As part of the Air Force’s quest to find more space to meet increasing training demands in Northwest Florida, it now will be allowed to conduct nonhazardous missions on additional state-owned land.

The state Department of Environmental Protection agreed last week to allow the Air Force to set up communications equipment on pockets of land across the region.

The agreement is part of a recent effort to ease competition for range space on Eglin Air Force Base’s reservation, which spans 460,000 acres.
After the last base realignment in 2005, which brought several new missions to Eglin and surrounding bases, officials began looking for public or private land nearby for nonhazardous training.

“This will allow us to have a lot more flexibility to use the range for what it was really designed for — testing and shooting and all those things that come with hazardous activity,” said Michael Penland, the Air Force’s director of base operations.

Before moving to his position at the Pentagon, Penland was in charge of operational support at Eglin, where he began working on the project to find nearby land for training. He has continued that effort in Washington, D.C., and is making headway.

In October, the Air Force signed its first agreement to use Florida Forest Service land. The state agreed to allow the military to use about 400,000 acres in the Blackwater River State Forest near Eglin and Tate’s Hell State Forest near Apalachicola, Penland said.

He said the Air Force plans to sign a similar agreement with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the near future.

The agreements are one of a kind and could serve as models for similar arrangements across the country.

“This is first time we’ve actually tried to do something to this scale, especially in the Air Force,” Penland said.

The DEP agreement allows the Air Force to set up mobile threat emitters, which are used for air training. Currently, the emitters are housed at Eglin, but they rarely are used because they must be spread over a large area, Penland said.

Under the agreement signed with the Forest Service in October, the military — including the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Eglin — will be able to run small ground-training missions, and other groups will be able to land aircraft such as the CV-22, Penland said.

It will offer some opportunities unavailable on the Eglin reservation and shorten wait times for the space.

No live ammunition will be fired on state lands, officials said.

Penland said the state agencies and the Air Force have worked to make sure the training missions will not disrupt any endangered species or restrict recreational activities. They searched for areas where the training would be compatible with what the land already is being used for.
“(The state) has been very forthcoming in helping us look for places we might be able to use,” he said.

Patrick Gillespie, a spokesman for DEP, said the agreement is the first of its kind, but fits in with the agency’s overall mission.

“It’s been a priority of the DEP to purchase state land that buffers military installations and to work to support our armed forces,” Gillespie said.
He said the plan was presented at two public meetings before it was approved. The details of exactly how, when and where the land will be used will be hammered out in a final agreement over the next two months.

Gov. Rick Scott praised the partnership in a news release issued last week.

“This agreement is another step in making Florida the most military-friendly state in the nation,” he said. “Not only will this decision strengthen our nation’s security, but it will support our military communities that provide jobs for Florida families.”

Next week: How will this agreement affect Santa Rosa County?