Over three years ago the U.S. Navy proposed to build a touch and go landing strip, or offsite landing field, for its F18 Super Hornet squadrons operating out of Navy Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., and Marine Corps Air Station, in Cherry Point, N.C.,
What the Navy got was a snarling wolf, which they find themselves holding firmly by the ears — weary of holding on, but unwilling to let go.
At the heart of opposition to the landing site, located between Plymouth and Washington, N.C., and dubbed Site C by the Navy, is a small group of farmers, home and landowners and environmentalists who have held the U.S. Navy at bay for over three years.
At stake is a 50 square mile area of rich farmland and livestock operations, many of which have been operated continuously by several generations of farm families.
A 35 mile trip down North Carolina Highway 32 from Plymouth to Washington offers a glimpse of the unity of this small group in their efforts to save their farms, homelands, and a major national wildlife preserve.
Virtually every house or business on the stretch of road has a red, white and blue NO OLF sign attached to everything from cotton gins to cemetery gravestones.
In this area of eastern North Carolina supporting the NO OLF movement is not enough to get elected to public office or run a prosperous business — you have to be adamantly in support of NO OLF to be a part of this community.
Many NO OLF signs include an additional message to save our farms, save our pilots, save our environment or save our freedom. All have been keystones of the community's argument against building the OLF at Site C near the border of Washington and Beaufort counties.
At risk to pilots are large populations of tundra swans and migratory Canadian geese that create a hazard for over six months of the year. The NO OLF group is bolstered in their concern for pilots by numerous former Navy and Air Force pilots who call flying through such large populations of slow moving 20-30 pound geese suicidal.
The Audubon Society, National Wildlife Association and numerous hunter organizations are among dozens of regional, state and national groups who have joined the fray on the side of the NO OLF Committee.
The National Fish and Wildlife Agency has placed a gag order on all its employees, not allowing anything but official statements by the Atlanta Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Prior to the gag order, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Dale Hall said, his agency ‘respectfully disagrees’ with the Navy's choice of Site C as the site for the OLF. The Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, located near the site, is a globally important bird area. Hall says,
“The Navy's plan to manage the birds in this protected area is in direct conflict with the Fish and Wildlife Service mission,” Hall states. A part of the Navy's management plan calls for poisoning of birds near the wildlife sanctuary — a suggestion that has further infuriated wildlife and environmental groups.
Saving the farm seems to be the most vocal of the many groups opposing the OLF at Site C in North Carolina. North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler contends the Navy landing site would cost the agricultural industry in the region over $6 million per year.
Troxler says, “My appreciation of what the men and women of our armed forces do for our country doesn't change the fact that North Carolina has lost over 300,000 acres of farmland since 2003 and we've lost the most farmland of any state in the country for the past two years.”
Troxler contends the loss of soybean and corn acreage in the area will severely affect the state's ability to provide soy oil for biodiesel plants and corn for ethanol production. The development of alternative fuels to lessen the country's dependence on foreign oil is one of President Bush's primary campaigns in the war on terrorism.
In addition to the impact on planned ethanol and biodiesel plants in the state, North Carolina is among the top 10 states in swine and poultry production and reducing grain production at a time when the state is in a grain deficit situation would further hamper livestock production in the area.
Leamon Allen, whose family has farmed in the region for several generations, says his concern is that displacing farmers in the 50 square mile area will create an additional demand for land that will further increase the cost of farming.
With the land-base for farming shrinking in North Carolina, the demand for an additional 30,000 acres would seem certain to raise land rental prices.
On the other side of the land coin, many of the families that would be affected by the land buyout say they could not replace houses nor buy land for the price the Navy paid to the only landowner displaced so far.
The 1,500 acres condemned by the Navy in Washington County and purchased via the government's right to imminent domain has left many area residents wondering exactly what the government can and can't do to acquire land.
Doris Morris, whose family has lived for several generations a few miles from the proposed Site C facility, says the person who sold the original 1,500 acres of land was a willing seller, who negotiated with the Navy over the price of the land. Instead of bargaining, she says, the Navy condemned the 1,500 acres and paid the landowner $1,800 per acre — well below the going price for rich farmland in the area.
For the Navy's part, Rear Admiral David Anderson, speaking at a press conference called by the Navy, said, “Today is about backing away from emotion. This (Landing Site C) is part of an ongoing process to find a site in the best interest of the Navy's needs and the communities that support us so well.”
The Navy has lowered its land requirements since their initial plans for the Site C facility was announced. Instead of buying 53,000 acres of land as was first announced, the Navy has lowered its requirement to 33,000 acres, and is now proposing to rent land — a proposal that most residents agree would make matters worse and make the landing site an even worse economic deal for area residents.
Morris says the Navy is over-looking some critical details in their assessment of the value of the facility to eastern North Carolina. The remote site, designed to simulate night landings on a carrier, would come with lots of noise, environmental degradation and danger, but with none of the economic benefits offered to Cherry Point and Oceana.
“We would lose approximately 200 jobs and hope to gain maybe five in return, she says.
North Carolina Governor, Mike Easley has waded in on the side of the NO OLF group. He has asked the Navy to find other sites located nearer to the two air bases and has called on the U.S. Congress to deny funds for the OLF in North Carolina.
The other four proposed sites would not likely welcome the OLF with open arms. Farmers and landowners in these areas are anxiously watching the drama unfold in Washington and Beaufort counties.
One site in Craven County has been widely proposed because of its sparse human population, absence of migratory bird problems and lack of valuable farm land. On the other hand, about three-fourths of the proposed site is a protected wetlands area, which may be as big a no-no as taking away bird habitat.
For their part the wolf is not backing down. The NO OLF Committee, chaired by Jennifer Alligood, has vowed to continue the fight. While some residents believe deep down that the Navy will win the right to build the OLF at Site C, regardless of the political entanglements, Alligood is not one of those people.
She believes in the long run the people will win and the farming community will continue as it has for hundreds of years.
In the interim politicians, business leaders, and concerned citizens up and down North Carolina's east coast have become interested participants in the political chess match that pits powerful Virginia legislators on one side — they hope to keep most of the revenue from the Super Hornet squadrons in Virginia, but hope to deal many of the environmental problems off to rural North Carolina.
On the other side, choosing the Craven County site would move the OLF closer to Cherry Point and could mean additional airplanes would be stationed in North Carolina Marine Country, along with the income they bring.
Keeping the OLF at Site C, almost exactly halfway between Cherry Point and Oceana would keep some politicians in both states happy.
For sure the Navy has a sticky situation with which to deal. How long the military leaders can hold on to their snarling wolf and what happens when they let go will significantly impact the agricultural economy of the region and set a serious precedent for what the military can and can't do in the United States of America.