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Wednesday, 26 December 2007 00:00

A Christmas gift

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Citizens of Washington County, hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl and Navy pilots who would have been put in harm’s way received a Congressional Christmas gift when the fiscal year 2008 National Defense Authorization Bill de-authorized construction of an Outlying Landing Field in Washington County next to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina.

The bill has passed the House and Senate and the president is expected to sign it.

There has been a five-year battle to stop the OLF, led by the citizens and local governments of Washington and Beaufort counties plus North Carolina Audubon, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Southern Environmental Law Center, North Carolina Wildlife Federation and others.

North Carolina representative G.K. Butterfield (D – District 1 North Carolina) said in a press release, “The House has taken the Washington County site off the table because it posed a danger to the community, pilots and aircraft. This is a clear message that if the Navy wants to move forward with an OLF it must have the support of the community.”

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also spoken out against the OLF. Dole, who had spending for the OLF stripped from an earlier version of the Senate bill, also spoke out in support of the de-authorization. “I also was proud to fight for North Carolinians who do not want an OLF at Site C. I have made it clear to the Navy that I will not support an OLF that does not have local support, and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I will continue to stand in the Navy’s way of getting any money to build an OLF that doesn’t meet this standard,” Dole said in a press release.

While the Navy’s efforts appear dead in the water for fiscal year 2008, the future’s not crystal clear. Language in the bill noted that the Department of Navy was expected to request new authorization for an OLF, “once a study of the impact to the environment is complete and a site is selected.” And it should be noted that the Navy has already purchased 2,000 acres in Washington County.

However, the appropriations bill with the de-authorization language passed the house 370 to 49 and passed the Senate 92 to 3 so there doesn’t appear to be huge support for Site C (near Pocosin NWR) on Capitol Hill. And there is a large galvanized force of local citizens, governments and organizations in place to rally against any new bids.

In a guardedly optimistic statement to the Smoky Mountain News, Chris Canfield, executive director at N.C. Audubon said, “Deauthorizing the Navy’s landing field next to Pocosin Lakes NWR is the right thing to do — for pilots, for wildlife, and for the communities. This act, for which we are very thankful, required bipartisan cooperation. After more than five years of effort to get our case heard, it is a great holiday present; we can only hope that it will be accompanied by a New Year’s resolution by the Navy to take the site off their list for good. I’m very aware that there are other communities still facing the uncertainties of a landing field near them. While the massive bird issues that were apparent near Pocosin Lakes aren’t likely to be the deciding factor at these other locations, I do hope the Navy and our political leaders will display the wisdom necessary to achieve community buy-in to any plan.”

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