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Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Navy Plans To Step Up Bombing At Avon Park Range


February 16, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON -- About 930 inmates and dwindling endangered birds living in and near the Avon Park Air Force Range in Highlands and Polk counties could experience Florida's version of shock and awe under a Navy plan to bomb with new vigor and high explosives.

The Navy plans to more than triple its bombing missions at the range and begin dropping live 500- to 2,000-pound bombs in addition to dummy bombs, which have been the main air-to- ground ordinance dropped there since World War II.

Navy spokesmen said high explosives may have been used in bombing runs there for a short period in the 1970s, but no one was certain. Ground troops train at the range with mortars and artillery, such as howitzers. But the plan would dramatically increase use of explosives at the base, which straddles the county line on the eastern edges of Highlands and Polk.

The Navy would send jets on 900 to 3,000 flights across Florida's east and west coasts each year from carriers in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to make the Avon Park range one of it primary bombing ranges. The Air Force owns and operates the range.

The range is beside a state prison and is home to two plants and at least 12 animals on the endangered list.

The plan, laid out in an environmental assessment completed last month, comes after the Vieques Island range that the Navy used in Puerto Rico was closed in 2003 after protests.

"We've been trying to steer a little more business their way since I got elected," said Rep. Adam Putnam, a Republican who represents the district that includes Avon Park. "The good people of Puerto Rico helped us out immeasurably."

He said more bombing requires more base staff and improvements, which means economic benefits for surrounding areas.

As for endangered wildlife on and around the range, Putnam and the Navy say the fauna have gotten used to noise by now.

"The scrub jays know how to duck and cover," Putnam said.

High explosive bombing would continue at the Pinecastle and Eglin Air Force Base ranges in Florida.

The plan comes as Florida officials try to defend the state's military bases from the next round of base closures and to keep the USS Kennedy, a carrier based near Jacksonville, from being mothballed.

A spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush said increasing missions is a good thing.

Putnam, however, said he didn't think expanded use of Avon Park would affect broader military issues.

Regardless, it could have some effect on the 930 inmates of the Avon Park State Prison, which sits on the western edge of the range. The prison is well within a zone the Navy expects to experience peaks of 115-decibel noise, but a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections said officials don't expect a problem.

All six options for bombing in parts of the 106,000-acre property show 115-decibel noise leaving the range, which is surrounded by state parks and buffer zones.

The Navy's preferred alternative shows the least impact off site. Other scenarios using more target ranges would send that noise farther off the property, across State Route 60 to the north and almost to State Route 700 to the south under the most liberal bombing option. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would make final decisions on whether or how to increase Navy bombing. Those decisions could come around the end of the year, a Navy spokesman said.

A rock concert is generally considered to be in the 110-decibel range. The League for the Hard of Hearing in Florida says 110 decibels of noise can cause hearing loss after 1 minute and 29 seconds.

About 88 percent of the missions would take place before 10 p.m., but bombing would occur until 11 p.m, according to the Navy plan. In 2000, the Navy flew 288 planes to Avon Park out of the total 6,974 mostly flown by the Air Force, which has no plans to increase its own activities there.

The Navy would fly about 900 planes in a typical year from aircraft carriers during three 20-day maneuvers. The jets would zip across the coasts to drop 783 live bombs and 1,776 dummy bombs. But the Navy could use the base for as many as 3,024 flights in a year, dropping up to 1,545 live bombs, if world events warrant using the base for a maximum of six exercises.

The Navy also would ramp up helicopter training with Hellfire missiles.

The Navy will conduct public hearings on the plan on March 1, 2 and 3 in Frostproof, Sebring and Avon Park, respectively. Each hearing will begin at 7 p.m.

The Navy predicts it's preferred alternative could adversely affect two endangered plants and two endangered animals: the scrub jay and the eastern indigo snake. The Navy said that option might, but is not likely to, affect six other animals, including the bald eagle and Florida panther.

Paul Gray, coordinator of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Program for Audubon of Florida, said the Florida grasshopper sparrow could be in more danger than the Navy admits.

The sparrow nests partly in the missile range and already loses five nests a year to ordinance-related fires and another five to prescribed burns, according to the Navy. Gray said the number of those sparrows has dwindled on the base, from 150 pairs in 1997 to 75 in 2001. Last year, he said, only seven males were counted.

But Gray said he feels it would be useless to put up much of a fight.

"This is a time of war and they're dead set on doing this," he said.

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