Navy Stands By Plan To Put Landing Field In North Carolina

February 24th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Navy Stands By Plan To Put Landing Field In North Carolina

Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
February 24, 2007
By Kate Wiltrout, The Virginian-Pilot
NORFOLK - After almost two years and $3.5 million in additional research, the Navy said Friday it stands by its decision to put a jet practice field in Washington County, N.C.
That's the same conclusion the Navy came to in 2003. But now, the service says it will adopt a new strategy for acquiring the farm land it needs.
In a nod to vehement opposition from residents of rural Washington and Beaufort counties, the Navy may buy 13,000 acres - not the 30,000 originally proposed.
"Senior naval leadership asked us to address" how much land the Navy truly needed to buy, and how much residents could hold on to, said Cmdr. Richard Catoire, a Navy official based in Norfolk.
The Navy's court-ordered research was contained in 961 pages of documentation and 12 technical reports made public Friday.
Environmental organizations have long opposed the site because hundreds of thousands of snow geese and tundra swans winter nearby at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
The Navy analyzed four sites it had eliminated in 2003 - in Perquimans, Hyde, Bertie and Craven counties. It found all of those locations lacking for various reasons - too many humans would have to be relocated; too many wetlands would be destroyed; too many birds would have to be rerouted out of flight paths.
Opponents weren't surprised the Navy hadn't changed its mind about the outlying landing field, or OLF.
"The track record here is total obstinance on the part of the Navy," said Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina.
Larry Thompson, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, said in a statement, "Hunters, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts should be outraged by this latest attempt of the U.S. Navy to minimize the severity of the wildlife and habitat impacts that will come with construction of the OLF at this site."
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley on Friday asked the state's congressional delegation to withhold money for the project.
"I believe this matter can be resolved, but spending millions of dollars to build the proposed OLF next to a world-renowned wildlife refuge for migratory birds is not an acceptable resolution," Easley wrote in a statement to North Carolina's representatives in Washington.
Navy officials insist that with proper management and a bird-aircraft strike hazard plan, the Washington County site wouldn't put pilots at risk of sucking a bird into an engine. In 1996, a Marine fighter jet crashed in Washington County after reportedly colliding with a bird.
While Friday's report did conclude that birds may "elect to overwinter" somewhere outside the wildlife refuge, "the data collected and studies conducted to date suggest this is remote."
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did not agree with that conclusion, the Navy noted.
Another change from the Navy's 2003 report: About 40 endangered red wolves now live in the vicinity of the Washington County site.
Though one or two pairs of wolves could be displaced by the construction and operation of the practice field, and the wolf mortality might increase locally, "red wolf territories are naturally dynamic and geographical shifts occur regardless," the study said.
"The Navy determined that an OLF at Site C (Washington County) would not jeopardize the continued existence of the red wolf or adversely modify its critical habitat."
Virginia legislators endorsed the study. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., called it good news because it would help secure Oceana Naval Air Station's role as the master jet base for the East Coast.
But Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., called for the Navy to "thoroughly consider the concerns of my constituents."
Dole urged residents to take advantage of the Navy's public comment period, which ends April 24. Six public hearings are scheduled to start in North Carolina on March 19.
Explaining one of the biggest changes in the draft supplemental report, Catoire said farmers outside the 3,000 -acre "core area" and another 10,000 acres in potential crash zones could hold onto their land - with conditions.
Restrictive easements would limit what crops farmers would grow - no winter wheat, for instance - and require plowing under residual amounts of grain or beans that remain after harvest. That food attracts birds who spend the winter at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, less than seven miles east of the proposed runway.
The strategy didn't appease the community, said Jennifer Alligood, a Washington County farm owner and chairman of North Carolinians Opposed to the OLF.
"Actually, people are getting angrier," Alligood said Friday.
Myra Beasley and her husband would lose their trucking business and most of the land they farm to the field's core area, but the couple would be able to keep their home under the new arrangements.
Farming under conditions, however, doesn't appeal to her.
"Why would I want the government telling me - eternally - how I'm going to be able to tend my land, what I'm going to be able to plant, whether I can put up a grain elevator?" Beasley said.
Francine Blend, an environmental impact manager for the Naval Facilities and Engineering Command, said additional research included studying bird migration patterns, the presence of endangered red wolves and bald eagles, crop analysis and the potential impact on wetlands. Biologists spent 20 weeks living at three of the potential sites - Washington, Perquimans and Hyde counties, she said.
The Fish & Wildlife Service was consulted from the beginning and met twice with Navy officials, Blend said. That the military and the agency came to different conclusions isn't a problem, she said.
"There's just some times that we agreed to disagree" she said. "I don't think it's anything unusual for scientific studies to be challenged."
Catoire said none of the sites was perfect, and the Navy is confident it can manage the Washington County site.
"The Navy undertook a hard look at this process. We made an overall conclusion that the national wildlife refuge can co-exist with the OLF nearby," Catoire said.
The decision will ultimately be up to Assistant Secretary of the Navy B.J. Penn. The Navy hopes to have a final ruling this year and to begin construction in 2008.
The Navy proposed building an outlying landing field in 2001 after it decided to station eight squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets in Virginia Beach and two at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock, N.C.
The Oceana-based jets use Fentress Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake to simulate carrier landings, a tricky maneuver that requires precision skills and is especially difficult at night. But as Chesapeake has grown, Navy brass say, so has light pollution around Fentress, which degrades pilot training.
Flight crews typically have to conduct 400 "touch-and-go" maneuvers to qualify to land on a carrier. Navy plans call for about 13,600 touch-and-go maneuvers annually at the practice field - about 35 a day.
Originally estimated at $186 million, the project could now top $231 million, according to documents the service filed Friday. The Navy did not provide specific costs for each site.

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