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Seeking Support, Guard Offers Tours of Proposed Machine Gun Range Site

Patrick Flanary: Good morning on this breezy Tuesday. We've got somebody special in the studio today. For the first time in 20 years or so, officials with the Massachusetts Army National Guard are now giving public tours of Camp Edwards and the environment on Joint Base Cape Cod. It's all part of an effort to better inform people about what's going on amid this controversial machine gun range issue we've been talking about. Eve Zuckoff is our expert on the matter and went on tour over the weekend for one of these. Hello Eve. Welcome to the studio.

Eve Zuckoff: Hi Patrick. Thank you. Quite the introduction!

Patrick Flanary: Well, you saw the grounds firsthand.

Eve Zuckoff: I did.

Patrick Flanary: Give me a sense of what this looks like. I read your reports. I listen to your reports, but I can't get my mind around sort of the the breadth and depth of this place. What's it look like? Set a scene for us.

Eve Zuckoff: Yeah, absolutely. So actually, to get to the area where the Guard wants to build the machine gun range, we took these winding roads, past barracks, a dining hall, and gear warehouses, and they're all spread out between these big patches of grass and a pitch pine-scrub oak. Until finally, we get to this clearing, a kind of field where in recent years guard members have been launching drones and doing sniper training. And I want to paint this picture in your mind for you — because I get it, not a lot of people have seen this place — so I want you to imagine looking down at it from above. It's just kind of a giant rectangular grassy area that's bordered on three sides by trees and shrubs. So what the guard wants to do to build a machine gun range here is change the shape of this grassy area so that it looks actually a lot more like a baseball diamond, so they can stand essentially on home plate and start firing machine guns to hit a number of targets at different distances in the infield and outfield.

Patrick Flanary: Got it. OK, so how do they get that baseball diamond shape? A lot of trees are coming down for this.

Eve Zuckoff: Exactly. That's really where we go next. So to turn this rectangle into the baseball diamond, they're going to need to clearcut about 100 acres of trees from all sides. We're talking hundreds of thousands of individual trees, if not more, so that soldiers can, in phase one of building this range, shoot a target almost nine football fields away. It's a pretty far distance. Now, in phase two of the guards plan, which has not yet been approved or funded, they want to clear cut another 70 acres of trees. And again, visualize, try to imagine this with me, if they have already created that baseball diamond shape, they want to stand at second base and go straight out from there, clearcutting an area that's roughly seven and a half football fields long,

Patrick Flanary: So way off in the outfield.

Eve Zuckoff Exactly! Way out in the outfield; you're now touching the Green Monster pretty much. So that way, on two of the eight firing lanes, they'll be able to shoot .50 caliber machine guns. Those are the most common weapon you'll see mounted on a Humvee. Now, there will be berms built behind the targets they're shooting, which are like grassy mounds to protect a casing from traveling into the ground. Every year, they'll remove as many rounds as possible. And then nearby, they'll build five small buildings, like a control tower, storage facility and a classroom.

Patrick Flanary: And of course, we've talked about transparency and we don't want to go too hard on the National Guard here because we demand it as citizens and they are giving it in some respect. But these tours are self-serving in some regard, right? I mean, they want to sort of take away the mystery of what they do.

Eve Zuckoff: You are 100 percent right, and I actually think they're acknowledging that, which is kind of an interesting change of messaging. So one way they're trying to demystify the work that they do on this tour was to bring us on to the Sierra Range, where guard members can practice shooting rifles like M16s and M4s, and their goal is to shoot from four different firing positions. They have to hit 23 out of 40 targets in just a few minutes to get qualified on their assigned weapon. And actually, I have some tape from that, so I'm going to play you a little bit of gunfire I heard standing about 40 yards away:


Eve Zuckoff: This doesn't quite capture how loud it was. It was really loud.

Patrick Flanary: So it was deafening.

Eve Zuckoff: It was not quite deafening. But, you know, you kind of felt it in your chest, that kind of sound. And machine gun fire will sound different than rifle fire, but it will be heard by the surrounding community if the range gets built. And again, back to your original point: I think this is all a part of an effort to increase transparency. The guard is saying, 'look, we are hearing the public saying we have not done enough to inform them about this project. So come on down, see for yourself what we're up to.' Whether it will move the needle after a year of deteriorating relationships, I don't know.

Patrick Flanary: Well, you had several dozen people along with you for the tour. I'm wondering what they were asking.

Eve Zuckoff: Yeah, there were a lot of people from Sandwich, Falmouth, Mashpee, about 35 people there. And everyone I talked to knew this machine gun range was in the works. So that's something. Some told me they were there because they just wanted to learn more about Camp Edwards and the proposed range in the Guard's own words. So one woman in this category, Sheila Cross, she lives in Sandwich right by the base, and she said she fully supports the proposed machine gun range and, honestly, thinks her neighbors should, too.

Patrick Flanary: Let's hear from her.

Sheila Cross: “I feel that when you move to an area that you know that there's a live base, there's expectations. When we first came here, we had planes flying all over and helicopters all the time, and we loved it. It was the excitement and knowing that their training to keep us safe. That's how I look at it.”

Eve Zuckoff: But others were definitely not in the same camp. I talked to one woman at the end of the tour who said her son is in the National Guard, and even after four hours of looking around, she was still kind of disturbed by the clearcutting, the sheer amount of trees. And she just was like, 'Why can't the range be built somewhere else?' which is something a lot of people are still asking.

Patrick Flanary: Right. And this range is moving forward?

Eve Zuckoff: Maybe. We don't know yet. I mean, we're awaiting a meeting by state environmental officials to decide the fate of the range. That's the final approval the Guard is seeking.

Patrick Flanary: And the tour, Eve, you went on over the weekend, is just a small part of Camp Edwards, which is a much bigger monster. So, so what else did you see?

Eve Zuckoff: Yeah. Camp Edwards is 15,000 acres. We're looking at a much, much smaller area, and we did a number of things that were pretty interesting. We watched a group of Black Hawk pilots doing virtual training in one building, which actually kind of looks like they're playing a video game. They're using unloaded guns and shooting at targets on a big screen. We also saw a decommissioned range that now has a water treatment system on it, and that was an opportunity to talk about the many years and billion dollars that the military has spent to clean up past contamination of groundwater that runs beneath the base. And all throughout the tour, we saw different kinds of plants and birds and insects like the barrens buckmoth, a state listed species. I mean, again, we talk about 15,000 acres. There are about 500 species of moths and 180 species of birds. It's really incredible, the wildlife you get on this base.

Patrick Flanary: And there will be some effect on the wildlife. I mean, to what degree we don't know yet.

Eve Zuckoff: Yeah, 170 acres of habitat loss alone is nothing to sneeze at there. There are conservation and mitigation efforts as part of the plan to build the machine gun range, but it's not enough for some people.

Patrick Flanary OK, so these tours are ongoing. Tell us how people can tag along.

Eve Zuckoff: So the next Camp Edwards tour is scheduled for Saturday, November 6th, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.. And the tours will pause for the winter, but the Guard says they will resume in the spring.

Those interested in signing up for a tour can email Emily.d.kelly2.nfg@mail.mil. Full names of those interested in attending and a telephone number must be included. A confirmation email will be sent with further information including directions, meeting location and parking.

Patrick Flanary: Tell me one more thing before you leave: what surprised you? Did you go in there with an assumption about anything and were proven wrong or vice versa?

Eve Zuckoff: I think I really went in with an open mind, but one thing that maybe touched me was how passionate Guard members are about the work that they do. And one thing that was also really interesting was the people that we were seeing practicing shooting rifles that day were plumbers and carpenters. I mean, members of the National Guard are people from our communities. One guy said, 'Yeah, I drove up here from Beverly.' I mean, they are an essential part of our military. And being that close, after reporting from a distance for a year, I don't know, made it feel a little bit more tangible to me.

Patrick Flanary: Eve Zuckoff of CAI. Eve, thank you for your reporting.

Eve Zuckoff: Thank you so much, Patrick.

More information about the Massachusetts Army National Guard's plans can be found on its website.

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