Airfield would displace Pocosin’s globally important waterfowl congregations
In late February, The U.S. Navy renewed its proposal to build a jet landing field next to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, an Important Bird Area (IBA) in Eastern North Carolina.
Pocosin Lakes provides a winter home for tens of thousands of migratory swans, geese and ducks, including 25,000 Tundra Swans Cygnus columbianus and 75,000 Snow Geese Chen caerulescens. Breeding species include Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, Wood Duck Aix sponsa and one globally threatened species, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Picoides borealis (Vulnerable). Part of the USA’s only free-living population of Red Wolves thrives there, following their reintroduction. In addition, Black Bear inhabit the region in densities rivalling any location in the US.
The refuge is named after the unique pocosin habitat, also known as south-eastern shrub bog, a very dense growth of mostly broadleaf evergreen shrubs with scattered pond pine.
The site includes two large natural lakes, Phelps and Pungo. Common Mergansers winter regularly on Lake Phelps, and on several occasions over 200 birds have been reported, representing 80% or more of the state’s wintering population.
The airfield would be used to practice simulated night landings on an aircraft carrier. The Navy’s own environmental studies warn that the risk of “bird-strike” is very high, and three former directors of bird-aircraft safety for the US Air Force have proclaimed the location among the most hazardous they have ever seen. Audubon North Carolina points out that “an encounter with just one bird would likely result in the death of a highly skilled pilot and crew, and the loss of a multi-million dollar aircraft.”
The Navy claims that the risk could be addressed by changing the crops grown near the refuge from cereals and fodder to cotton, forcing the birds to feed elsewhere. This would displace the globally important congregations of migratory waterfowl that the refuge was set up to protect.
"The Secretary of the Navy must admit that this proposal has run out of runway." —Chris Canfield, Executive Director, Audubon North Carolina
Other proposals in environmental reports include shooting and poisoning birds that fail to vacate the areas near the runways.
The threat to the lakes has brought together a wide range of conservation, hunting and sports interests, including the National Audubon Society (BirdLife in the US), the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Rifle Association. North Carolina Governor Mike Easley has said the landing field site has the potential to do more environmental damage than any other issue in state history. A majority of the state's 15-member delegation in Congress is against the site.
Most recently, Senator Elizabeth Dole has written to the Secretary of the Navy, opposing the proposal, and describing it as “simply not feasible.”
Chris Canfield, Executive Director, Audubon North Carolina commented: “Senator Dole’s position, added to the strong ones of virtually the rest of the state delegation, now makes clear that the Navy has no politically viable option but to publicly stand down from the Pocosin Lakes site and to work on an alternative. The Secretary of the Navy must admit that this proposal has run out of runway."
The US Navy stresses that while the Pocosin Lakes location remains its preference, it has several additional sites under consideration, and no decision has yet been made.