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Opponents ask: How many machine gun ranges does the state need?

Training at Fort Devens, which will be the site of the state's newest machine gun range.
U.S. Army
Training at Fort Devens, which will be the site of the state's newest machine gun range.

The federal government is funding the construction of a nearly $8 million machine gun range on a military base northwest of Boston, adding fuel to local leaders’ insistence that another range is not needed on Joint Base Cape Cod (JBCC).

“We’ve got one range ready to break ground, which nullifies the need for a second one,” said Barnstable County Commissioner Mark Forest.

Massachusetts Army National Guard officials say the new range being built at Fort Devens in Ayer will include four 800-meter shooting lanes and primarily serve members of the Army Reserve. They say the Fort Devens range will not have lanes long enough to meet training requirements for members of the Guard, but it would be a “welcome addition” to the region's training capability.

“This provides us another opportunity to train locally,” Guard spokesperson Don Veitch said, “but it isn't sufficient to meet all of our training requirements.”

Veitch said the Guard’s plan for an eight-lane range proposed for the Upper Cape Water Supply District includes two lanes that would be 1,500 meters in length, where soldiers could practice firing the .50 caliber M82 sniper rifle and M2 machine gun.

But Forest said the 1,500-meter lanes described by Veitch have yet to be included in the Guard’s $11.7 million funding plans.

“The Cape range will not be able to provide sufficient training for the M2 under the current financial scenario,” he said. “It's in the plan, but it's not funded, and there's no prospect of funding.”

In a document released on April 30, the Guard revealed that funds had not been earmarked to extend the middle two lanes from 800 meters to 1,500 meters.

“These additional features would need to be constructed at a later date,” the document said.

Another potential hurdle for the Guard’s plan is the lack of state environmental approval for .50-caliber ammunition to be used on Camp Edwards, which is the area on the base designated for the range. At issue is whether the properties of .50 caliber ammunition would threaten groundwater under the base.

Without a guarantee of funding for longer lanes, and with uncertainty about the ability to fire certain weapons, Forest and others are questioning why the range at Fort Devens was never formally mentioned in the Environmental Assessment (EA) as an alternative to the proposed range on the Cape.

“For reasons, really, that are self-serving,” Forest said, “the alternatives [considered in the EA] were only limited to Joint Base Cape Cod. So this will be one of many issues that is going to continue to haunt this project.”

The EA required “all reasonable alternatives to be explored and objectively evaluated,” but the Guard stated that “reasonable” alternatives were limited to what was available at Camp Edwards.

The Guard wrote in the EA: “The [Massachusetts Army National Guard] considered but dismissed from further analysis the following unreasonable alternatives: 1) use a training site at another installation; 2) use an undisturbed area at Camp Edwards; 3) use a different existing range at Camp Edwards; 4) implement a standard-size (multi-purpose machine gun) range; and 5) use an alternate location 100 meters south of the Proposed Action.”

Andrew Gottlieb, a vocal opponent of the Cape range and executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, said the Guard’s failure to mention the Fort Devens range should prompt the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) to repeat its environmental review.

“The fact that any mention of the Devens project — either as an alternative to, supplement of, or critical additional component of them being able to meet their training needs — [wasn’t in] any discussion in the environmental review process for the proposal on Cape Cod shows they’re not being honest or straight with the public,” he said.

The omission, Forest said, is an issue the Barnstable County Board of Regional Commissioners’ lawyers are considering as they build a case against the proposed range. The commissioners have said the Guard failed to comply with legal and permitting requirements during its decade-long pursuit of the range.

“The Massachusetts National Guard will review the letters sent by the Commission and does not comment on potential litigation,” said Veitch in an email last month.

Forest said that part of the insistence on a full evaluation of Fort Devens as an alternative is that unlike Joint Base Cape Cod, the range northwest of Boston wouldn’t be built on top of a drinking water source.

“On Cape Cod, we're talking about building a machine gun range on state conservation land. … [That designation] limits a variety of uses and activities and only allows for very limited compatible training,” he said.

State Sen. Susan Moran, whose district includes Plymouth and Barnstable, agreed.

“We’re on a sole source aquifer and we have concerns about climate change and clearcutting trees, along with wildlife being in the way of potential machine gun fire, as well as neighbors being disturbed by the kind of noise that's necessary,” she said by phone Tuesday.

Fort Devens, she said, presents an “amazing” alternative.

“That is a much more proper site because it doesn’t have the same potential debilitating effects to the community that such a site would be on Joint Base Cape Cod,” she said. I truly believe that the Fort Devens [range] will be able to replace any potential need for a machine gun range on Cape Cod. But we've got to wait for the [range on Devens] to be built and see how the military is able to manage it.”

“And if there’s more need that’s determined,” she continued, “then we start to look at what other opportunities there may be in other places in Massachusetts other than the Cape, as well as in the already built up places on Joint Base Cape Cod. There's already vast amounts of trees that have been cut.”

Guard officials have repeatedly insisted that the site chosen presents no significant harm to the environment and that adequate safeguards are in place for groundwater protection and community concerns.

Construction of the Fort Devens range is scheduled to be completed by Sept. 28, 2023.

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