The Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force is not mincing words when it comes to the U.S. military’s position on the possible reopening of the former Navarre Pass in Santa Rosa County.
“Reopening Navarre Pass would interfere with current and future Air Force and DOD missions,” Gen. David Goldfein, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. “The Air Force opposes reopening that pass.”
Nelson received the official letter from Goldfein this week that reaffirms the Air Force’s stance that reopening the pass would directly interfere with the Air Force’s ability to conduct future testing and training missions at Eglin Air Force Base and its host of training ranges on military property, in Santa Rosa Sound, and the Gulf of Mexico.
The controversy surrounding the reopening of the pass surfaced earlier this year when freshman congressman Matt Gaetz said he would push legislation forward that would include the reopening of the pass, which was opened only a few months before Hurricane Betsy closed it in 1965.
“It’s no surprise that I am an advocate for Navarre Pass,” Gaetz told Santa Rosa County commissioners in February, butting against the official position by the Air Force. “It would make Santa Rosa County one of the wealthiest counties. We would be a fishing mecca.”
The plan for the original pass was initially conceived in the 1960s when the Navarre Bridge Causeway and 800-foot Navarre Beach pier was built, eventually being dug in 1965. The pass was unarmored and was open for only two months before erosion caused by Hurricane Betsy closed it that same year.
The location of the former pass is now abutting the property line of the Eglin Air Force Base reservation on Santa Rosa Island. According to military officials, opening the pass would interfere with nearly 60 missions annually, on average, including missile tests over the Gulf of Mexico range, special operations flights over Santa Rosa Sound, and Air Force Special Tactics and Army Ranger training.
“The Air Force has no requirement for a Navarre Pass and, if built, would be
incompatible with our missions at Eglin AFB and Hurlburt Field,” the Air Force wrote in an official report on the opening of the pass this year.
“This would result in cancellation or delay in critical mission activity,” the report continues. “Additionally, a significant increase in boat traffic around the pass would seriously restrict our test and training activities currently conducted at our sites on Santa Rosa Island.”
Environmental advocates say the pass would further erosion of Santa Rosa Island and damage the island’s fragile ecosystem, including disrupting the salinity of the Santa Rosa Sound, harming fisheries, oyster, and seagrass habitats.
After Air Force leaders spoke out against Gaetz’s plan, the congressman later dropped the issue of opening the pass from legislation that would also allow for private ownership of land on Pensacola and Navarre Beaches.
Nelson, however, said the current legislation he sponsored earlier this year with Rubio in the Senate doesn’t go far enough to prevent future cutting of the pass.
Nelson said he sponsored the bill with Rubio to give those holding a 99-year lease on Santa Rosa Island full ownership rights of the property, while also preserving the current land conservation areas and public access to the beach.
Nelson said while Escambia County has agreed to keep the current conservation areas in place, the current legislation, as written, doesn’t go far enough to prevent Santa Rosa County from developing the conservation areas or reopening the pass.
“The Air Force has made it clear that reopening Navarre Pass would interfere with its testing and training missions,” Nelson said. “The legislation filed earlier this year doesn’t go far enough to prevent future cutting of the pass and needs to be changed in order to protect our national security interests.”