Could Military Training At Florida State Forests Become Reality? Officials Say Maybe Not

Dec 12, 2013

Florida’s public land management officials are expected to vote Friday morning on whether to approve a proposal that could lead to the expansion of military training exercises in state forests. But, some wonder what that could mean for the wildlife and recreational activities.

Julie Wraithmell is the Director of Wildlife Conservation for Audubon Florida. She’s expecting to attend the last Florida Acquisition and Restoration Council, or ARC meeting Friday that could decide the future of military training in state forests—for this meeting specifically, Blackwater River State Forest. Wraithmell says she’s concerned about the impact the training exercises could have on wildlife.

"...because we are far too early in the process...[the military] may come to us and we may say 'no, we cannot do any of it'..."

“That could be everything from low-impact orienteering, military personnel trying to way-find across a rugged environment, all the way to live operations, the use of amphibious vehicles across creeks and streams. There would be the potential of having emitters on the property that could be used for aerial war games,” Wraithmell said.

And she says what members of her environmental group want is a guarantee that the military not only go through the state to ask for permission but gauge public opinion as well.

“So, how it was going to proceed before this is the Florida Forest Service would be in a position to work directly with the military and perhaps even approve some of these activities without it necessarily coming before ARC and giving the public that opportunity to review the plan and have the confidence that all the natural resources were being safeguarded. So, it’s just an added opportunity that their opinions will be considered in this process,” Wraithmell added.

Meanwhile, the Florida Forest Service along with U.S. Air Force officials have been holding a series of public meetings in places like Milton and Apalachicola to get public feedback about allowing for what’s called low- to-no-impact military trainings in Blackwater River and Tate’s Hell State Forests in the Panhandle.

Forest Service Assistant Director David Core says concerns so far include Audubon’s worry about the wildlife as well as impacts on residents’ recreational activities.

“Mostly, it was probably other users wanting to make sure military missions wouldn’t interfere with what they’re doing now in the forest, whether it’s horseback riding, canoeing, hunting, fishing or whatever it is,” Core said.

Still, Core says while officials are listening to everyone’s concerns, it’s important to remember nothing is set in stone.

“…because we’re far, far too early in the process to know exactly what missions, if any, would occur. They may come to us and we say, 'no, we can’t do any of it.' We don’t know yet,” he added.

Core says the military's asking for access to public lands is actually nothing new. But what’s different this time is they want to do it on a regular basis. He adds Blackwater River State Forest is one of the areas the military usually uses.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.