Conservation groups send representatives to Plymouth session

PLYMOUTH — Opponents of a proposed Navy outlying landing field staged a symposium in Plymouth Wednesday, addressing a gathering of individuals representing major state and national conservation organizations, as well as the state chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy — a conservative lobby focusing on land rights issues.

The symposium served as a counterweight, of sorts, to recent statewide Navy public relations drives to present the Navy’s take on OLF issues. Both sides have been busy during the countdown to a Jan. 19 federal hearing.

The organizations represented a who’s who in conservation circles, including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Red Wolf Coalition.

The presentation included briefings on OLF issues ranging from politics to legal arguments, waterfowl health to community survival.

Chris Canfield, North Carolina Audubon director, criticized the Navy’s insistence that radar facilities at the Washington County OLF site could aid in managing bird-strike hazards. Canfield likened bird-locating radar to finding a ball of ice in a hailstorm and using the data to say it’s safe to fly.

Flocks of waterfowl using nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge can resemble a large hailstorm during peak population periods, he indicated.

Legal scholar and wildlife activist Tom Earnhardt spoke on maintaining the integrity of the Pocosin refuge, calling it key to the health of large, migratory waterfowl such as snow geese and tundra swans.

The refuge, said Earnhardt, provides a haven for birds to rest, gain weight and prepare for breeding before resuming long, migratory flights. Stresses imposed by jet noise, he said, could produce more anxiety than the birds can tolerate.

“We’re not talking about an inconvenience to a bird,” he said. “We’re talking about its survival.”

Plymouth Mayor Brian Roth contrasted the demographics of affluent southern Virginia developments to poverty-stricken local communities that are the norm around the Navy’s chosen Washington County site. Roth called the siting decision a “classic example of shifting the burden to low-income communities,” reducing jet noise — and increasing property values — in the Virginia Beach area.

“We have some tough numbers,” said Roth, citing an overwhelming percentage of regional low-income families, “but we’re growing.”

That tentative growth, he noted, may be stunted if the Navy succeeds in taking the 33,000-plus acres it seeks.

“Half of our county is going to disappear,” said Roth, using a map to show the large, amoeba-like shape of the OLF, sprawling over much of Washington County as well as portions of Beaufort County.

Earnhardt and Michelle Nowlin, Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney, briefed visitors on legal arguments and legal action to date.

Joe Albea of the North Carolina Natural Resources Group outlined today’s tour of the OLF site and the adjacent refuge, slated for 7 a.m.

Albea noted the dependence waterfowl have developed on farm fields, which many farmers purposely leave rich with grain for the birds.

“The populations have actually expanded over the last 25 to 30 years,” said Albea, explaining the unpredictable flight paths that large waterfowl use to forage for food.

“These birds get up in the morning,” he said, “and they (forage) differently (every day).”

Should the Navy discourage bird foraging on land around the airfield, Albea contends the abundance of food in areas the Navy can’t control will see large flocks of waterfowl flying through Navy airspace to get to the food.

“It’s an unmanageable situation,” he said. “These birds are still going to cross this airstrip on the way to food. They do it now. They’ll do it in 10 years. The Navy would have to buy the whole peninsula to do what they want to do.”

Following today’s tour, the members of the group will meet to answer questions and round out information before leaving for home.

A seafood fest held at Jerry Beasley’s shop Wednesday evening provided a networking opportunity for the conservation groups.

Joining conservation representatives were a bipartisan group of local leaders and representatives from 1st District U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s office.