EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AP) — Alabama tourist Lance Du Bose has long enjoyed taking his family to a little-known spit of beach underneath a highway bridge on the Florida Panhandle, where there's sand, shade and shallow water and fewer visitors than the beaches in nearby Destin. The only drawback: occasional encounters with military police armed with AR 15 assault rifles.
It's part of more than 20 miles of prime costal property that have been under the control of Eglin Air Force Base since before World War II. Just a small stretch of Eglin's beaches are open to the public. Military police keep a close watch on the area and have been known to run off private vendors who rent jet skis or paddle boards without permission.
"They just don't want anyone causing problems over here," Du Bose said.
Finding the balance between public and military use of the beach has become more complicated through the years, as the tourism industry has grown, Eglin officials and local leaders said.
The military recently booted a helicopter tour company that was operating off a floating platform with a ramp that connected it to the military-owned beach property.
Military officials say the bulk of their training activity takes place on more remote swaths of military-owned beach, which are rarely accessed by the public.
The miles of glistening white sand beaches provide an important training and testing site for all branches of the military — from special forces who practice amphibious landings and invasion tactics to stealth fighter jets testing advanced weapons and guidance systems, Eglin spokesman Mike Spaits said. The drills often involve foreign allies.
Spaits said the military has always worked to balance the needs of the surrounding communities with its training need.
Clint Amy, who owns Crab Island Watersports, rents jet skis and skis and other watercraft from his Okaloosa Island business. Amy said he only sees military officials when training is underway and they need to keep specific areas clear of non-military traffic.
"They just put safety observers out there — it is not the Gestapo or anything," he said.
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