Remote stretch of military-owned Panhandle beach is seen by few outside of training exercises

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EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Florida — Alabama tourist Lance Du Bose has long enjoyed taking his family to a little-known spit of beach underneath a highway bridge on the Florida Panhandle, where there's sand, shade and shallow water and fewer visitors than the beaches in nearby Destin. The only drawback: occasional encounters with military police armed with AR 15 assault rifles.

It's part of more than 20 miles of prime costal property that have been under the control of Eglin Air Force Base since before World War II. Just a small stretch of Eglin's beaches are open to the public. Military police keep a close watch on the area and have been known to run off private vendors who rent jet skis or paddle boards without permission.

"They just don't want anyone causing problems over here," Du Bose said.

Finding the balance between public and military use of the beach has become more complicated through the years, as the tourism industry has grown, Eglin officials and local leaders said.

The military recently booted a helicopter tour company that was operating off a floating platform with a ramp that connected it to the military-owned beach property.

Military officials say the bulk of their training activity takes place on more remote swaths of military-owned beach, which are rarely accessed by the public.

The miles of glistening white sand beaches provide an important training and testing site for all branches of the military — from special forces who practice amphibious landings and invasion tactics to stealth fighter jets testing advanced weapons and guidance systems, Eglin spokesman Mike Spaits said. The drills often involve foreign allies.

Spaits said the military has always worked to balance the needs of the surrounding communities with its training need.

Clint Amy, who owns Crab Island Watersports, rents jet skis and skis and other watercraft from his Okaloosa Island business. Amy said he only sees military officials when training is underway and they need to keep specific areas clear of non-military traffic.

"They just put safety observers out there — it is not the Gestapo or anything," he said.

Kelly Windes, the Okaloosa County commissioner who represents the area, said the military and the county work together to keep an eye on the beaches, especially during the busiest times of the year. An area known as Crab Island that is frequented by boaters and home to some floating bars and food vendors has been a particular concern because it sits across from the military beach and vendors sometimes unknowingly set up shop on military property, he said.

In addition to the human tourists, nesting shore birds, sea turtles and beach mice have sometimes forced changes in military planning.

Kathy Gault, a biologist who helps maintain threatened species at Eglin, said a smooth, graded helicopter landing zone installed last year proved a popular site with least terns, which built nests and laid eggs. Gault had to tell military officials they couldn't use the landing zone until the terns were done nesting.

"We have quite a few, not just birds, but all sorts of different species that live on this beach," she said.

Test range manager Glenn Barndollar said meetings between the military, local politicians and businesses can sometimes be complicated but it is worth the effort because the beach is such a good training and testing site. It allows the military to practice and test over land, in the Gulf and in the bay, he said.

"We do surface launch of missiles, we test with various seeker and sensor systems, lasers, radar systems. Not exclusively, but largely out here because of ... the costal environment, we do a lot of it over water with boats on the water or aircraft over water."

Despite the picturesque setting of the military beach, Barndollar jokes that the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines aren't there to enjoy calm turquoise waves or breathtaking sunsets.

"They are focused on the missions," he said.

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