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Military Targets Wildlife Refuge as Firing Range

Environment: Florida Keys site includes endangered species and fragile habitat supposedly protected by the federal government. Neighbors, conservationists team up to combat plan.

May 25, 1997|TOM WELLS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CUDJOE KEY, Fla. — At the tip of the Florida Keys, which drop down from the mainland like a strand of dark green emeralds on an aqua sea, lies the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.

About the only noise in this exotic home to several endangered species are the animal sounds, the bird- calls and flapping of wings, and gentle waves breaking against the mangroves.

That tranquillity may be broken soon with earthshaking 12-ton missiles spewing fire, smoke, hydrochloric acid and other chemicals, if the Pentagon has its way.

The military wants to test an antimissile system to defend against missiles such as the Scuds used by Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.

The site that the Air Force seems to prefer is Cudjoe Key, which includes part of the wildlife refuge. It's here that the military puts up tethered blimps for beaming TV Marti propaganda programs to Cuba at night.

The other possible site is a military antenna field on nearby Saddlebunch Key, 15 miles from Key West. Cudjoe and Saddlebunch each have about 1,200 residents.

Several of the animals in the 176,000-acre refuge, which encompasses several small islands, are on federal and state lists of species considered endangered, threatened or of special concern.

The endangered animals include the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, whose scientific name is the sylvilagus palustris hefneri, named for Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, who sponsored scientific research of animals in the Keys. Locally, the rabbit is known as the Hefner Bunny.

The missiles launched here would be the targets for testing of interceptor missiles fired from the Florida Panhandle at the opposite end of the peninsula, about 550 miles to the north.

The Air Force wants to launch 12 target missiles a year from Cudjoe or Saddlebunch.

At public meetings in the Panhandle, home to Eglin Air Force Base, the proposed testing generally has been well received, probably because it would mean continued missile research and development and thus civilian jobs.

But in the Keys, many folks are incensed.

"It's mind-boggling," says Don Lowe, a retired physicist who was with Michigan's Environmental Research Institute. "These missiles will be putting out 3,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid, for starters."

Not to worry, the Air Force says. It is doing an environmental impact study to determine if the pollution and the rocket's noise will disturb the nesting of the endangered and threatened birds that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found in the refuge.

"It's an outrageous concept," says Curtis Kruer, a conservation biologist who has lived in the Keys for 20 years.

"This is one of the more productive, pristine waters in the United States. It is extremely fragile and extremely diverse--sponge, coral, sea grass, birds, fish, lobster, shrimp, stone crabs, sea turtles, bottlenose dolphin, manatees and an occasional alligator or crocodile."

Federal agencies have steadily cut back on human intrusion in the Great Heron refuge and three other national wildlife refuges in the Florida Keys.

It is illegal even to get close with a boat to some of the little islands in the refuge for fear that cranes, herons, egrets, falcons, bald eagles and other birds may be scared off their nests.

"What we see is the split personality of the federal government," says Barbara Ehrenreich, a member of Ground Zero, one of several groups fighting the plan.

"On one hand, it is playing an environmental custodial role. On the other hand, it is about to come in and become a megapolluter and disrupter of these same fragile ecosystems. I would call it schizophrenia."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Department would review the Air Force study, said Heinz Mueller, in charge of EPA assessment for the Southeast.

The interceptor missile that the Air Force wants to test is the THAAD--Theater High Altitude Area Defense--which has a range of up to 2,000 miles.

The THAAD has been fired four times at target missiles at a test range in New Mexico, and each time it missed its target.

The White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico is too narrow and the winds are too strong, says Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization at the Pentagon. High winds could hurl debris from a missile collision off the range and pit car windshields miles away.

A test range in the Pacific, between Wake Island and the atoll Aur, is too short, about 300 miles, he says.

The 4,200-mile test range between Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and Kwajelein Island in the Pacific is too long for the THAAD missile tests, Lehner says.

The Pentagon already has rejected the idea of launching the targets from a site in Texas because the western gulf has many oil-drilling rigs and has heavier shipping traffic, said program spokeswoman Janet Tucker.

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