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The Planet
Top Gun Meets Big Bird

Navy’s proposed landing strip in North Carolina would endanger wildlife refuge

By John Byrne Barry

If the Navy gets its way, thundering F/A-18EF Super Hornet jets would conduct touch-and-go landings more than 80 times a day just half a mile from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The intense noise from these jets, the loudest of all Navy aircraft, will shatter North Carolina's Washington County and endanger the winter home of over 250,000 migratory birds. But Ginny Kloepfer and other volunteers with the Sierra Club Cypress Group are doing their best to see that doesn’t happen.

The refuge is home to tundra swans, snow geese, and Canada geese, says Kloepfer, group outings chair, each of which weigh between 8 and 20 pounds. The Air Force lists this as an "extremely high-risk area" for plane/bird encounters at least six months out of the year. The birds are big enough and concentrated enough that takeoffs and landings could jeapordize the pilots, the aircraft, the birds, and the people who live in the area.

The proposed Outlying Landing Field (OLF) site is in a rural, low-income agricultural area with a high minority population, and Kloepfer says that there would be few benefits for the local residents, other than some low-paying maintenance positions.

The Navy’s plan to minimize potential collisions or accidents is to purchase a 50-square-mile tract of prime agricultural land surrounding the practice field. Here’s how they propose to keep birds out of this buffer area: reducing food availability, destroying resting habitat, and using noisemakers to scare birds away. Should the birds adapt to these adverse conditions, they will use "lethal means" to keep them away. "The refuge and adjacent fallow grain fields are the prime wintering habitat for over 70 percent of these birds in the Atllantic Flyway," says Marilyn Lange, coordinator of the Albemarle Community Network, a No-OLF coalition. "We anticipate the bird population will suffer a significant reduction. But only if the field is built."

The Sierra Club is only one of many groups and individuals opposed to the landing strip site. Others include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society.

Governor Mike Easley and Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C) have yet to take decisive action in opposition to the Washington County site, possibly out of concern over appearing unfriendly to the military. Senator John Edwards (D-N.C) and Congressman Frank Ballance (D-N.C) are not in favor of the Washington County site, and have called for Congressional hearings on the site selection. Even some military experts have voiced concerns about aircraft safety. Retired Army General Henry Shelton, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said that the Navy should look for an alternate site. Two lawsuits have been filed against the Navy, one jointly by Washington and Beaufort Counties, and the other jointly by the Audubon Society, NC Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife. The five groups recently filed a federal injunction to prevent the Navy from aquiring land and proceeding with plans for the Washington County site.

Take Action

(1) Urge Senator Dole, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, with close ties to the White House, to ask the Bush administration to revisit the Navy's decision and to work with North Carolina on a better plan. (2) If you live in North Carolina, urge Governor Easley to reconsider a special legislative session and encourage him use thefull force of his office to push the Navy to find a better alternative.

For more information, contact Ginny Kloepfer at kloepfer@greenvillenc.com or Marilyn Lange at no_olf@albemarlecommunity.net. Or go to to www.albermarlecommunity.net or sierraclub-nc.org.


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