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Proposed Machine Gun Range Wins Federal Environmental OK; State Review Is Last Hurdle

Ktr101, CC BY-SA 4.0
Wikimedia Commons
Entrance to Joint Base Cape Cod

The Massachusetts Army National Guard has secured a key federal environmental approval that potentially puts it one step away from building a machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod, CAI has learned.

The Guard plans to announce the milestone Wednesday. The only remaining regulatory hurdle for the range is a state environmental review.

In an email sent to members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, local Guard officials say the federal National Guard Bureau has signed off on a report that finds the proposed eight-lane range would have "no significant" environmental impacts.

The proposed range includes a plan to reduce the environmental impacts of the project by instituting four-to-one mitigation ratio, meaning that four acres would be preserved on the base for every one acre impacted. This would include an expansion of the Crane Wildlife Management Area just south of the base through a direct land transfer of 260 acres.

“We received the completed FONSI (finding of no significant impact report) from the Federal National Guard Bureau,” the email reads, "who conducted a thorough, independent review of the project.”

Federal officials concluded that “the Proposed Action would not have a significant impact on the quality of the human or natural environment.” As a result, the federal Guard concluded, an “Environmental Impact Statement will not be prepared.”

Last month, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Rep. Bill Keating, whose district includes Cape Cod, sent a letter calling on the National Guard Bureau to determine whether the finding of no significant impact (FONSI) is appropriate, or whether local Guard officials need to produce the Environmental Impact Statement, a much more detailed and time-consuming evaluation.

In their letter, the members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation cited local environmentalists who have raised concerns that the range would require the clearcutting of 170 acres of trees and would be placed over the sole drinking water source for Upper Cape towns.

“There’s just something that strikes people as counterproductive to have this sort of activity on top of the single-source aquifer on the Cape after the years and years of cleanup from [past] military activity impacts,” said state Sen. Sue Moran, who represents parts of Plymouth and Barnstable counties, “and the good job that the military has done with that element of their outreach and their environmental work.”

Notably, the Guard's email also includes an offer for a public meeting to discuss the range.

"We have tentatively scheduled a town hall meeting from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on May 19, 2021,” it said.

But environmentalists —along with some local officials— are asking why a public meeting was being scheduled after the report was approved, as bigger questions loom about the transparency of the project, which is about a decade in the making.

“I really join with the folks who are disappointed in the process,” Moran said. “As a [former] member of the Board of Selectmen [in Falmouth], the base administration gave a regular report, but the mention of any kind of expansion of the gun range was like knocking on a window with a sponge.”

In a statement, base officials said since 2012, the Guard has, "convened several conversations to understand the community’s concerns, commissioned independent experts to study every environmental impact, and taken time to thoughtfully modify the design to address those factors."

"Every decision – including the ongoing conservation program and reduction of conventional range design to limit usage impact – illustrates our commitment to conservation and sustainable development," said Camp Edwards Commander Col. Matthew Porter.

Guard officials maintain the machine gun range is needed to enable soldiers to complete weapons training without having to travel several hours each way to the nearest range.

With the approval from the National Guard Bureau, the proposed range can go in front of the Massachusetts Environmental Management Commission (EMC). Approval from the state commission would allow the Guard to begin construction.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.