NC wildlife refuge wants to expand, but local governments oppose it

kpoe@newsobserver.comFebruary 23, 2013 

The managers of a 110,000-acre federal wildlife refuge in eastern North Carolina hope to expand the refuge, but they’re facing opposition from surrounding communities and from the congressman who represents the area.

The Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge has asked the Southeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permission to begin buying as much as 10,917 acres to help restore the area’s naturally boggy soils and reduce the risk of fire. The refuge would buy only from willing sellers, and it would begin looking for money to do so only after the new boundary is approved, said Refuge Manager Howard Phillips.

But local governments can’t tax federal land – and the governments of Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties, which include refuge property, have passed resolutions opposing expansion.

Nearly 90,000 acres of the refuge lie in Hyde County, and if the new boundary is approved, the service could buy another 4,727.

“The federal and state government(s) have a lot of acreage in Hyde County that’s already taken out of our local tax base,” said Barry Swindell, chairman of the Hyde County Board of Commissioners. “With less revenue, if we keep the same services in the county, then we have to raise taxes, and it will affect the citizens.”

The refuge isn’t trying to hurt the tax base, Phillips said. The Fish and Wildlife Service pays the counties in lieu of money they would receive from taxing the refuge land. In 2006, the service paid the three counties $81,622, or about 74 cents per acre, according to a report on the boundary expansion.

The money going to counties comes in part from Congress and in part from revenues from anything sold from refuge land. But as Congress has cut budgets, it hasn’t been appropriating as much as the counties would like, Phillips said.

“We’re one of the few agencies that actually pays something back to the county for the lands that get taken off the tax rolls,” Phillips said. “The other thing you have to think about is a lot of that money we pay to the counties, even if it’s a smaller amount than what they could tax, a lot of that money is like free money for them, because they’re not having to turn it around and spend it on infrastructure for us.”

The new lands are necessary to continue the refuge’s ecological goals of restoring wetland soils to their natural condition, Phillips said. Before the refuge was established in 1990, he said, much of the land had been ditched and drained for farms, a process that releases large amounts of carbon into the air, exacerbating climate change and making the area more susceptible to fire.

“We want to try and restore the hydrology out in those areas so we can lessen the chance of those fires,” Phillips said.

But the present boundaries limit soil restoration because some areas of the refuge cannot be restored without affecting neighboring land, Phillips said.

In addition, some of the agricultural lands the refuge wants to buy would help waterfowl, Phillips said. The refuge allows local farmers to grow crops in some areas of the refuge and instead of charging rent asks them to leave a portion of the crop in the fields for waterfowl to feed on.

“The grain is important because we’re trying to maintain waterfowl numbers, and keep them up as high as we can, because a lot of people like to hunt them, or bird-watch,” Phillips said. “It’s a supplemental food source to them.”

The service pays for land acquisition from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, neither of which draws from traditional tax revenues.

Still, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican who represents the area, wrote a letter to the service asking it not to expand the refuge because of the impact on taxpayers.

The service has an operations and maintenance backlog exceeding $3 billion, so just because the acquisition money doesn’t come from traditional taxes doesn’t mean expansion won’t cost the average taxpayer, said Jones’ legislative director, Joshua Bowlen.

“We’re in debt,” Bowlen said. “We’re running up deficits as far as the eye can see. We can’t take care of what we own. And yet Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to add even more land to the federal inventory on top of what we already can’t take care of?”

Phillips said the national service will consider all comments before making a decision on the boundary.

Poe: 919-836-4918

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