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Environment, space collide at proposed Shiloh launch site

4:29 PM, Feb 9, 2014   |    comments
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Video: Proposed Shiloh launch site meetings begin this week

The man in foreground is Daniel Schafer, history professor emeritus from University of North Florida. Bob Gross from Brevard County is on the left. They were working with Southeast Archeological Center (National Park Service) archaeologists to excavate the cavity of where one of the sugar kettles once was placed. Kettles were used for boiling sugar cane juice down to concentrate the syrup into sugar. The picture was taken in 2008 (National Parks Service)

 


 


By Jim Waymer, Florida Today

Cape Canaveral, FL (Florida Today) -- The long-abandoned citrus-farming town of Shiloh near the Brevard-Volusia county line is at the center of a battle between environmentalists who want to preserve some of the world's best scrub habitat and space advocates who want to build commercial launch pads.

Even as federal officials are gearing up for two public meetings this week about the proposed Shiloh Launch Complex, both sides are making their cases.

Rangers at the Merritt Island National Wildlife refuge fear a launch complex would limit their ability to conduct controlled burns, essential to keeping the landscape rife with rare scrub jays, gopher tortoises and eastern indigo snakes. Shiloh also holds special significance to the fishing, hunting and birding communities. And history buffs fear that a 250-year-old slave plantation dubbed one of North America's most significant historical sites, scattered Indian mounds and early settlers' graves could become off-limits to future preservation and discoveries.

"It's a very rare, very unique habitat," said Mike Legare, the refuge's lead biologist.

But space advocates counter that the feds seized the land in the first place for space exploration. They fear an already hard-hit space economy will squander a rare opportunity to win back launches and jobs.

Space Florida - the agency responsible for promoting aerospace in the Sunshine State - said Shiloh is the right spot because the new pads must go outside the federal enclaves of NASA and Cape Canaveral Air Force Stationto lure commercial launches that largely abandoned the area, until two recent SpaceX launches.

The low costs, easy access and dependable launch schedules sought by commercial satellite operators have proven difficult to achieve at federal facilities where the first priority is national security and civil space missions. Without the added flexibility and control the proposed Shiloh complex offers, those commercial launches could instead move to Texas, Georgia or other states eager to attract the business and jobs, Space Florida says.

"The vast majority of where we're going, it's fallow orange grove. It's not like it's pristine stuff," said Dale Ketcham, director of strategic alliances for Space Florida, noting that the plan called for avoiding environmental and archeological impacts as much as possible.

The plan

The complex would consist of one or two launch pads on up to 200 acres now owned by NASA and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Each pad would fence off about 30 acres and could support up to 12 launches a year of medium- to heavy-lift, liquid-fueled rockets, and as many test firings of their booster engines.

Supporting facilities and a launch control center could be built in southern Volusia County.

While SpaceX is the main near-term target, Space Florida says Shiloh could attract other companies even if SpaceX ultimately chooses to go elsewhere.

The Federal Aviation Administration will hold public meetings Tuesday in New Smyrna Beach and Wednesday in Titusville to explain the project and take comments as part of its study of the environmental impacts. People have until Feb. 21 to comment.

On a recent visit to the proposed site, a pair of white-tailed deer galloped across a fire-line sandy road in front of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife sport utility vehicle. A group of wild turkeys skedaddled into the thick brush as the truck approached. Scrub jays dashed from oak to oak.

Pines tower among winter-browned grasslands that resemble an African savanna. A large, empty bald eagle's nest was nestled at the heart of one tree.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outlined its environmental concerns in a Jan. 3 letter to FAA.

Among them:

• 18 federally listed endangered or threatened species.

• 14 state-listed animals.

• 31 families of federally threatened Florida scrub jays. The area has the potential to support 77 scrub jay families.

Chief among biologists' concerns is the scrub jay - among Florida's most threatened species. The bird's population has plummeted more than 90 percent since European settlement. The refuge guards one of the bird's largest populations and is considered one of its last four core remaining population hubs.

"It's inconsistent," Legare said of the Shiloh proposal. "This is supposed to be a buffer area for launches."

Shiloh's scrub is also a haven for the humble, yet vital, gopher tortoise. They are known as keystone species because more than 350 other species use their burrows.

Gopher tortoises evolved to a frequently burned scrub habitat of specific forage plants and grasses. Relocating them can spread disease among the species, biologists warn.

Refuge rangers fear the launch complex would result in more roadkill because of increased traffic. They recommend any new roads include wildlife undercrossings to minimize deaths of wildlife.

They also worry the complex would thwart plans to open up new deer and wild hog hunts there in coming years.

Also topping out the concerns: fears that the controlled burns needed to maintain that habitat would face limits.

"I don't know why they keep saying that," Ketcham said. "We have told the federal government and industry: don't bother applying for utilizing this capability unless you can accommodate burning."

NASA and Air Force launches usually prohibit refuge burns within six miles of a launch or payload storage facility.

Artifacts at risk

Joining the environmentalists in opposition to the plan: local historians.

They point to the 2,585-acre Elliott Plantation as among the most archaeologically significant sites in Shiloh.

The plantation, built in the 1760s, is thought to be the southernmost and first British Colonial period sugar plantation. The mossy rock walls of the sugar mill still stand. William Elliott never went there. John Ross, a Scotsman, ran the plantation for him, using slave labor to distill rum, grow sugarcane and make dye for British military red coats.

"Two years of archeological survey and evaluation argue this site is one of the most significant historical properties in North America and is likely National Historic Landmark eligible," according to a recent report prepared by the National Parks Service.

The site includes miles of canals, roads and living areas built by slaves.

"This is one of the most significant and well-preserved African-American landscapes known, and is unique in its quality of preservation," the report states.

"There's probably 2,000 years of human occupation in that area," said Refuge Manager Layne Hamilton.

Ketcham said the launch complex would stay off the plantation and would be careful to avoid impacting other cultural resources.

"We have been aware of that from the very get-go," he said of Elliott Plantation. "We're not putting it on top of it. We moved farther south to get away from it."

Roz Foster, president of the North Brevard Heritage Foundation, still fears what could be disturbed by roads, pipes and electrical lines leading to the launch complex.

"The impact to this would be catastrophic, not to mention all the other archeological sites," she said. "It's much more than Elliott Plantation. There are Indian mounds and middens scattered all over the place."

Fishing haven

Fishermen echo a similar urgency.

"There aren't many places where you can go and fish for huge redfish on a fly in shallow water like that," said Ted Forsgren, who represents the Coastal Conservation Association, a group of recreational fishermen opposed to the Shiloh plan.

"We think it's a very, very poor spot," Forsgren said. "We are all in favor of the space program. They really just need to abandon this concept."

Space Florida has assured there would be no restrictions on current beach access and very limited impacts on fishing, boating and birding.

Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida, doubts those promises.

"Space Florida has never launched a sling shot, let alone a rocket," Lee said. "They don't understand that you don't just flip a switch and cause all of the people to just be instantly gone from the massive area of Mosquito Lagoon."

The plan would remain sensitive to recreational, environmental and archeological concerns, Ketcham said. But he reminds opponents about the property's main mission.

"The land was taken to support the space program," he said. "Yeah, it is the refuge, but who owns the land and what was it taken for?"

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