ... people are very concerned about that."

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