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The Associated Press

Hearings Due On Impact Of Avon Park Military Test Range Expansion

27 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

AVON PARK, Fla. (AP) - Endangered species, hunting, cattle and timber leases could be endangered under a Navy plan to move combat training operations from Puerto Rico to the Avon Park test range, a 106,073-acre military base in central Florida.

Plans, which are scheduled to become finalized later this year, call for the expansion of bomb drops, plus the firing of missiles, mortar shells and other live ammunition, although some enviromental advocates are still to convince the military to adopt some lesser-damaging alternatives.

A series of public hearings on the issue is set to begin Tuesday night in Frostproof, where the public is expected to weigh in on the notion that increased military testing at the Avon Park range could affect wildlife and recreational usage. Other hearings are scheduled for Wednesday in Sebring and Thursday in Avon Park.

"The Navy and the Air Force have environmental concerns, but they have a mission, too, to protect the country," said Alan Webb, a project planning supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Vero Beach office.

Navy officials listed seven alternatives in a draft environmental impact statement, including ones that would cause the least amount of damage to rare or endangered species.

Also included in those alternatives are plans on where the bombs will be dropped, how much land will have to be cleared for roads and other infrastructure and how much additional land would be made off limits to public recreational activities.

Winter Haven environmentalist Marian Ryan said she's convinced it would be futile to try and halt the bombing plan, so she's pushing officials to try and cut fewer acres of forests, leave more wetlands undisturbed and limit damage to rare-species habitat.

"The bombing range supports a diversity of rare habitats and is a keystone parcel that unites conservation lands in a regionally significant wildlife corridor," Ryan said.

Some biologists are also concerned about the potential impact on Florida grasshopper sparrows, one of the state's rarest bird species. The birds survive at only three locations in Florida; the Avon Park range is one of them.

"There's no place else for them to go," said Paul Gray, a biologist at Audubon of Florida.

Gray said a 2001 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service predicts even the current activities could result in the loss of five nests a year, though it also says that any birds old enough to fly could escape injury.

There's also concern how the range's populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers and Florida scrubjays would be affected by increased testing activities.


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