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Hard landing 

Amid protests, the Navy presses its case

The lakes are the winter home to more than 50,000 tundra swans. - JUAN A. PONS
  • Juan A. Pons
  • The lakes are the winter home to more than 50,000 tundra swans.
No one can accuse North Carolina of being inhospitable to the military, especially not in 2005. This year, the Defense Department will conduct a new round of the "base realignment and closure" process, a periodic review intended to trim the fat out of the military's infrastructure. As a result, the Easley administration and the General Assembly are rolling out a series of incentives to convince the military brass that nothing could be finer than to stay in Carolina.

While the state campaigns to keep its existing military installations open, a broad coalition of local governments, citizens and advocacy groups is working to stop the Navy from building a new facility in Eastern North Carolina. As part of a recent Pentagon push to find additional training grounds in the United States, Navy officials are intent on installing an "outlying landing field" (OLF) for squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets based near Norfolk, Va.

While the future of the project is still very much in question, these officials are moving forward with their plan to acquire 30,000 acres for the airfield in Beaufort and Washington counties, in land near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

click to enlarge Signs protesting the Navys plans dot the roads around the refuge. - MIKE DUNN
  • Mike Dunn
  • Signs protesting the Navys plans dot the roads around the refuge.
The location, opponents say, couldn't be worse. The landing field will employ few personnel, so it won't be a major source of jobs. It will, however, be a major source of jet noise and a drain on the two counties' tax bases.

And then there's the wildlife issue: This time of year, the area the Navy wants to buzz with jet fighters is home to an estimated 100,000 waterfowl, including large numbers of snow geese and tundra swans. The landing field could threaten not only the birds' habitat, but also the Navy pilots' safety, since military experts say that bird-related aircraft accidents are likely at the site.

The Navy knows that the location is a hard sell, as evidenced by government documents about the project that were obtained by a team of attorneys from the two counties and three environmental groups that are suing to stop the landing field. Citing a series of frank internal e-mail messages about the plan's shortcomings, the Chapel Hill office of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which has played a lead role in the legal challenge to the OLF, recently convinced a federal judge to shelve the project until more thorough site assessments are conducted. An appeals court then allowed the Navy to proceed, for the time being.

The latest round of legal wrangling occurs this week, when a federal judge in Raleigh will hear arguments about whether the project can legally go forward. The case, some OLF critics say, is shaping up to be something of a landmark in the Bush administration's push to sideline environmental concerns in favor of "national security."

Derb Carter, an SELC attorney involved in the case, notes that "the Navy [has] shifted into arguing in its briefs that this OLF is all about national security, all about fighting the global war on terrorism," even though the landing field couldn't be opened until 2007 at the earliest. "It's an entirely opportunist argument," he says. "They've certainly tried to wrap themselves in the flag." In the end, the fate of the lawsuit to stop the OLF could rest on just how much coverage the flag can provide.

click to enlarge JUAN A. PONS
That there are places on this earth that are sacred is not some quaint notion shared by only enviromentalists, Native Americans and old hippies. You cannot walk this planet and not be struck by the fact that there are spaces that embody the word beauty, sites that are humbling and exhilarating and lands that are the cradle of whole species.

The Pocosin Lakes region of Eastern North Carolina is such a place. It is the winter home to tens of thousands of geese, tundra swans and other birds—its estuaries and waterways a reliable bounty and a safe harbor in the cold months.

Now this region is at risk—chosen for its rare, quiet darkness along the Eastern Seaboard for practice drills in flight of an altogether different kind. It does not make sense that such a sacrifice take place. No one, stepping back from this, would call it a good deal. Not for the swans and geese and black bear, certainly, but also not for the rest of us. The towns and counties stand to lose rather than gain economic benefit when 50 square miles are pulled off the tax rolls. And we have placed at risk another sacred place in the name of convenience and might.

We are thankful to writer Stephanie Bass and to photographers Mike Dunn and Juan Pons for making available some of their work documenting the awesome beauty of the winter at the lakes.

--The Independent

click to enlarge A tundra swan in full glide - MIKE DUNN
  • Amid protests, the Navy presses its case

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