Marine exercises on beaches hinge on environment study

Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 10, 2003 at 10:35 p.m.
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE - The Marine Corps and Air Force are studying whether Marines can storm ashore for training exercises without doing excessive damage to the Florida Panhandle's environment.
Amphibious landings are among exercises that may move to Eglin and other sites in Southern states from Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico, where protests have been mounted against Navy and Marine Corps training.
Whether 2,000-member Marine expeditionary units can use Eglin's 724-square-mile military reservation, including beaches, forests and swamps, depends on the environmental assessment, base spokesman Mike Spaits said Thursday.
He said the study will be finished in February, open for public comment through March and then face approval in April.
"This is going to have quite an effect and it's going to be quite a spectacle," Marine Maj. Dan McGuire said.
There will be no naval gunfire coming ashore - ships will aim at buoys in the Gulf of Mexico - but aircraft would drop live bombs on Eglin's test ranges, said McGuire and Brig. Gen. George Flynn.
Helicopters and hovercraft would ferry troops, tanks and other equipment from ships onto Santa Rosa Island beaches owned by Eglin. The Marines are planning two 10-day exercises annually.
Troops and equipment also would cross from the barrier island onto mainland parts of the base. That would mean blocking traffic on busy U.S. 98 to spread old tires on the pavement to prevent tank treads from damaging it. McGuire said the Marines would avoid making the crossings during rush hours.
"We think that Eglin provides us an opportunity that we really can't match anywhere else," Flynn said. On the East Coast, Marines conduct similar training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in addition to Vieques.
Panhandle business and political leaders see the Marine training as more security against a possible base closure or downsizing.
The Navy already has moved some aircraft carrier training to the gulf and Eglin's ranges, including live bomb drops now banned at Vieques. Eglin's main mission is developing and testing weapons, but it also hosts a fighter wing, an Army Ranger training camp and the Navy's ordnance disposal school.
The exercises also would pump more federal dollars into the Panhandle's economy. Ships and aircraft also use Pensacola Naval Air Station.

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