“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is a particularly apt phrase to apply to the Massachusetts National Guard and its mission to build a 210-acre machine gun range within the protected 15,000-acre Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve area at Joint Base Cape Cod.
Twenty years ago, Cape Cod was embroiled in a huge fight over whether to continue to allow military activities on the base at all, as it became clear that the National Guard’s previous negligence had resulted in pollution of millions of gallons of groundwater in Cape Cod’s sole source aquifer.
This pollution rendered municipal drinking water wells in Falmouth, Mashpee, Sandwich and Bourne unusable and cost the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up.
The conflict was long and hard-fought, and before it was over it involved two Massachusetts governors, a US senator and congressman, the EPA, two state senators, state representatives, the House speaker, an assistant secretary of defense and hundreds of Cape Codders.
In the end, a compromise was struck in the form of a Master Plan prepared by the Cape Cod Commission and passed into law in Chapter 47 of the Acts of 2002.
The lower 5,000 acres of the base, the so-called “cantonment area,” was designated for military purposes. The northern 15,000 acres were put under the jurisdiction of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife as protected public conservation land, dedicated to water supply and wildlife habitat protection. Only military training deemed compatible with those uses would be allowed there—”boots on the ground,” as it was envisioned at the time.
Interestingly, the idea of expanding an existing small arms range at the base into a machine gun training range was one of the sparks that set off this conflict, when the Guard first proposed it in 1998. That proposal was vetoed by then-Governor Paul Cellucci, who deemed it incompatible with watershed protection.
So now, 22 years later, the Guard has brought the machine gun range idea back, this time renamed a “weapons qualification range.” It was approved by the Pentagon in 2012 and funded for $11 million in 2015. It would expand the existing 38-acre small arms training range by clearcutting 170 additional surrounding acres, all within the 15,000 protected acres designated as the Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve.
Environmental filings by the Guard claim the impacts of this project are insignificant. In its alternatives analysis, the Guard declined to even look at any alternative, except those that would provide “land, facilities and resources” at the base, within the reserve, for the expanded range.
Training elsewhere, using a different range at the base, using a standard-sized range, using an undisturbed area at the base and using an alternate location on the base outside the reserve—all these were rejected as “unreasonable.”
And because “no significant impacts would be anticipated,” the Guard said in its findings, “therefore, no mitigation measures are required.”
Well, what is a significant impact? The Guard recognizes that beyond expanding the range itself to over five times its previous size to accommodate machine gun training, over one-third of the 15,000-acre reserve—5,197 acres—would become a surface danger zone—”areas where projectiles fired on the range would land.”
Wouldn’t the bullets, not to mention the noise, have a significant impact on the wildlife living in or passing through that area?
And what about the Guard’s plans to build a range control tower operations and storage facility, an ammunition breakdown building, a range classroom building and a covered mess shelter, around the expanded machine gun range? All these would be constructed on public conservation land, protected by Article 97 of the Massachusetts state constitution, which does not allow new structures on protected land without a two-thirds record vote of both houses of the Legislature.
One final finding of the Guard merits attention. “Implementation of the proposed action would not generate significant controversy,” they said. With more than 900 public comments generated already, we know how wrong the Guard was on that.
History may be on the way to repeating itself.