Point of View

All the reasons for more refuge at Pocosin Lakes

April 25, 2013 

A recent proposal to expand the Pocosin Lakes National Wildife Refuge has Rep. Walter Jones worried about lost revenue, nasty trillion-dollar federal deficits and the harsh effects on taxpayers in his industry-poor district.

And he’s right – which is why the plan, which seeks to expand the refuge by nearly 10 percent through voluntary land purchases, should move forward as soon as possible.

Jones and local government officials in Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties raise the concern that, if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service buys up land around the refuge, those properties will be taken off the tax rolls in an area already strapped for revenue. But let’s take a look at some other costs – the costs of disturbing an ancient habitat.

FWS needs the extra lands around the current refuge so it can restore the natural peat soil and hydrology, which requires overflow to these lands. Part of restoring this habitat is maintaining a natural fire regime, without which invasive species come in, fuel builds up and catastrophic wildfires happen.

According to the Nature Conservancy, wildfires in the Alligator and Pocosin Lakes refuges in the past five years alone have cost $50 million to fight – twice the loss in tax revenue that Jones fears. A striking increase in pulmonary disease accompanied a 2011 fire in the lakes as well, as was shown in an EPA health study.

Helping the refuge with its restoration goals is also crucial for supporting North Carolina’s $500 million fishing industry. A disturbed pocosin lets unnaturally high volumes of fresh water, nutrients and suspended material enter estuaries, often out of season, reducing shellfish production by tampering with a delicate salinity balance. The nutrient surpluses cause sickly looking algal blooms that further endanger estuarine organisms. The vast majority of fishery resources in North Carolina depend on the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary as a nursery, and Pocosin Lakes is a major contributor to its health.

Encouraging tourism is essential to growing the local economy, where unemployment has been as high as 14 percent. Wildfires, algal blooms and losses in recreational value will do nothing to encourage this, nor will limiting the habitat of iconic animals like waterfowl and red wolves. On the other hand, part of the proposed expansion would protect the Scuppernong River corridor, a likely boon to tourism.

Let’s not forget also that, when FWS buys up land for the refuge, the affected communities get some compensation from the Feds, going at $0.75 per acre of acquired lands at least. And the cost of buying land isn’t financed by taxes but by duck stamp sales, refuge entrance fees and, of all things, import duties on arms and ammo. The compensation isn’t great, but it is liable to increase as the national economy recovers and comes with much more flexibility in what to spend it on than taxes.

Finally, part of the refuge’s strategy for this expansion is to establish contiguous ownership, consolidating the refuge’s layout and bringing boundary lines out to existing roads. The boundary line would be more easily recognizable to the public, and maintenance and administrative costs would decrease.

None of this even considers the non-economic benefits of strengthening the resilience of the many rare and threatened species that make the Pocosin Lakes their home – the Venus flytrap, the pine barrens tree frog, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the American alligator, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the red wolf.

Jones and the county commissioners are not seeing the full picture when they paint the expansion as a drain on local revenues. The acquisition pays for itself by helping forestall calamitous wildfires that cost a fortune to stop, by supporting the health of fisheries, by encouraging tourism and by paying for itself, in part. The increased federal burden and the lost local revenues Jones fears are more likely to come about if restoration of the lakes is stymied.

The refuge is a regional treasure, not an economic sacrifice.

Eugene Yacobson is a graduate student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

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