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More study needed over land expansion plans

October 27, 2011

By Vince Little, The Bayonet

FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Fort Benning will take additional time to reassess its Training Land Expansion Program, while studying an uncertain funding forecast facing the Army and Maneuver Center of Excellence, post officials announced last week.

George Steuber, the deputy garrison commander, said Friday that land in western and central Stewart County, Ga., remains the "preferred alternative" for possible acquisition. Plans are to release the final environmental impact statement this fall and announce the record of decision no later than March, he said.

"By then, we believe we will have resolution on budget decisions and will have completed the additional analysis necessary to respond to the concerns and comments that the public has provided," he said. "We'll have gathered enough information to tell us the appropriate next steps and precisely where we need to go."

Under TLEP, the land in Stewart County, called Alternative 3, is one of six alternatives that have been identified. Fort Benning is looking at the feasibility of purchasing up to 82,800 acres of additional training land to meet the requirements of 21st-century maneuver training.

Since the program started in June 2010, post officials have studied about 260,000 acres in proximity to the installation in Stewart, Marion, Webster, Harris and Talbot counties in Georgia, along with Russell County in Alabama.

Steuber said Army course and instruction program variations might ease the environmental impact in targeted sensitive areas and potentially lead to acquiring a smaller number of acres or taking no action at all.

A smaller purchase would allow heavy maneuver training at the company level instead of the battalion tier as initially sought. Alternative 6 is to take no action at all.

The Department of Defense must deal with a "drastically changed" fiscal reality than it faced when the Defense secretary approved Fort Benning's request almost two years ago to study the possibility of acquiring additional land, he said.

"We're already faced with major cuts in support throughout the garrison," he said. "There's a very limited amount of money out there. …That's why we're continuing on with the study process."

Steuber said pending Army decisions about future budgets and force-structure needs will significantly affect Fort Benning plans, projects, operations and training. The TLEP effort isn't immune -- if current allocated funding remains unchanged for fiscal years 2011 to 2013, it would allow acquisition of less than a third of the 82,800 acres currently identified as the MCoE requirement.

"It's prudent and rational for us to take additional time and make the right decision for everyone involved. We don't want to make a decision based on a false premise or false information," he said.

The latest town hall meeting took place Thursday evening in Stewart County, where local officials have expressed concerns over the loss of tax revenues in the event of a future land deal.

Steuber reiterated that no decisions have been made on any Fort Benning land expansion purchases.

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