By Julie M. Lucas
NAS Jacksonville Public Affairs
In 1951, the U.S. Navy began using Pinecastle Range Complex, located in the middle of the Ocala National Forest. Today, it continues to be the only range on the East Coast for live ordnance used by the Navy, as well as the Air Force, Marine Corps and Army.
The range is approximately 5,698 acres of a 383,000 acre national forest that is home to animals on the state species special concern list. Due to the activities that take place, NAS Jacksonville's Environmental Division staff makes it their mission to check on the land and local animals.
With rolling sandy hills on the range, the gopher tortoise had it made its home at Pinecastle. According to NAS Jax Environmental Division Natural Resource Manager Angela Glass, if the tortoises were bothered by the inert and live bombs they would move away.
"These are solitary animals and can move freely around the range, therefore this is a favorable habit for them," she said.
Glass uses GPS to record the burrow locations and inserts a small camera to determine if the burrow is active. Measurements are taken as to the size of the burrow, which can show the size of the tortoise.
An estimated 500 gopher tortoises live on Pinecastle, NAS Jacksonville, Rodman range and Outlying Landing Field Whitehouse. Other local protected species include the Florida scrub-jay and Eastern indigo snake. The rest of Ocala National Forest is home to wild hogs and deer that the 1.5 million visitors per year enjoy on the campground and trails.
Along with protecting wildlife, steps are taken to preserve the environment. Prescribed burns are performed throughout the Ocala National Forest and Rodman range, which is located 40 miles north of Pinecastle.
The prescribed burns, planned every three-five years, reduce the hazardous fuels such as old pine needles and saw palmettos and aid in preventing large uncontrolled fires that can occur from a variety of things, especially lightning strikes that are frequent to Florida. Prescribed burns also remove unwanted invasive plant species, recycle nutrients back into the soil and promotes the growth of trees and other native plants. Timber harvests are another means to reduce unwanted species of plants, often slash pine is harvested and long leaf pine a more desirable species is planted. Long-leaf pine reforestation takes around 20 years to mature and continues to grow for centuries. All of these events are coordinated with the U.S. Forest Service, which allows the Navy use the land. The current permit is up for renewal in 2022.
"The partnership with the Navy Environmental Division at NAS Jacksonville has laid the groundwork and we rely on them for compliance and containment," said Carl Bauer, Ocala National Forest district ranger.
Recovery of old metal targets is also another important operation at the Pinecastle Range. Legacy targets that have been buried are demilitarized and sold to a recycler. All money is returned back to the government.
Vehicles are used as targets for bombing on the range and they have to be properly drained of all fluids, glass, rubber and batteries. In the event some liquid remains in the vehicles, after preparation for use on the range, and happens to spill during range operations, all live-impact related waste contaminated soil is removed and stored in special waste containers. Jody Smith, NAS Jax Environmental assistant hazardous waste program manager, visits Pinecastle twice a month working closely with the range contractor ensuring range operations waste management, as well as management of all of the standard maintenance related Hazardous Wastes, remain in compliance with DOD, federal and state environmental laws and regulations.
"Our two commands do an excellent job incorporating compliance requirements into daily range operations and have a tremendous working relationship with the range staff," Smith said.
Other agencies at NAS Jacksonville play a part in keeping operations going. The Ground Electronic Maintenance Division at NAS Jax sends electronic technicians and contractors to Pinecastle several times a year to inspect and maintain the Automated Surface Observing System, which checks the weather in the area for aviation needs.
"The partnerships of all the agencies working together has been fundamental in providing the highest quality of training for our fleet," said Cmdr. Scott Campbell, Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility Jacksonville commanding officer, who oversees all scheduling and operations at the range.