Navy Withdraws Plan for Jet Runway Near Wildlife Refuge

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina, January 28, 2008 (ENS) – Lacking political, environmental or local support, the U.S. Navy has announced it is abandoning plans to build an outlying landing field to train jet pilots in Washington and Beaufort counties in North Carolina adjacent to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and its tens of thousands of swans, geese, and ducks.

The proposed project has met opposition from environmentalists, local community members, and North Carolina’s political leadership.

“Audubon applauds the Navy’s decision today to steer clear of the proposed landing field site next to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge,” said Chris Canfield, executive director of the Audubon Society’s North Carolina chapter.

“This is a victory for the hundred thousand birds that winter there and for the farmers that live there. It is a victory for the people of North Carolina and the political leaders who represent them,” Canfield said.

“It is also a victory for the Navy and its pilots, which deserve the safest training possible, without the threat of catastrophic collisions with large birds,” he said.

The training runway was planned within 3.5 miles of the refuge and would have meant 31,000 landings and departures each year, averaging one every 30 minutes.

“This round-the-clock barrage of noise from takeoffs, landings and low-level holding patterns amongst tens of thousands of birds puts both wildlife and pilots at risk,” said Defenders of Wildlife, which has battled the landing field for years.

Hooded mergansers in the
Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife
Refuge (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Conservationists say the constant disturbance would harm migratory waterfowl by depriving them of adequate rest and food which can disrupt breeding and migration activities. The disruption could also lead to abandonment of the refuge by many forms of wildlife, pushing them onto lower quality lands where they may face even more dangerous conditions

The Navy also announced that it is abandoning four other North Carolina sites previously under consideration in Craven, Bertie, Hyde and Perquimans counties.

Instead, the Navy will consider two new sites in North Carolina, Sandbanks in Gates County and Hales Lake in Camden/Currituck counties; and three in Virginia, Cabin Point, Mason, and Dory.

Congress failed to provide money for the project in this fiscal year and taken steps to de-authorize funding for the project in the future. Previously, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Navy had violated federal environmental laws in planning for the outlying landing field.

In addition, the Navy’s plans for the outlying landing field prohibited farmers from growing corn, wheat and soybeans, which are staples of the local farming economy, on 25,000 acres of farmland surrounding the proposed landing field.

Represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit against the Navy in 2004, arguing that the Navy violated the National Environmental Policy Act in planning for the outlying landing field.

This lawsuit resulted in rulings from a federal district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that the Navy in fact had violated national environmental laws in selecting the site for the outlying landing field.

“The Navy said it wanted this site for the OLF because it was ‘in the middle of nowhere’ ignoring the fact that it’s the center of the universe for thousands of migrating birds and home to generations of farming families,” said Michelle Nowlin, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

While the Navy was rewriting its court-ordered environmental analysis, North Carolina’s top officials came out against the Navy’s preferred site for an outlying landing field in Washington County.

In December 2007, U.S. Senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr of North Carolina and Governor Mike Easley wrote to Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter to emphasize their position that the support of local residents is essential for locating an outlying landing field in North Carolina.

“The Washington County site is universally opposed and should not be considered as a viable option,” wrote Dole, Burr and Easley to Winter. “In addition, residents in Gates and Camden Counties have been unequivocal, especially given the burden to economic benefit ratio, in their opposition to an OLF.”

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