The battle lines are drawn, and a showdown is looming that pits a bunch of rural North Carolinians against the U.S. Navy. A win for the Navy could spell environmental disaster for one of the state’s most pristine wildlife preserves.
The folks from Washington and Beaufort counties are coming Tuesday, May 16, to the state Capitol to oppose the Navy’s plans to build an outlying landing field (OLF) along the majestic Northeastern corridor of the state. The Navy plans to use the air strips to practice more than 30,000 war jet take-offs and landings annually in the midst of a major bird sanctuary. Environmentalists have denounced the plan, which is now under court-ordered review.
The fight has brought together disparate partners. Among the speakers at Tuesday morning’s rally on the Capitol grounds are N.C. Ducks Unlimited Chairman Lloyd Goode of Raleigh and N.C. NAACP President the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of Goldsboro, as well Chris Canfield, director of the N.C. Audubon Society and state Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, who represents Dare County.
Goode said opposing the OLF represents the first time in his 30 years of involvement with Ducks Unlimited that the group has taken a stand on a public policy issue.
“This indicates how serious this really is,” Goode wrote in a letter to DU members urging them to attend Tuesday’s rally. Goode said two letters DU sent to the Navy were ignored.
The Navy will decimate the bird population to maintain the safety of its pilots, Goode said.
“The Navy is … planning to degrade habitat and eradicate the birds,” Goode wrote. “They will remove the birds that the planes could possibly collide with. I have seen farmers in Canada keep waterfowl out of crop fields with propane cannons. Getting rid of these birds will pose no problem for the Navy. If the OLF is built, Eastern North Carolina will be forever changed. Lake Mattamuskeet, Phelps Lake, Pungo Lake, Alligator Lake, Pocossin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and thousands of acres of other habitat are at great risk.”
In 2003, the Navy announced its decision to construct the OLF in North Carolina. The purpose of the OLF is to provide simulated aircraft carrier landings for the F-18 Super Hornet war jets to be stationed in Oceana, Va., and possibly Cherry Point.
Navy documents state that the current OLF site, Fentress Field in southeastern Virginia, meets the Navy’s training needs, but the Navy wants to construct a new OLF in response to noise and other complaints by Virginia residents living near the site.
The Navy estimates 31,650 practice landings and take-offs annually at the proposed OLF. The F-18s train in groups of three, and often fly at low altitude for practicing. Training flights will occur every 15 minutes around the clock, seven days a week. F-18s are 50 percent louder than the now-mothballed Concord, once the loudest conventional jet.
Federal court rulings from U.S. District Court Judge Terrance Boyle have delayed the project, but opponents said strong political opposition is the best way to defeat the OLF.
“This whole process has been political from the beginning,” said Jennifer Alligood, chairwoman of North Carolinians Opposed to the Outlying Landing Field (NO-OLF). “The way to stop it is political.”
The Navy plans to purchase about 33,000 acres of farmland for the OLF “resulting in one of the largest land grabs by the federal government in our country’s modern history,” rally organizers wrote in a promotional flier. “The OLF would remove over 100 families from their generational homes and farms and adversely affect the quality of life for thousands of citizens.”
Environmentalists estimate more than 100,000 migratory birds live in Pocossin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which sits adjacent to the OLF site. OLF opponents say Pocossin Lakes “is a globally significant refuge” located on the Albemarle/Pamlico peninsula, an area “considered one of the last pristine and rural assets on our nation’s East Coast. The peninsula is a classic example of man’s coexistence with nature and is compared to the beautiful and abundant Serengeti, Africa.”
The OLF area includes large birds such as snow geese and tundra swans, which can weigh up to 18 pounds. Jeffrey Short, who developed the U.S. Air Force’s bird avoidance model, opposes the North Carolina OLF site: “In 25 years of dealing with military BASH [Bird-Aircraft Strike Hazard] issues, I cannot recall a worse place to situate an airfield for jet training.”
Opponents say the OLF will be an economic drain on the state. In addition to lost tax revenue from land loss, the Navy will maintain most of its OLF infrastructure in Virginia Beach, which will reap any economic benefits. There still has been no decision as to whether Cherry Point will receive any F-18 squadrons.
The anti-OLF efforts are being led by folks like Doris Morris, who serves as NO-OLF’s communications director. Last Sunday, the pastor of her church, First Christian Church-Disciples of Christ in Plymouth, gave a pitch for the rally during the service. It was also mentioned in the church bulletin and newsletter. Morris, who calls Raleigh “a big city,” is a native of Washington County. Her next-door neighbor will lose his 1,000-acre farm and his livelihood to the OLF project, she said.
The county is small and poor, and many folks know each other, Morris said. Opposition to the OLF is strong, she said.
Gov. Mike Easley will be sending Department of Environment and Natural Resources head Bill Ross to Tuesday’s rally. In response to an interview request, Ross released the following statement: “Gov. Easley and I will continue to raise concerns about the suitability of this site with the U.S. Navy publicly and privately on behalf of North Carolina citizens.”
Elizabeth Dole’s office released a statement saying the senator has confidence in the court-ordered supplemental environmental impact review that is under way, but she did not oppose the site.
“I know that a number of folks in Eastern North Carolina are opposed to the Navy’s preferred OLF site in Washington County, and I will continue to make it a priority to ensure that the Navy is made fully aware of these concerns,” Dole said.
Several U.S. House members oppose the site, including Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, who is scheduled to speak at the rally.
Morris wishes the political opposition were stronger, but she understands the political underpinnings for a state that touts itself as the nation’s most friendly to the military.
“We feel like they could always do more than they are, but at the same time we’re fighting the Navy,” Morris said.
The rally against the Navy’s plans to build an outlying landing field in northeastern North Carolina is from 10:30 a.m.-noon on the Capitol’s south lawn in Raleigh. For more information, visit www.noolf.com,call Doris Morris at (252) 793-9756, or write NO-OLF, P.O. Box 32, Pinetown, NC 27865.