Ground zero

From a tower 80 feet above the Ocala National Forest, the Pinecastle Bombing Range looks like a deserted obstacle course.

Below, makeshift roads cut through the brush, creating a firebreak for the more than 18,500 bombs (150 of them live) the U.S. military dropped last year on this piece of the publicly owned and maintained wilderness preserve. At the range's western edge are rows of tires used as machine-gun targets, where pilots strafed 61,660 rounds of ammunition last year. To the north, along a sandy road, are parked rusty trucks; from the tower, cameras record how accurately pilots hit them.

It's strange to think the U.S. Navy has operated this bombing range for more than 49 years in the Ocala forest, which sits an hour north of Orlando. Two million visitors camped, hiked, fished and hunted the preserve's 382,000 acres last year even as Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy jets soared overhead.

Not everyone is happy with the close proximity of civilian and military use. Letters of complaint from homeowners in Altoona or Umatilla, which sit less than 15 miles from Pinecastle, occasionally make their way onto the pages of the Orlando Sentinel. And a statewide pacifist group based in Gainesville has demonstrated several times against "the militarization of national land."

"We don't want them to drop bombs -- live or otherwise -- on this park, this treasure for the citizenry of the state," says Carol Mosley, director of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice. "Why can't they bomb on military land?"

Mosley says it's an opportune time for the public to close Pinecastle. The Navy's permit to use the 5,825-acre range expires at the end of this year. If the Coalition can garner enough support, it believes it can persuade the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land, not to issue another one. "This is the time to say, 'Hey, this is enough,'" Mosley says.

The Coalition, however, seems to be alone in its organized opposition. True, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society would rather the range didn't exist inside Ocala, America's oldest national forest east of the Mississippi River. But the two environmental activist groups have limited resources, which they'll marshal instead in hopes of persuading the Forest Service to ban off-road vehicles `ORVs` currently permitted to race through unrestricted areas of the park. "You don't have the planes every day, but you do have the ORVs," says Judy Hancock, of the Florida Sierra Club.

The Marion County Audubon Society convened five years to take a position on the range. Given the choice between continued bombing and opening the range to human visitors, the group sided with the military. "We didn't want to see that part of the forest opened to irresponsible recreational use," says Geri Baldwin, president of the Audubon chapter.

The occasional published complaint also is misleading, says Matt Newby, publisher of nearby Umatilla's weekly paper, the North Lake Outpost. "I can tell you the vast majority of people around here support the bombing," he says. In fact, when the Coalition protested in Umatilla several months ago, some townspeople assembled to demonstrate in favor of Pinecastle. "It's kind of funny," Newby says. "We have people coming from Orlando and Gainesville to tell us we don't need a bombing range. But people here don't have that negative opinion."

Campers, meanwhile, also don't seem to be bothered by bombs. Some even enjoy the aerial performance of the swooping jets. Last week, as a group of snowbirds sat in the shade of their campers at Farles Lake campground, they had any number of complaints about their trip: mosquitoes, fire ants, gas prices, groups of "raunchy" Rainbow campers, dogs swimming in the lake. But none complained about the noise of exploding bombs or whining jet engines.

"It doesn't bother us if they need a bombing range," said Dennis Shephard, a vacationer from Michigan who looks up from his National Enquirer to answer a question. "`The jets are` pretty interesting to watch."

"Don't squawk about the airplanes," added Bob Simons, a retired Detroit television studio manager. "The planes are there for our own good. They're there for national defense. They're not up there clowning around."

As Simons stood near his trailer, a jet made a swooping arch among the clouds and returned toward Pinecastle. The noise was surprisingly muted. "That's about the way it usually is," Simons said. "Sometimes they come lower. If you live close to an expressway, `the jet noise` could be a semi going by."

Their immediate safety wasn't an issue for the men. Bill Gardner, also vacationing from Michigan, says he saw a plane clip the top of the trees south of the campground last year and nearly plunge into Farles Lake. Still, he says, "I'm not worried about `jets` crashing on me."

But if people feel safe, what of the wildlife? Incredibly, the U.S. Forest Service says that -- with bombs being dropped on average more than 200 days a year at the site -- there's no evidence that a single creature has been killed.

In fact, the Forest Service and environmental groups agree the range has evolved into a perfect habitat for plant and animal species whose numbers have been dwindling: the sand pine, gopher tortoise and scrub jay, which is on the list of threatened species. These species benefit because controlled burns and fires caused by bombs destroy mature plants, giving an advantage to indigenous plants and animals that recover quickly from fires. "There's a lot of fires in the range, so that's good for the scrub," says Hancock, of the Sierra Club.

"Scrub jays are a kind of barometer for this ecosystem," says Jim Thorsen, a U.S. Forest Service ranger who oversees the bombing operation. "If you have a healthy scrub jay population, you're more than likely to have a healthy ecosystem." More than 3,000 of the birds make their home in the Ocala forest -- an estimated 120 to 160 of them on the bombing range. Indeed, after several jays flew across the path of Thorsen's pickup as he drove onto the range last week, he pointed toward the thicket on the Pinecastle side and said, "That's perfect jay habitat."

To prove his point, he parked and walked along one of the range's dirt roads, making a sound with his mouth like water pouring from a faucet. In a minute, a half dozen scrub jays stood mutely on tree branches nearby. They cocked their heads at fixed angles, but none responded to Thorsen. "They're not going to talk to me today," he said.

Thorsen was part of a team that conducted an environmental-impact study of Pinecastle due at summer's end, in advance of the decision on a future bombing permit. He says the scientists focused on 12 topics, such as noise and compatibility with military use. All of the issues, Thorsen insists, can be alleviated without kicking the Navy out of the forest.

Besides, he and others concede, after 49 years of bombing, the military has made the area unfit for human habitation. The range, after all, will never be fully cleared of ordnance. "There's no telling how many unexploded bombs there are out there," Hancock says.

Isolated from people, Pinecastle becomes a draw for animals escaping human contact. Most are unlikely to be hit by shrapnel because the Navy uses only 450 of Pinecastle's 5,825 acres as target practice, say range supporters. The rest is buffer zone -- a distinction that lets the Navy bill the land as a "safe haven for wildlife" in brochures.

The bottom line, Hancock says, is that if the environmental study reveals problems, there still will be time to protest -- and if so, the Sierra Club itself might take action. Meantime, she says, the best solution is probably to give the Navy a short-term permit and continue to monitor for signs of damage. As for the real threat, she blames people in off-road vehicles, not pilots in the air. And from that, her prognosis isn't good. "I think the forest is going to be destroyed," she says.

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