FROM ABERDEEN Proving Ground to the Atlantic Fleet's home port in Norfolk, the Chesapeake is very much a military bay.

All told, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines occupy 66 installations in the bay's watershed, covering about 550 square miles.

Anyone who has boated long in these waters will have witnessed jets strafing target ships off Tangier Island; naval destroyers shelling midbay marsh islands, and the periodic closures of waters around Aberdeen and Dahlgren on the Potomac, when the big guns are booming.

In this broad context, what the Navy is proposing to start in lower Dorchester County might seem like small potatoes.

But reading a Navy proposal for its elite, special warfare teams convinces me that this is a fundamental change of military use of the bay that demands scrutiny.

Here's a sketch of what would happen, derived from the Navy's draft impact assessment:

The scene is Bloodsworth Island, owned by the Navy since 1942. The 6,000 acres of wetlands are actually made up of Bloodsworth and three smaller islands south of Hooper Strait.

It may come in daytime or after dark. The silence of the marsh is shattered by the engines of an 82-foot "attack ship," and high speed "cigarette type" patrol boats that have made the 70-mile run from Little Creek Amphibious Base, near Norfolk.

Teams of Navy SEALs, deployed as far as a mile offshore, will swim to the islands' southwestern quadrant where they will "acquire" a target, using lasers to guide smart bombs to their objective.

The SEALs' missions, almost by definition, involve extreme danger. So even in practice they will be under live fire from fighter planes and helicopters, using ammo up to 3.75-inch rockets; also under live fire from boats.

The weaponry deployed will include C-4 plastic explosive; also 25 mm fixed guns, 20 mm machine guns, .50 caliber machine guns and M-60 machine guns. Also M-16 assault rifles, MK-19, MK-79 and M-203 grenade launchers.

Meanwhile, a variety of inflatable Zodiac-type "combat assault craft" will roar through the islands' mazes of channels and sloughs, firing weapons.

The proposal has hit one snag -- a pair of peregrine falcons.

A few years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erected a nesting platform where the SEALs want to come ashore, to attract peregrines, an endangered species making a comeback.

No birds ever used it. Federal biologists, when told of the special warfare plans, advised the Navy to remove the platform before any peregrines could nest there.

The Navy did not, informing biologists it "couldn't get a boat" in time. In March, a pair of falcons settled in.

If they lay eggs (first-time nesters often don't succeed) in the next couple of weeks, the Endangered Species Act would prevent any SEAL activity this year.

Biologists say the Navy has been "supportive" of letting the falcons do their thing, but wants the whole nest moved elsewhere next year, even if the peregrines are successful.

This raises questions of precedent. I'm certain there are many private landholders who'd like endangered species' nests moved from their property.

Then there are the larger issues of public safety and access to the waters in and around Bloodsworth. The island may be one of the bay's remotest sections, but remote is a relative term in this, the nation's fourth most densely populated state.

What appears remote to a planner in Norfolk is more heavily trafficked than the Navy seems to realize.

Commercial watermen work the marsh edges and shallows for soft crabs, peeler crabs, hard crabs, terrapins, eels, rockfish and white perch almost year round.

Fishermen and other boaters routinely use the island and navigate its protected creeks. Kayakers and canoeists increasingly use the creeks to transit Tangier Sound.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation operates a major outdoor education center for school children at Bishops Head, a mile from the island, and about four miles from where the SEALs would come ashore. (A 25 mm machine gun bullet can travel 6 miles.)

The Navy, in its plan, assures safety through so-called "fans of fire," angling all the shooting and strafing so as not to hit any unintended targets. It says it won't operate during migratory waterfowl season or invade a blue heron colony on the northern part of Bloodsworth.

But one wonders how the reality and the intent will mesh, given the nature of the exercises, especially when it is dark.

The Navy has dropped tons of ammo on Bloodsworth without incident, but at least twice in recent decades, incendiary devices inadvertently set much of the island afire, according to state biologists. (The Navy doesn't acknowledge this, but one time it destroyed a large heron nesting site, where I landed and took photos of 40-foot flames).

The Navy said that it used Bloodsworth "extensively until the late 1980s, which was the last time the reservation was used for naval gunfire support training. Since that time, Navy training on the range has been limited to infrequent aerial bombing practice."

Bloodsworth is seen as "a cost-effective and nearby alternate training site" to the island of Vieques, near Puerto Rico, where much of the SEALs training takes place, according to Cmdr. Mike Andrews, spokesman for the naval base at Norfolk.

He said access to Bloodsworth is restricted but "only during actual training operations," with advance notification to the Coast Guard and local authorities to clear the area.

He said the Navy planners "take our role as stewards of the environment quite seriously," and called the warfare training proposal "a work in progress."

The Navy promises a full public airing of the issues. A lot of questions need to be answered, such as whether alternative sites exist and whether the SEALs can co-exist with the many other uses that have grown over the years.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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