Land buy to protect Naval air station approved

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Cooperation between the U.S. Department of Defense, Santa Rosa County and an environmental group helped the state buy 1,389 acres in the Florida Panhandle, purchase supporters said.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet today voted to approve buying the land near the Navy’s Whiting Field in Santa Rosa County from The Nature Conservancy for $5.1 million.

The purchase not only protects Big Coldwater Creek, a designated state canoe paddling trail, but Navy representatives said it also allows helicopter and other aircraft missions to continue at Whiting Field. The Nature Conservancy paid International Paper $6 million for the property in 2006 — when land prices were higher.

“Without these partnerships, as I mentioned, we cannot continue our mission,” said Tom Vincent, Whiting Field commanding officer. “This is a huge huge win for us.”

After closing occurs prior to an Oct. 1 deadline, the property will become part of Blackwater River State Forest. The property includes nearly two miles of Big Coldwater Creek, a spring-fed tributary of Blackwater River.

The Navy could pitch in 25 percent of the purchase price, or $1,275,000 as part of an agreement with the state to buy land to protect military operations. Elsewhere in the U.S., development near military installations has led to complaints from neighbors about aircraft flights and artillery practice.

The Nature Conservancy says it works closely with the military to conserve land around bases. In the Florida Panhandle, an area that has been identified by scientists as a hotspot for biological diversity is located within the flight patterns of aircraft flying from Navy and Air Force installations.

The Department of Defense works with neighboring landowners to make sure the ecology of the military land remains viable for future generations, said Deborah Keller, senior policy representative for The Nature Conservancy’s Florida chapter.

“The department has been an incredible partner to the environment, not just on the buffering but how they manage the land,” Keller said.

The state purchase also will allow use of off-highway vehicles on 621 “disturbed” acres within the purchase area where planted pine trees have been harvested but were not replanted. The Division of Forestry will use $1.2 million collected in fees for state titles on off-highway vehicles to help pay for the purchase.