Navy's flight base plan creates a flap in Carolina

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The Independent US

Every winter more than 100,000 snow geese and tundra swans descend on the wetlands of the Abermarle Sound. Poetic locals say as they glide down it is like watching large snowflakes.

Every winter more than 100,000 snow geese and tundra swans descend on the wetlands of the Abermarle Sound. Poetic locals say as they glide down it is like watching large snowflakes.

If the Pentagon gets its way, however, the wetlands of this part of eastern North Carolina will get a new flock of aerial visitors - FA-18 Super Hornet jets. The Navy is planning to build a $186m (£100m) training facility to allow pilots to simulate landing on aircraft carriers, smack in the middle of the bird migratory route. The 30,000-acre base would be less than five miles from a national wildlife refuge.

Local activists, concerned about the potential environmental and economic impact, are engaged in a legal battle with the Pentagon to try to stop the base. A federal judge is due to rule within days.

"It does not seem to be a very sensible place to build a training base, from a safety point of view," said Derb Carter, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Centre, which has brought a lawsuit on behalf of several environmental groups. "The Navy does not seem to realise the level of risk."

The centre cites testimony from experts who say the wildfowl present a potential danger to pilots. It quotes several former officials from the air force's bird strike analysis team. One, retired Air Force Colonel Jeffrey Short, said: "I cannot think of a worse place for a training field."

Opponents to the base, known as an Outer Landing Field (OLF), say the Navy's plan is the result of the closure in 2003 of the bombing range and training base at Vieques, in Puerto Rico after decades of opposition from local people who complained of the danger and environmental damage.

As a result, the Navy has been looking for new facilities in several southern states, including Florida. In eastern North Carolina, close to the Outer Banks, it also wants to designate 900 square miles of air space for jet training despite, say opponents, insufficient public consultation or review.

Philip Lange, a member of the Abermarle Community Network and a leading opponent, said a new base would create a huge environmental and economic impact on the area. "We are a poor farming community. The only growth industry is eco-tourism and the building of retirement communities," he said. "Who is going to want to build retirement homes next to a noisy jet landing base?"

He added: "They say it will bring 35 to 50 new jobs but what they don't say is that half those jobs will be out of county. Retirement communities create a lot more jobs than that."

Joe Albea, a local television presenter on a weekly environmental show said the birds that start arriving at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in late October or November had travelled up to 3,000 miles. Many enthusiasts visited to witness their arrival and any disruption would have a huge impact on migratory bird communities along the eastern seaboard, he said.

Not everyone in the area is opposed, however, to the OLF. Some residents, including a local politicians, are concerned that if the Navy is refused permission, it might retaliate by closing military bases in other parts of North Carolina. They say that the Navy closed the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, in retaliation for being forced out of Vieques.

A lawyer for the Justice Department, which is representing the Navy in the lawsuit, said that he could not comment because the case was in litigation.

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