On a tree-lined street in south Sandwich, everything is quiet. Sprinklers, birds, and the occasional landscaping truck are all that make a noise.
But when physician and retired Air Force colonel Jane Ward walks through the neighborhood, she hears the quiet before the storm.
“We're pretty close to Camp Edwards or Joint Base Cape Cod,” Ward said, when asked the significance of the location. “We're in a neighborhood that's just, you know, a stone's throw.”
Less than a mile away, the Army National Guard is planning to build Massachusetts’ first and only machine gun range. The eight-lane range would require the clear-cutting of 170 acres of forestland—as part of a 5,000 acre danger zone. It’s just under a quarter of the land on the base.
“To me, in terms of being a citizen and having actually gotten small arms training myself during my military career… environmentally, this seems ludicrous,” Ward said.
The National Guard argues building the machine gun range is necessary to provide required arms training to soldiers without sending them 270 miles to the next-nearest training site in Jericho, Vermont.
In an environmental assessment, the National Guard concluded the range’s overall environmental impacts would be “less-than-significant,” but many environmentalists feel otherwise.
“I lament the loss of big unfragmented habitat,” said Christopher Neill, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole. “I think that’s chronic and we're sort of just marching, marching, marching toward less forest and less good wildlife habitat by a thousand cuts.”
The forest also stores greenhouse gases. Cutting down trees means losing a climate change buffer.
“Not only do you lose the current store of carbon basically in the tree trunks, but you also eliminate that annual uptake from that one acre or those 170 acres of trees,” he said. “So you're emitting carbon immediately… and you're undoing the natural sink.”
Overall, Neill said, he's troubled by the cumulative loss from breaking up the largest, unfragmented forest ecosystem on Cape Cod.
“The base is a really significant piece of land, maybe the most significant for rare and endangered species on Cape Cod,” noted Mark Faherty, CAI contributor and science coordinator at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
There will almost always be winners and losers in land management, Faherty said, but one must consider the particular needs of the 34 threatened and endangered species that use this habitat.
Many, like the eastern whippoorwill and the frosted elfin butterfly, could actually benefit from the clearing—they prefer grassland.
“I think it's sometimes hard for people to get used to the idea [that] clearing a bunch of trees [has] a net benefit for rare and declining species,” Faherty said. “But that's generally the case here in New England, where the landscape would otherwise be forested and so those species would be lost.”
To reduce the impacts of the machine gun range, the National Guard is proposing a 4:1 mitigation ratio, meaning four acres would be preserved on the base for every one acre impacted. Plus, base officials said they’re expanding the Crane Wildlife Management Area just south of the base through a direct land transfer of 260 acres.
The National Guard declined an interview for this story, but in an email wrote, ”Every project decision… illustrates our commitment to conservation and sustainable development.”
Still, opponents like retired Air Force physician Jane Ward aren’t convinced.
“We live on a fragile sandbar,” she said. “This is not the type of project we want to attract to Cape Cod for the benefit of Cape Cod.”
Big questions remain for environmentalists about the impact on groundwater, which the Cape Cod Commission has raised concerns about, and how noise from the machine gun range is expected to reach neighborhoods and an elementary school. Others want to know what an 18 percent increase in activity on the base will mean, and question why it’s better to build a machine gun range here than continue sending soldiers four-and-half hours north to Vermont.
People want answers, Ward said, and they want the space to ask them at a public hearing. At the time of this publishing, none have been scheduled.
“By adding a mission and adding more people, and adding more stress on the groundwater,” Ward warned, “we're just encouraging the end of Cape Cod.”
For now, a month-long public comment period comes to an end on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Comments can be sent to Keith J. Driscoll at the Hanscom Air Force Base, who can be reached by email at Keith.J.Driscoll.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated pine warblers would benefit from tree clearing. They would not.