This blog invites all who have information, personal stories, reflections, either in word or photos about Florida’s two largest state forests: Tate’s Hell (202,000 acres), north of Carrabelle in the Big Bend and Blackwater River State Forest (210,000 acres) in the western panhandle. Within less than a 2 hour drive, north Floridians have forests large enough to offer us a variety of wilderness experiences. By that we mean an experience not marred by man-made sounds, structures, smells — as total a natural situation as one could wish. Unfortunately, the skies of Blackwater is a restricted military area and therefore sounds of jets and particularly low flying helicopters can be heard; however in Tate’s Hell one can still paddle and camp without air or motor sounds, particularly in the upper reaches of rivers and creeks not reachable by motorized boats.
When we started this blog site, we were facing threats to our use of the forests. The forest which was purchased by the state for use as primarily a watershed of the Ochlockonee and Apalachicola Rivers — for restoration and conversation, was facing an even greater threat. On October 23, 2012 Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the US Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base (464,000 acres) “to allow limited military missions on portions of Blackwater River State Forest and Tate’s Hell State Forest.” In December 2012, Governor Rick Scott reaffirmed the permission granting use to the military for the purposes documented in the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Intiative (GRASI). See http://www.grasieis.leidoseemg.com/ (this link may no longer be accessible).
Citizen action and a concerned member of the Aquisitions and Restoration Council were able to get tabled the proposed amendment to the 10 year management plans of both of these forests to allow military use of the forests.
What follows below is the history of the attempt to take-over use of these lands. Floridians need to be aware that our public lands which have been specifically purchased or retained for restoration and conservation purposes are there to preserve our natural wildlands. It’s a legacy to be guarded; our bequest for future Floridians.
That was emphasized in 2014 by an overwhelming majority of Floridians who voted to continue the program which funds the acquisitions, restoration and management of these lands. But a single event, as impressive as was the mandate, must be followed by vigilance that the will of Floridians are supported and honored.
We continue this blog site because Floridians need to know about these two panhandle forests: these are two places to recreate and to discover a different Florida.
On December 12, 2013, the Acquisitions and Restoration Council met to consider the Blackwater River State Forest 10 year management plan. The hearing room was packed with citizens who planned to give a 3 minutes (reduced from the usual 6 minute) of points why they opposed the inclusion of the clause noted below in the 10 year management plan. Also present was a member of the advisory committe of Blackwater River State Forest and she noted that the committee had not been told about this inclusion in the 10 year plan.
ARC moved that any decision on the clause regarding supporting the military’s need to use the forests for maneuvers would be tabled until such time that an environmental impact statement and final draft of the GRASI plan was available. The 10 year plan was passed without this clause.
That draft was expected in mid-February, but according to the Eglin GRASI public information office, it is not expected till later in March, 2014, but has not yet been released in April 2014.
What follows is a narrative which was written in 2013 and is kept in the blog to give a history of the process.
Lands owned by the state of Florida which were acquired for conservation and restoration purposes are regulated by statute. All managers of these lands must submit plans which must be approved by the Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC). On December 12, 2013 at 9:00 am, (around 10:30 am for BRSF management plan) at the Douglas Building, 3900Commonweath Blvd. in Tallahassee (off I-10 at Capital Circle NW interchange), ARC will be holding hearings on items on their agenda. The major item is the 10 year management plan of Blackwater River State Forest. The 10 year plan states:
“Expanding U.S. military operations in Northwest Florida will create more opportunities for cooperation between BRSF and the U.S. military. In October 2012, FADACS and the USAF entered into a Memorandum of Understanding that will allow the USAF to use designated areas within the state forest for military training exercises. The agreement does not provide for the use of any live ammunition or ordinance on state owned lands and allows for training missions on state forests with no or very limited impact to the resources. The agreement is constructed in such a manner as to preclude interference with public use and access, limit any resource damage, and preclude any impacts to areas containing threatened or endangered species. Training operations could include landing small groups of troops, land navigation exrcises, simulated combat exercises, and placement of navigation aids. Primary areas for training may include existing forest openings, such as borrow pits, timber decks, the Munson airstrip, STOP Camp, Training Center, and forest roads.”
To get the Blackwater River State Forest 10 year Management Plan see http://publicfiles.dep.state.fl.us/DSL/OES/ARC/December_2013_MPlans/.
The Acquisition and Restoration Council can effectively block military use of the forests by complying with the statutory constraints of Florida Statues Sections 253 and 259. Arguments given by the Commissioner of Agriculture and the Governor point to the military economic development potential, arguments which would have seem incompatible with the intent of Legislators on both sides of the aisle, Governors and citizen Floridians who had foresight to create one of the nation’s best public land acquisition, restoration and conservation programs. Consistent with their efforts, “stewardship” of these lands should not be taken lightly.
The December 12 meeting of the ARC provides an opportunity for those who oppose the military exercises in Blackwater River State Forest to speak to the section of the plan which allows this activity (pages 3, 19 and 20). For information on this meeting and additional information how to make an effective presentation to ARC go to http://www.letterstograsi-flofficials.com, a sister blog which is a repository of letters, comments, posts against military use of the two forests.
Those wishing to testify can sign up at the meeting room, ground floor Conference Room A.
On December 11 in Milton, Florida Forestry and Eglin Air Force Base will be jointly sponsoring a meeting to explain why the military training missions planned for this forest will have a low impact. On December 12, a similar information meeting will be held in Apalachicola. As someone who had just read the 10 year plan said, they are assuming that this is a done deal, explaining to us how it all is going to happen. We are hoping that this will be a failed scenario — there is no way, short of legislative action, that military operations can legally be justified.
The decision time is short – about 5 months. As far as we can determine, this is the time line as noted in the GRASI document released by Eglin AFB to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA):
- February 2014 (Previously End of November 2013) Eglin draft environment impact statement to be made made available for public review and comment.
- February- March, 2014 Public Review and Comment. National Environmental Policy Act does not require hearings.
- June, 2014 (Previously End of February 2014) Final environmental statement and notification in the Federal Register when completed.
- July, 2014 (Previously April, 2014) 30 day waiting period when additional comments can still be made.
- August, 2014 Submission to the Air Force for consideration
- Fall, 2014 (Previously May, 2014) Final decision by USAF to either “re-address aspects of the environmental impact statement or to sign the Record of Decision
Currently, March 24, 2018 the issue is in limbo, however any amendments to the Management Plans of either forest will have to go through the Acquisitions and Restoration Council which is required to post the notice of such item and when decisions are to be made and opportunity for the public to comment either in written or testimony of 3 minutes before the Council.
Too often, our stories and why we value these two forests go unnoticed by those who make decisions about the use of our lands. This may be the only comprehensive hearing those of us who treasure these large forests have. We want this blog to be informational, positive, and tell in honest day-to-day way, why these forests make are important to our sense of place.
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