The Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival has shifted to other locations several events planned for this week on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge after an eruption of public outrage about the group being given access to the area, which is closed to the public.
The Wings Over Water festival is scheduled to begin tomorrow and run through Sunday with events showcasing the nature and wildlife on the Outer Banks. It attracts birders but also brings history enthusiasts, nature lovers, paddlers, astronomers and photographers, both novice and skilled, for an assortment of programs all over Dare County.
The festival is sponsored by the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society, and all proceeds go to that group. It is a local group with a local board whose main mission is to support both Pea Island and Alligator River refuges and provide educational programs for the public and for schoolchildren.
The festival organizers have had to make several adjustments to the schedule because of Hurricane Sandy impacts on the Outer Banks. Programs in Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands have been cancelled. Most programs on Hatteras Island – including tours of Cape Point and Buxton Wood maritime forest, photography workshops, and an earth-caching event will go on, but participants have been notified that they will have to use the ferries and been advised to spend the night on Hatteras. The participants have been provided with contacts for local accommodations.
The organizers relocated some Pea Island events, but last week asked permission from the North Carolina Department of Transportation to allow them to transport people to the refuge Visitor Center for a program at the South Pond.
Bonnie Strawser, visitor services manager of the refuges and an ex-officio member of the refuge society board, made the request, contingent upon sand being cleared off the road from the Bonner Bridge to the Visitor Center.
Jerry Jennings, Division I engineer, says the request was granted with “very controlled” stipulations. All participants would have to be transported by vans or buses by the festival organizers and no private cars would be allowed. Organizers would have to provide information in advance on when they would be coming and going.
When an e-mail about the programs on Pea Island began circulating over the weekend, the public outrage was immediate.
Folks were outraged that anyone was getting “special treatment” to travel on a bridge and stretch of road closed to the public, but many also associate birders with special interest groups that have sued over ORV use on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and are now trying to stop the DOT’s plan for a Bonner Bridge replacement that is parallel to the current bridge, instead of a 17.5 alternative that would have bypassed Pea Island.
The National Audubon Society and the Defenders of Wildlife were the groups that sued the Park Service over ORV access and Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association have sued to stop the bridge. Southern Environmental Law Center has represented the groups in both court actions.
The thought of the environmental groups getting special access was just too much for many islanders and visitors who began posting on Facebook and flooding the e-mail boxes of DOT and other officials with protests.
They were encouraged by Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, who sent out this e-mail last evening to an island resident.
“I want you and everyone to know that the DCBOC has been working on this issue since the news broke on Friday,” Judge wrote. “I talked with Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer for NCDOT on Saturday morning as well as district engineer Jerry Jennings. I shared with both of these men, that our concern is one of access and equity.
“I expressed the disappointment that on Thursday a public statement was made by NCDOT there would be no access either one lane, or one way at a time, or a four-wheel drive route through Pea Island, leaving our only access on and off the island to be the ferry system. The next day we hear that a special interest group, Audubon, working with USFWS, is wrangling their way to have exclusive and discriminatory rights of access.”
Actually, Audubon is not involved at all with Wings Over Water, though some participants may be members. However, the local refuge society is an affiliate of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which is a party to the lawsuit to stop the bridge.
Islanders began a mass protest through social networking and mass e-mails.
This afternoon, the festival organizers decided to relocate the programs that were to be on the refuge to other locations.
Bonnie Strawser defended the refuge society, noting that its main goal is educational outreach and it funds such programs as education in schools, volunteer projects, and special projects. It provides funds for school buses to bring youngsters to the refuge and bought a tram to be used for refuge tours.
The refuge society board, she said, is all about local refuges and it “does not get involved in politics.”
The purpose, she noted, of Wings Over Water, which is in its 16th year, is to bring visitors to eastern North Carolina in the shoulder season. Festival organizers are not exactly sure how many visitors are coming this year, but they have signed up to fill 721 program slots. That’s down somewhat with cancellations after last week’s storm.
One of the islanders outraged today is Beth Midgett, chairman of the county’s Committee to Replace the Bonner Bridge Now and of the Bridge Moms group.
“I’m supportive of activities that bring people to Hatteras Island to appreciate our natural beauty,” she said.
However, she has a “huge problem” with the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society’s affiliation with the National Wildlife Refuge Association and its lawsuit.
Midgett correctly notes that the refuge society is listed in the lawsuit under the “Parties and Standings” section naming the plaintiffs.
Here is what it says:
“NWRA has members who live and work in the general vicinity of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, as well as members from across the country who visit, recreate, conduct research, work, observe birds and other wildlife, conduct educational activities, photograph, and otherwise use and enjoy the public lands, wetlands, and other lands and waters of the Refuge. NWRA, its staff, and its members derive scientific, aesthetic, and spiritual benefit from the existence of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and from the abundant wildlife species that depend on it for habitat, and they value the preservation of the Refuge and the wildlife of eastern North Carolina. NWRA has a Friends Affiliate group – Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society – that works specifically to protect Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and nearby Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.”
The Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society is also mentioned in SELC’s attempt to try to stop the state from issuing a Major CAMA permit for the bridge construction.
“I have a problem with 100 percent of the proceeds of the event going to an organization that is listed in the lawsuit,” Midgett said.
Strawser said that the refuge society pays $250 a year to be a member of a consortium of friends groups under the umbrella of the National Wildlife Refuge Association that supports educational programs with grants.
Whether all member of the local refuge society board were aware that the group was named in the plaintiff section of the lawsuit is unclear.
However, today, the current president, Stanley Oliver of Manteo says that he gave a deposition for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit as a private citizen and not as a member of the society’s board.
“This is not the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society opposing the bridge,” he said. “It’s me personally.”
Oliver says he doesn’t so much oppose the bridge as he objects that DOT is proceeding without a plan for Highway 12.
DOT says it plans to address the problems of the highway in a phased approach as needed. It plans to put a permanent bridge where the new bridge is over the inlet created last year by Hurricane Irene, but has not said what will be done with the problems at the S-curves and northern Rodanthe.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Click here to read the deposition given by Stanley Oliver of Manteo, president of the board of the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society, in the lawsuit to stop the DOT plan to replace the Bonner Bridge. Oliver testified for the plaintiffs — Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
Wings Over Water website and information, including programs, http://www.wingsoverwater.org/.
Coast Wildlife Refuge Society information: http://www.coastalwildliferefuge.com/
To read the lawsuit to stop the Bonner Bridge replacement project:
To read about SELC’s request for hearing on the Major CAMA permit: