PENSACOLA, Fla. -- At 460,000 acres, Eglin Air Force Base is considered the largest air force installation in the free world, with forest and beaches stretching across three Northwest Florida counties.
And in the last decade, this mega-base has grown in stature as well, becoming a crown jewel for the U.S. military, with more missions, more special forces, more weapons testing, and its newest star: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, the most expensive weapon system ever built.
So great is the bounty that Air Force officials claim this sprawling compound is overcrowded, and they have made an unprecedented request to conduct regular, frequent ground training in two nearby Florida state forests. Dozens of special forces troops, the type of elite soldiers leading the fight against terrorism, along with heavy trucks, helicopters, airplanes, smoke grenades and thousands of paintballs, would enter the forests as often as 232 days a year.
And federal and state officials say this is just the beginning, with plans to stage war games in woodlands all across Florida and perhaps other states in coming years.
"We are looking at other options -- national forests, private lands, other lands," said Mike Spaits, public affairs officer for Eglin.
Other military-friendly communities around the country, in fact, have called Air Force officials, asking how they, too, can offer up state forests for military training, said Mike "Pappy" Penland, who worked as the Air Force point man in Eglin's expansion efforts.
While the Army and National Guard for years have staged war games in a few national forests around the country and have held minor maneuvers in these Florida state forests, the formal push for additional space is something new. At a 2012 meeting with Florida's governor, Penland explained the military's new way of thinking: "That's where opportunities lie ... on the parks and state forest land, conservation lands, and some private lands with willing partners that we think are out there as well."
Florida state forests could become a "showplace" for "what we're trying to do to redefine how we look at an Air Force range," according to a transcript of the meeting.
While the Florida Panhandle has long been known as a military-friendly region, full of retired veterans, defense contractors and an array of bases, a surprising coalition of environmentalists, veterans, hunters, hikers and boaters are now saying the Air Force has gone too far, and they are pushing back. Angry forest lovers have submitted more than 1,400 comments to the Air Force and state officials, and dozens have spoken out at public hearings.
"We know the military is facing challenges, but the forests are, too," said Barbara Albrecht, a watershed specialist with the University of West Florida, who has spent years advocating for better management of the forests and rivers.
The two forests -- Blackwater River, northeast of Pensacola, and Tate's Hell, east of Apalachicola -- are considered delicate forest habitat, home to at least 12 endangered species. Tate's Hell covers the headlands of the bay that nurtures Florida's famous Apalachicola oysters. Both areas have only recently begun recovering from decades of neglect.
"It's devastating to me to think about all these birds, all these species, that have done so well in this forest, that will be damaged," said Peggy Baker, a member of the Northwest Florida Audubon Society, one of the few environmental groups to flat-out oppose the training maneuvers. "Why are they disturbing an ecosystem that's so young, that's still recovering?"
In the first half of the 20th century, loggers practically scraped Northwest Florida forests clean of old-growth timber, crisscrossed the land with logging roads, and replanted with fast-growing pine suitable mostly for commercial purposes.
But thanks to a program of controlled burning in recent years, Blackwater is now part of the largest continuous longleaf pine ecosystem in the world, which also makes it one of most ecologically diverse systems, Florida Forest Service documents show.
Today, the 210,000-acre forest is in the midst of a comeback, with more than 181 species of birds, including bald eagle and a growing population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Tate's Hell forest is home to black bear populations and other threatened species.
Blackwater's champions are particularly proud of an effort to close 434 miles of unneeded dirt roads and limit erosion that can silt up estuary habitat. The Yellow River is now the swiftest-flowing in Florida and one of the most pristine in the state. Military vehicles, amphibious landings and foot traffic would threaten all of those gains, Albrecht said.
"Millions have been spent bringing these forests back," she said. "Why would they jeopardize all that?"
Scott admin, some enviros support plan
Not all environmental groups are hostile to the martial maneuvers. The Nature Conservancy has said conservation and military go "hand in hand." And some conservation groups contend that military interest helps ensure that state forest land is never sold for commercial development. That is actually a possibility, some say. Florida Gov. Rick Scott's administration is avowedly pro-business and in 2011 offered to close 53 state parks as part of environmental-protection budget cuts.
Local activists in Northwest Florida think there are better ways to protect the wild areas than with soldiers, and they question why, with two wars winding down and a growing use of unmanned drone aircraft, the military needs more room, particularly for piloted jets.
The Florida Forest Service -- Albrecht, Baker and others say -- has been too supportive of the military's expansion and has been less than forthcoming about the training plans. Although the Forest Service signed a memorandum of understanding with the Air Force in late 2012, the agreement was not well-publicized.
Members of an advisory group, charged with writing a 10-year management plan for Blackwater, say they were never told about the military initiative until after the management plan was nearly finished in 2013. A recently released environmental impact statement on the proposed training, commissioned by the Air Force, also has not played by the rules, they say: It doesn't offer alternative plans that may leave a smaller footprint on the forest, a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that all federal agencies must follow.
The Air Force has said the training would have minimal impact on the ecosystems, and soldiers would go to great lengths to mitigate damage and avoid endangered species. No live ammunition would be used (although some soldiers would live off the land by trapping wildlife to eat).
"Some of this is already happening in the forest, but we thought we should do a proper analysis and see if it was a viable alternative for the future," Penland said. Some of the forestland includes helicopter landing sites and cleared areas, making it ideal for maneuvers, according to the environmental impact statement.
The Air Force would lease the forestlands for a one-time fee of $123,000, plus $382,000 a year, according to a 2013 draft of the operations plan. The total price is less than a tenth of the two forests' annual budgets, although the lease price could change, the Forest Service said.
Top officials in Florida, a state that is home to more than 20 major military installations, have welcomed the expansion plans with open arms.
Republican Gov. Scott has said his goal is to make Florida the most military-friendly state in the Union. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose office oversees the state parks and forests, has offered up additional areas for consideration.
"There should never be the day that the state of Florida loses a military mission because we failed to prevent encroachment," Putnam said at the 2012 meeting, referring to problems that can arise when residential or commercial development encroaches near military bases.
Although private forestlands in Florida will also likely be utilized in the near future, "the state forests rose to the top early on because the Forest Service was so supportive of our plan," Penland said. Purchasing additional land for military training would be too expensive, according to the impact statement.
The need for additional training space, Air Force officials say, is the result of a major reshuffling inside the military after the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's 2005 recommendations, which moved the Army's 7th Special Forces Group and its 2,500 personnel to Eglin from Fort Bragg, N.C., along with a number of other commands. The realignment has posed scheduling conflicts that apparently no one saw coming.
Eglin's primary mission is to test and evaluate airborne weapons systems. That means much of the base's scrub and forestlands are reserved for bombing ranges, missile targets and the supersonic F-35, which requires more air space because it's so fast, said Penland, who now works as an analyst for the Air Force and a private environmental firm.
By law, those missions take priority over what are known as "non-hazardous" special forces ground training, Spaits said.
The next step in the process will come soon. After the public comment period closed Monday, the Air Force will decide by late July whether to formally apply to the Florida Forest Service for the use of the forests. The Forest Service has not said how long it may take to consider the plans.
"I'm not very optimistic that we can stop it," Baker said.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that the Audubon Florida director sees "no problem" with training in the forests. The group maintains the proposed exercises would be "overly intrusive."