Walking through it now, you probably wouldn’t know it was bombed and shot in the 1940s.
Visitors, many from DeSoto County, who may or may not know of it, don’t really talk about it. There’s no signs of it. No waiver is required to enter.
But just 16 miles southeast of the city of Punta Gorda in Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area, the military leased 13,720 acres between 1944 and 1945 during World War II. It was the Fort Myers Bombing and Gunnery Range.
Personnel stationed at nearby Fort Myers Army Airfield used it for practice. They fired 50-caliber machine guns and dropped practice bombs with spotting charges and high-explosive bombs in Charlotte County.
Nowadays, cattle graze in a fenced area surrounding the old ranges. But the area formerly leased by the military—which was five ranges for skip bombing, dive-bombing, demolition bombing, strafing, and air-to-ground gunnery—is not fenced, and wildlife can move freely through it.
It’s a great place to hunt, and November tends to be the busiest time, according to outdoor enthusiasts who frequent the area. Off-road access is open during the hunting season as it has been since the 1950s.
People come from all over the world just to catch a glimpse of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker—or see wildlife like deer, hogs and less frequently, turkey.
Vegetation has long since covered over bomb craters left decades ago and they’re more shallow now, but satellite images still show them. Fishing and watering holes were created, too.
Nature seems to have been left largely unaffected by the past bombing.
Or has it?
Babcock-Webb is now part of a “remedial investigation” involving the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its contractor, Parsons.
“Previous studies indicated the potential for contamination,” stated a draft of a project planning memo for an investigation into the area from March.
“Additional data is needed to characterize and delineate contamination, if present, in order to evaluate risk to human health and the environment,” the memo stated.
Ralph Allen, a fishing captain who runs King Fisher Fleet in Punta Gorda, has recreated in Babcock-Webb for about 30 years. He’s become pretty familiar with about a fourth of it, and is very familiar with about 10 percent.
In that time, Allen said he hasn’t ever come across a remnant of the bombing or gunning from decades ago, although he was told about it by a former Babcock-Webb manager about 20 years ago.
There will be public involvement in the government’s remedial investigation under the Formerly Used Defense Sites Program (known as FUDS) when environmental sampling is set to begin. But there are no dates yet, according to DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller.
Allen hadn’t heard about the government’s study, but said at least from what he’s seen, it appears to be a healthy place and an underutilized resource.
Still, that doesn’t mean there’s unfounded concern.
“That’s not to say there couldn’t be something lurking,” Allen said. “I think it’s unlikely there’s a huge issue brewing, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
FWC hasn’t restricted any access while the investigation begins, just as it hadn’t restricted access all those years before.
“Since no ordnance has exploded in almost 70 years, there are no assumed health risks to users or animals,” said FWC spokesperson Melody Kilborn.
Kilborn said small bomb fragments, bullets and cases have been located from some of the former gunning and bombing ranges. “Up to this time, all fragments have been removed, but no dummy bombs or unexploded ordnances have been located.”
It’s premature to say whether any bomb fragments, or other munitions debris remain at the former military ranges, according to Miller.
But that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t potentially come across something.
“If the public encounters a munition or suspected munition, the USACE encourages the public to recognize when you may have encountered a munition, and that munitions are dangerous, retreat without touching, moving or disturbing the object, noting its location, and report the object to local law enforcement by calling 911,” Miller said.
As far as future uses of Babcock-Webb, the government’s recent memo notes “no change is expected.”
A fact sheet from the Corps on formerly used defense sites from 2015 noted it would be doing a remedial investigation and feasibility study at the former Fort Myers Bombing and Gunnery Range in Charlotte County, “because safety is our primary concern.”
The fact sheet said small arms, and/or pieces of munitions, had not been found at the dive bombing and strafing ranges, but were found at the bombing ranges.
It also said munitions debris “does not pose an explosive hazard and no munitions or explosive materials have been identified.”
Still, the investigation will determine what might be present and in what amounts and locations, the fact sheet noted.
According to the government’s March memo, a site inspection in 2009 involving reconnaissance and environmental sampling found “an unacceptable human health risk due to direct exposure to lead in the surface soil or inhalation of re-suspended particulate matter may be present at the Air-to-Ground Gunnery Range.”
Unacceptable ecological risks from munitions may be present at four of the five ranges, according to the memo.
That comes from potential exposure to lead in the surface water at the demolition bombing range, from exposure to copper and lead in the surface water at the dive bombing range, from exposure to copper in surface soil and surface water at the strafing range, and from exposure to copper and lead in surface soil and surface water at the gunnery range.
In April, the DEP sent a letter to the Corps that highlighted two of the former military training ranges at Babcock-Webb to focus on.
“It appears the Demolition Bombing Range (craters, ejecta blankets) and the Air to Ground Gunnery Range (former targets and visible 0.50 caliber rounds), are the more likely ranges to find munitions and explosives of concern,” the letter stated. “It would appear the lion’s share of MC (munitions constituents) sampling would be in these two ranges.”
The letter also noted the DEP awaits a list of the “the final contaminants of concern list” from the Corps.
For people who recreate in Babcock-Webb, like Allen, this study seems to be for the best.
“If they find something that needs to be removed, then remove it,” he said.