Almost four months ago, a fire at the Air Force's Warren Grove Bombing Range in southern New Jersey scorched more than 13,000 acres. The blaze was triggered when an F-16 from the state's Air National Guard unit in Atlantic City accidentally dropped a flare in dry woodlands. It was the third fire at the range in the last eight years, and led to renewed calls for closing Warren Grove--the only range facility of its type in the mid-Atlantic states.
And quite predictably, New Jersey's Democratic politicians have leading the campaign to shut down the range--or limit operations so severely that the Air Force will be forced to close the facility. In late May, Governor Jon Corzine said it would be a "hard sell" to convince him that the range should remain open. "We're kind of in the 'three-strikes-and-you're-out' zone" he told The New York Times.
Now, New Jersey Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez have tacked on an amendment to the latest defense spending bill, mandating a study of how the range interacts with the surrounding communities. Anyone want to venture a guess on the the study's bottom line? Lautenberg's latest comments suggest that his mind is already made up; as he told the Associated Press:
“The Guard must work to improve safety conditions at Warren Grove,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg said. “It is vital we do everything in our power to ensure that the Guard becomes a better neighbor and improves safety at the range.”
As we've noted in previous posts, brush fires are an almost inevitable consequence of operations at Warren Grove--or any other bombing range. But the potential closing of the New Jersey range raises other issues, which the state's Democratic leaders have conveniently side-stepped. If Warren Grove shuts down, where will ANG A-10 and F-16 pilots train? The Air Force operates a large bombing range in Dare County, North Carolina, but using that facility would mean longer transit flights, higher fuel costs--and less time for air-to-ground combat training.
New Jersey Democrats also ignore the fact that the range has been a good neighbor for a number of years, providing jobs and revenue for Ocean County, and paying damage claims when accidents occur. The Air Force has already promised to compensate property owners who suffered losses in the latest fire, and that raises a troubling question about how business gets done in the Garden State.
According to media reports, the May fire destroyed four homes at a pair of retiree complexes when flames spread beyond the range. Thirty-seven other homes received lesser damage, along with timber acreage and other commercial property. So far, the Pentagon has received 161 claims for damages from the fire, totaling $200 million. The largest individual claim (from a local mining company) alleges $197 million in damages.
We understand that New Jersey real estate can be pricey, but those claims strike us as exaggerated. It would appear that some of Warren Grove's "neighbors" want to take the Air Force for a little ride, realizing that the military will almost certainly write them a check, in hopes of keeping the range open.
It's unfortunate when a bombing range fire causes damages outside its boundaries, interrupting the lives of local residents. But it's equally unfortunate when the purported "victims" file big damage claims, hoping to soak the government for every possible dime. But you won't see Governor Corzine and Senators Lautenberg and Menendez complaining about that. After all, the same folks filing those claims also vote in New Jersey elections and write contribution checks to their re-election campaigns.
The Democratic strategy on Warren Grove is very clear. Get rid of the range, and give the property owners whatever they want, courtesy of the U.S. Treasury. Military training and readiness? Not in their backyard.