Tom Palmer / The Ledger – 2005-03-04 17:46:21
Hearings for Avon Park Range Are Scheduled
Tom Palmer / The Ledger
FROSTPROOF (February 27, 2005) — Military officials will hold a public hearing Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Frostproof High School to get public comments on the environmental and economic impact of a proposal by the Navy to begin dropping high-explosive bombs, firing missiles, mortar shells and other live ammunition in the Avon Park Air Force Range.
According to the Navy’s draft environmental impact statement, the operations could affect endangered species, hunting and other recreational access, as well as income from cattle and timber leases.
The plan is to increase annual flights by military fighter-bombers by 43 percent, from 6,974 to 9,998.
Instead of 8,394 practice bombs, the planes would be dropping 13,731 practice bombs and as many as 1,545 high-explosive bombs. Military aircraft also would fire as many as 27 Hellfire missiles at targets on the ground. Helicopter flights would increase from 1,098 to 1,418.
In addition to the bombs and missiles, military training exercises would involve firing thousands of mortar shells and other ordnance between 25 mm and 105 mm and strafing ground targets with 30,000 20 mm shells.
Navy officials said 88 percent of the bombing would occur between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. The remainder will occur between 10 and 11 p.m.
High noise levels could occur as far away as Indian Lake Estates and River Ranch Resort on the north and rural areas in Highlands County along Arbuckle Creek Road to the south, but noise is not projected to affect residents in Avon Park and Frostproof.
A final decision on the plan is expected later this year. Additional hearings will be held Wednesday at the Sebring Civic Center, 355 W. Center Ave., and Thursday at the Avon Park Community Center, 310 W. Main St. Both hearings will begin at 7 p.m.
Pentagon officials announced in 2002 that military use of Avon Park Air Force Range, which they classify as underutilized, could increase as a result of the halt of operations at Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Residents in Vieques had been protesting the military’s presence for decades, charging it had caused environmental contamination, hurt the area’s commercial fishing and other business interests and was responsible for health problems.
Many Species Are Targeted
By Navy’s New Range Plans
Tom Palmer / The Ledger
FROSTPROOF (February 27, 2005) — The 30 or so endangered Florida grasshopper sparrows at the Avon Park Air Force Range face a new menace from the sky — Navy warplanes.
The sparrows are one of the rare species that will be in danger of being bombed and strafed under a plan by the Navy to move combat training operations from Puerto Rico to the Avon Park range.
At issue is which of the seven alternatives listed in the Navy’s draft environmental impact statement would cause the least amount of damage to the Florida grasshopper sparrow, as well as the Florida scrub-jay, red-cockaded woodpecker and other rare or endangered species, and to the wildlife habitat they need to survive. The explosions and gunfire will occur on the 106,073-acre military base that straddles the Polk-Highlands county line along the Kissimmee River. Three public hearings on the plan will be held this week. (See related story.)
Six alternatives differ with respect to 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 ranging from hunting to wildlife observation. The seventh alternative involves no additional bombing.
Marian Ryan, a Winter Haven environmentalist, said it’s futile, given the current political climate, to try to stop the bombing, so she is pushing for what she considers the least environmentally damaging alternative.
Her choice is what is known as Alternative 5.
“It has the least impact by virtually every analysis,” Ryan wrote on behalf of the Florida Sierra Club’s Public Lands Committee.
In making her assessment, Ryan examined the effects of habitat alteration via land-clearing, road building, noise and bombing.
Alternative 5 differs from the Navy’s preference, Alternative 6, because it means fewer acres of forests would be clear cut, shrapnel would be flying around fewer acres of rare-species habitat and more wetlands would be left alone.
Additionally, Avon Park range is a regional hub for a system of wildlife corridors running through the Kissimmee River valley. Such corridors are important for maintaining biological diversity and the habitat requirements of wildlife species ranging from butterflies to the Florida panther.
Because of this, Ryan said what happens here has regional as well as local importance.
“The bombing range supports a diversity of rare habitats and is a keystone parcel that unites conservation lands in a regionally significant wildlife corridor that stretches from the Upper (Kissimmee) Lakes Basin Watershed in Osceola County, through Polk, Highlands, Okeechobee and Glades counties, terminating at Lake Okeechobee,” she wrote.
