N.C. leaders must stand up to Navy and halt landing strip plan

Since 1985, the United States Air Force alone has recorded more than 38,000 bird-aircraft strikes. As a result of those strikes, 33 people died, 30 aircraft were lost and more than $450 million in equipment damage was sustained.

You’d think numbers like that would cause the Navy to think twice before locating a landing field in a place that will require pilots to fly within a mile of, and maybe over, a national wildlife refuge where tens of thousands of migrating birds spend their winters.

First and foremost, the Navy ought to be looking out for its pilots. Then there’s the little matter of stewardship of resources. The F/A-18 Super Hornets that would use the field cost about $57 million each. Taxpayers would be ever so grateful if the Navy would make every effort to keep them flying as long as possible.

But despite more favorable alternative locations, the Navy has fixed its sights on a location in rural Washington County in eastern North Carolina just west of the 12,000- acre Pungo Unit of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The outlying landing field (OLF), as the proposed strip is called, would be used by pilots of Super Hornets, which are designed to operate from aircraft carriers, to practice landings and takeoffs.

The Pocosin refuge was established in 1963 as an “inviolate” waterfowl sanctuary. About 25,000 tundra swans migrate there each winter from places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Tundra swans are big birds, weighing 15 to 17 pounds each. Another 65,000 snow geese, weighing five to eight pounds each, migrate from the Arctic. The refuge also hosts thousands of other migrant and resident birds throughout the year. Many of them feed in adjacent agricultural fields.

Efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discourage the Navy from choosing the Washington County site appear to have fallen victim to political pressure. Attempts by the Audubon Society and other groups concerned about the wildlife, and by Gov. Mike Easley, to compromise on a more favorable site elsewhere in North Carolina have been to no avail.

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The Audubon Society and other conservation groups have filed a lawsuit to stop the Navy from going forward. Residents of Washington and Beaufort counties are using the Internet to coordinate opposition, and both county governments have also sued. The governor has appointed a study group to do a “fair and thorough” investigation.

The last week of March, a judge is expected to hear arguments on an injunction that would bring the project to a halt until the Audubon suit is resolved. The Navy has made clear the governor’s study group will not influence its decision.

The Navy intends to acquire about 30,000 acres for the strip. On Monday, it began meeting with about 70 landowners whose homes, businesses and farms will be condemned. A Navy rear admiral told the Washington Daily News that offers have been made to 15 landowners, though no transactions have been completed.

In November 2003, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official wrote to the Navy that, “Since the early stages of this project, the FWS has maintained that the wildlife management land uses adjacent to refuges and other areas managed to attract migratory birds and other wildlife are not compatible with increased low-level air traffic.” In the same correspondence, the FWS said that private agricultural lands in the OLF area of influence (those likely to be condemned or bought by the Navy because the noise would make them unlivable) serve as important foraging areas for migratory birds.

By February, the service had changed its mind. “As a result of the exchange of information over the past few months, the Department (of Interior) believes that the Navy has appropriately identified and considered all the potential affects of the proposal to (the Washington County site). While the Department continues to have concerns regarding to potential impacts of Navy operations at this site to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, we believe that we can accept the Navy’s decision..” Craig Manson, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks wrote to the Navy Feb. 24.

There’s a ringing endorsement if ever there was one.

“At the highest level, it’s clear this was done under intense political pressure,” the Audubon Society’s Chris Canfield said Monday.

In the November letter, the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended a site in Carteret County, which has several major advantages besides not being adjacent to a globally significant migratory bird refuge. Carteret County would welcome the OLF, a single farm has the acreage needed by the Navy, and the project would result in the opportunity to restore wetlands and help cure long-recognized water quality problems in the Neuse River. The Navy apparently doesn’t want to go there because it would have to coordinate its operations with other military activity, but in a September 2002 letter, Sen. John Edwards encouraged it to consider the same site.

“While I have heard from many residents and local leaders supporting (the Carteret County site), I have heard from hundreds opposed to Site C in Washington County and I strongly urge you to exclude Site C . from further consideration. Selecting an OLF site in northeastern North Carolina, whether the Super Hornets are deployed to MCAS Cherry Point or elsewhere, would be extremely unjust….”

The Washington County site is the best location, a Navy rear admiral said because it is “essentially in the middle of nowhere.” And, though he didn’t say so, because it is a rural area with no political clout, unlike possible sites in Virginia, where most of the Super Hornets are based. Virginia has a powerful advocate in Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. N.C. Sen. Elizabeth Dole also serves on the Armed Services Committee.

It is appalling that a branch of the U.S. military can arrogantly ignore the sound advice of another branch of the federal government, opposition expressed by our state’s governor, U.S. senator and legislative leaders and the will of a rural community that wants to be left alone.

North Carolina has always been friendly to the U.S. military – and relies on jobs it provides.

But it’s time for the state’s elected leaders to show some backbone and do everything they can to stop this misguided plan that has drawn opposition from an array of groups including the N.C. Farm Bureau, Ducks Unlimited, the National Rifle Association, Concerned Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

It not only threatens one of the state’s most significant natural resources, it endangers multimillion dollar planes paid for with our tax dollars and something far more important – the lives of Navy pilots.

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