Navy, North Carolina growers tussle over flyway

In an ongoing battle with the U.S. Navy and politicians in neighboring Virginia, a handful of North Carolina farmers and environmentalists have succeeded in protecting over 30,000 acres of prime farmland from condemnation and takeover by the U.S. Navy.

The Navy wants the land for an OLF (outlying landing field). The Navy’s contention is that the land is critical for training fighter pilots to land on carrier decks in pitch black darkness. Current training facilities are too close to urban areas that provide illumination not at all similar to conditions that pilots face landing on a carrier deck.

The North Carolina farmers and their supporters, who include such political heavyweights as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, say the Navy is not looking at the big picture in planning to put their OLF in Washington and Beaufort counties in eastern North Carolina.

Senator Dole points out that an ethanol plant is under construction at Aurora, N.C., near the proposed OLF site in Washington County. And, the North Carolina senator points out, a biodiesel plant and a large poultry operation, both highly dependent on grain, are also planned for the area. The OLF site would jeopardize completion of these plants and thus hundreds of jobs for North Carolina’s already hard-pressed farm economy, she says in a letter to Naval officials.

Grain farmers in the area have led the three-year challenge to force the Navy to pick a more suitable site for the OLF. “Our grandfather asked us to keep our land for family members to come home to,” says Melody Willard, whose family lives on 60 acres of farmland in the midst of the proposed OLF site.

“We want to help the Navy find a better site for their landing field,” says Jennifer Alligood, chairwoman of North Carolinians Opposed to Outlying Landing Field (NOOLF). Alligood says, “our pristine land and our quality of life have become liabilities.” She says she fears that noise from the Navy’s F18 Super Hornets, plus the fear that one of these 15-ton monsters will crash into one of their homes or schools will ruin the quality of life that has made their little corner of eastern North Carolina home for decades.

On the other side of the coin is $5.8 billion that the Department of Defense spends annually in North Carolina. Virginia Senator John Warner and Virginia Governor Mark Warner have been supportive of the Navy’s plans to annex the 35,000 acres of land in North Carolina.

The Department of Defense and the State of Virginia want to keep the Super Hornet squadrons, and the revenue they bring with them, at the large naval airbase at Oceania, near Virginia Beach. However, the sprawling base is too close to urban areas to be feasible for an OLF that in any way simulates night time F18 landings on a blacked out carrier deck in the middle of the ocean.

“There is a much better site for the OLF in the southern part of North Carolina, much nearer to the Cherry Point Air Station, Alligood says. Many former Department of Defense employees agree. However, the site in southeastern North Carolina is too far away from the base at Oceania to be feasible — if the fighter squadrons remain in their Virginia base.

Jeffery Short, who was instrumental in developing the Navy’s Bird Airborne Strike Hazard, or BASH, program, has become a staunch supporter for the North Carolina farmers. The area is home to migratory birds from Canada and from the Tropics. In one night of radar monitoring at the proposed OLF site in North Carolina, Short recorded over 100,000 hits on his radar screen. Short would later proclaim, “This is the worst place in the world to put this OLF.”

“Obviously, we don’t have privy to Navy contracts, but reliable sources tell us that biologists were hired by the Navy to “make the site work”, Alligood contends. She points out that environmental groups have been quick to side with the North Carolina farmers to help protect ever-dwindling habitat for tundra swans and snow geese that annually over-winter in the area.

Environmentalists contend that the snow geese and swans that inhabit the nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Area could easily be ingested by a Super Hornet jet engine, causing one of the large aircraft to crash. “It’s not a matter of if, but when one of those planes would hit a flock of birds and crash,” says Mary Ann Byers, a resident of the area and member of the Plymouth City Council. “When that happens, the pilot will have a chance to bail out of the plane, but will lose the ability to determine where the 15-ton aircraft will crash,” she warns.

It almost did happen! In December, news reporters caught on video tape a Super Hornet taking obvious dramatic evasive action to avoid collision with a flight of a dozen or so tundra swans. The test flight over the proposed Washington County OLF site was part of the Navy’s reevaluation of the North Carolina site. Former Navy Flight Officer Brian Roth, who saw the near miss, notes the evasive action by the Super Hornet was clearly in the guidelines of what the Navy would classify as a near miss.

To date, the Navy has been successful in purchasing 2,700 acres of land at the Washington County site — about half sold willingly and half condemned. Farmers were paid $1,800 per acre, which Alligood contends is about half the value of an acre of the rich, black farmland.

Farmers, outside the OLF, but in the area, are concerned that changing the feeding areas of migratory birds will change the environment and negatively affect their ability to grow grain crops in the area. North Carolina is already a grain deficient state, and with ethanol and biodiesel plants soon to come on line, the elimination of 33,000 acres of prime farm land will significantly affect the production capabilities of these plants.

Alligood adds a warning that the actual number of acres the Navy plans to use for the OLF may be closer to 50,000 acres. “We don’t know exactly what they are planning to do and most people in our area are not comfortable that the Navy’s plans stop at 33,000 acres,” she says.

The Navy plans to spend $230 million on the North Carolina site, but even big dollars can’t convince area farmers to give up the fight. Ronnie Askew, who grows 700 acres of grain crops in the midst of the proposed OLF site, has repeatedly said no to offers for his land.

“They told me I could sell the land to them and rent it back for cotton production,” Askew says. One of 75 farmers directly affected by the land buy out, Askew was outraged, to say the least, at being told to grow a crop he has never grown. He says, “I don’t think it’s right to have to rent something you already own.”

Environmentalists contend allowing farmers to grow cotton, but not grain crops on the land, is another example of the Navy’s intention to ‘starve’ out birds in the area. “At best, it won’t work, because these migratory birds will still feed on weeds and seeds in cotton fields,” Alligood contends. Area farmers fear these birds will move feeding areas to their fields.

At the heart of the matter, some contend is whether the quality of life of people in and around the Oceania base in Virginia is more valuable than the quality of life in more rural eastern North Carolina. Virginia politicians want to have it both ways, keep the F18 squadrons in Virginia, but do the loud and dangerous night training in our backyard, says one farmer.

Even non-farmers have joined in the fray to blunt the Navy’s plans for the OLF in Washington and Beaufort counties. “We have a very unique area here, says Doris Morris, whose family has made a living fishing the pristine waters for generations. “Nature, wildlife, snow geese — all are irreplaceable,” she laments.

While the collective political voice of agriculture may have diminished over the years, a relatively small band of North Carolina grain farmers has spoken loudly enough to hold the U.S. Navy at bay for over three years. “We don’t want to fight the Navy, we want to help them find a better place for their facility,” Alligood concludes.

The movement has already generated support from farm and environmental groups across the Nation. On May 16, over 135 organizations and farmers from 27 North Carolina counties will hold a state rally in Raleigh. Buoyed by support from North Carolina’s governor and lieutenant governor, both of whom fought valiantly in the U.S. Congress to keep North Carolina’s military bases open, NOOLF is confident they can continue to keep the OLF out of eastern North Carolina.

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