SPARROWS ON THE EDGE
Paul Gray, a biologist at Audubon of Florida, is particularly concerned about the potential impact on Florida grasshopper sparrows.
He’s afraid the Navy’s plan could make one of Florida’s rarest bird species become even rarer. “It’s not based on good science,” Gray said.
Gray is the former manager of Audubon’s Ordway Whittell Audubon Sanctuary, which is now part of 53,000-acre Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve in Okeechobee County, across the Kissimmee River from the military base.
Florida grasshopper sparrows, first discovered in 1902, were listed as a federally endangered species in 1986. The birds survive at only three locations in Florida — Kissimmee Prairie, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in Osceola County and Avon Park Air Force Range.
“There’s no place else for them to go,” Gray said. He said the plans are more troubling in light of a 2001 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that 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.
The Navy’s preferred alternative avoids the prime remaining sparrow habitat.
Nevertheless, a fact sheet FWS officials prepared on the Florida grasshopper sparrow said any sparrows within target areas at the range “could be impacted by exploding ordnance.”
Allen Webb, project planning supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Vero Beach office, said the Navy’s preferred bombing site should have minimal impact on sparrows because it’s not in their main nesting area, but the area where the strafing will occur is in prime sparrow habitat.
Gray likens what’s happening to Florida grasshopper sparrows to what happened to the dusky seaside sparrow, whose Brevard County habitat was gnawed away for years by drainage projects, development and road-building. The last dusky seaside sparrow died in captivity in 1987.
He said it also appears to conflict with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the sparrow. Recovery plans are designed to reduce a species’ danger of extinction.
That plan calls for protecting existing sparrow habitat and increasing the number of sites where they can successfully nest.
Webb, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said some of the planned land-clearing could benefit the sparrows by creating new habitat.
He said the agency is preparing a formal biological opinion required under the Endangered Species Act for Navy officials to consider before they being operations.
Webb said there are trade-offs.
“The Navy and the Air Force have environmental concerns, but they have a mission, too, to protect the country,” he said.
Grasshopper sparrows are not the only species likely to be affected by the Navy’s plans.
OTHERS IN DANGER
The Navy’s draft environmental impact statement also documents potential impacts on the range’s populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers and Florida scrubjays.
Reed Bowman, a Florida scrubjay researcher at Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, said a third of the jays at the military range are within the “shrapnel shadow,” the area where deadly bomb debris will be whizzing around.
He said just as troubling is the fact that the proposal also could keep biologists from documenting any carnage that occurs.
“Increasing the time the areas will be off limits will effectively eliminate the monitoring program,” he said.
In addition, the projected loss in income from logging and hunting permits will cripple the base’s natural resource management budget that funds the monitoring work, he said.
Other listed species at the range, such as bald eagles, crested caracaras, Eastern indigo snakes and wood storks, are not expected to be seriously affected by the increased military operations, according to the Navy’s report.
With the larger bird, such as wading birds and birds of prey, the main hazard is the potential for collisions with low-flying, fast-moving military aircraft.
For rare plant species, ranging from orchids to some rare plants found in scrub and sandhill habitats, where some of the rare animals are also found, the effects will be mixed.
The report said the Navy’s preferred alternative is “likely to adversely impact” two rare plant species — hairy jointweed and pigeonwing — because their habitats will be disrupted.
For other plants, the effects will be mixed.
The clearcutting of pine plantations and the fires ignited by bombs and missiles will open habitat to benefit some non-forest plants.
On the other hand, some of the effects could encourage the spread of invasive exotic plants, which frequently grow in disturbed ground.
According to the report, whatever the bombs don’t disturb in the target areas, wild hogs will.
“The potential increase in ground/vegetation disturbance in the immediate target areas would also potentially enhance opportunities for feral hogs to root in these areas. The effect of increased feral hog rooting would potentially result in additional loss of native groundcover vegetation, especially in wet areas, such as wet prairies, seepage slopes and hammocks at APAFR,” the report said.
While the opportunities will increase for hogs to damage property, the opportunities to control hogs will decrease because thousands of more acres will be off limits to hunting and other outdoor recreational activities, the report says.
Tom Palmer can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7535.
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