On Wednesday, March 15, 2023, Brig. Gen. Jeff Geraghty, the new commander of the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, issued an update regarding closed test areas and beach access.
In his news release, Gen. Geraghty reiterated the importance of Eglin Air Force Base, which spans three counties and is one of 13 major range and test facility bases in the Department of Defense. The test areas within Eglin’s borders provide a center of development, testing, and deployment of lethal air power to support essential Department of Defense missions.
- Many of these areas also provide refuge for a wide range of natural communities and 106 rare and endangered plant and animal species, as well as a wealth of Cultural Resources dating back thousands of years.
“Since returning here and taking command of the 96th Test Wing in June, I’m reminded of just how special this area is and how fortunate we are to live and work in such a military-friendly community,” he wrote.
Eglin is also host to many hazardous activities that include training missions conducted by Air Force Special Operations Command, the U.S. Army’s 6th Ranger Training Battalion and 7th Special Forces Group, as well as operators from every branch of service.
According to the General, the Closed Test Areas on Santa Rosa Island that stretch west of the El Matador Condominiums all the way to Navarre Beach have become an “easy target for trespassers” who want to take advantage of the secluded charm of Eglin’s closed beaches.
Gen. Geraghty stated that despite the abundance of warning signs in place instructing beachgoers to stay out of Air Force Closed Areas, an unacceptable level of trespassers are ignoring the signage and causing mission impacts, damaging fragile habitats critical to many species.
“Due to unauthorized activities, and to preserve and protect this national asset on the Eglin reservation, our team has installed barriers and additional signage on the east and west sides of Eglin’s Santa Rosa Island Closed Areas to further discourage trespassing,” said Geraghty. “Additionally, our security forces will increase patrols in these areas and will begin issuing trespass citations to those who continue to violate our Closed Test Areas.”
Furthermore, the security forces, with assistance from local and state law enforcement, will monitor the Santa Rosa Sound and cite individuals/boaters who are beaching and trespassing on the north side of the island.
- Eglin maintains four other public beach access points on the island, including Eglin Beach Club, the Matterhorn, Princess Beach, and the old Airman’s Beach Club. Each of these areas is available to beachgoers with a free permit.
The popular East Pass Beach Area near the Destin bridge has been closed since May 2020 due to illegal commercial activity, trash dumping, and parking issues. The previous 96th Test Wing Commander, Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, closed the area to ensure the safety of the beachgoers and prevent any further illegal activity from happening on federal property.
According to details at the time, the closure was necessary because of the “incompatible and unsafe blend of beach goers and moving vessels along the shoreline, illegal and unsafe vehicular traffic, lack of adequate parking control, illegal commercial activity taking place by water-bound vendors, and inability to fund adequate solutions to safety and liability issues.”
Initially, cones were placed along the road, but they were ineffective in stopping beachgoers from accessing the area, according to Eglin.
- Concrete barriers and fencing were then added, and despite numerous conversations between the city of Destin, Okaloosa County, and the previous commander, the barricades and fencing at the East Pass Beach access remained in place.
“We will continue to search for appropriate solutions to improve safety and eliminate unauthorized trespassing on federal property,” Geraghty wrote. “As we determine these solutions, we will communicate them with the community to avoid any confusion in the future.”