Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Avon Park Bombing Range: Lt. Governor Highlights Importance of Facility

An A-10 Warthog opens fire at the Avon Park Air Force Range during a training exercise Tuesday. (Photo by Rick Runion / The Ledger) Full size

Note: Pictured is A-10C 282 from the 75th Fighter Squadron.

By Tom Palmer
The Ledger

Published: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at 10:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at 10:26 p.m.

AVON PARK | Supporters of Avon Park Air Force Range should work to make sure the military training site gets all it needs to remain important to national defense, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll said Tuesday during a tour of the installation.

"Speak with one voice to make sure this vital infrastructure stays in place," she said.

Carroll's visit was intended to show the importance of the Avon Park Air Force Range as both an important military training site and nationally important ecological site to protect it from any base-closing attempt to trim federal expenditures.

Protecting Avon Park Air Force Range from encroachment is the focus of a land-use study in cooperation with the Central Florida Regional Planning Council that has been under way since late 2008. The purpose is to define buffer areas around the 106,000-acre military base along the Polk and Highlands county line on the west side of the Kissimmee River.

Carroll, a retired Navy officer, urged supporters of the facility to work to purchase any buffer land that's needed and to do other things, such as improve transportation access to the remote site, which is at the end of a two-lane road running east of downtown Avon Park.

The challenge will be to get the money.

Between federal and state funds, only $2 million has been allocated, which falls far short of even one aspect, which involves acquiring conservation easements to prevent future development of ranchland to the north and south. The land to the east of the base and much of the land to the west contain public conservation lands.

The land proposed for conservation easements totals more than 30,000 acres. Conservation easements for that amount of land would probably cost more than $60 million.

Where the additional money will come from is unknown, though it's likely it will require appropriations over a number of years. In addition to Pentagon and state funds, other sources include the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Rocky McPherson, director of defense and military programs at Enterprise Florida, said the funding will depend on a study being conducted by the Florida Defense Support Task Force, which was created by the Florida Legislature to find ways to protect Florida military installations.

The committee is scheduled to release a report to the Legislature in February.

For Avon Park Air Force Range, the main concern has been encroachment that could hamper training activities, some of which are noisy and could generate complaints from residents.

Lt. Col. Buck McLaughlin, the range commander, said Avon Park Air Force Range offers "training not available anywhere else in the country."

That's because the range has a large amount of restricted air space military aircraft can use and offers a variety of natural habitats that make ground training exercises realistic.

Those habitats are important in their own right, said Steve Orzell, a botanist on the range staff. He said the property contains more than a quarter of all of the plant species found in Florida, and provides dry prairie habitat for the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow.

An A-10 Warthog flies over the Avon Park Air Force Range during a training exercise, Tuesday, August 2, 2011 in Avon Park, Florida. (Photo by Rick Runion / The Ledger) Full size


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