Chatham County

Endangered bird threatens model airplane club at Jordan Lake

The Flying Tigers of Jordan Lake spring flyin

VIDEO: The Flying Tigers of Jordan Lake radio control flying club held its spring fly-in off Big Woods Road on Jordan Lake in Chatham County, NC Sunday, April 17, 2016. The 26 year old RC flying club has over 125 Triangle area members. The club ha
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VIDEO: The Flying Tigers of Jordan Lake radio control flying club held its spring fly-in off Big Woods Road on Jordan Lake in Chatham County, NC Sunday, April 17, 2016. The 26 year old RC flying club has over 125 Triangle area members. The club ha

There is a battle in the skies on the western shore of Jordan Lake between scores of small planes and a pair of tiny birds, and the birds are winning.

The birds are Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, an endangered species spotted in October after being absent from the area for decades.

The planes belong to the 125 members of the Flying Tigers of Jordan Lake, a club that has been flying model airplanes at a small grass airstrip off Big Woods Road for 25 years.

Last month the N.C. Forestry Service, which manages the land, told the Flying Tigers that they would have to vacate the airstrip this year.

On Sunday, the Tigers held a “fly-in” to rally its members and others with the hopes of keeping their airstrip open.

State Sen. Valerie Foushee, a lifelong resident of the area making her first visit to the club, delivered her verdict: “I’m amazed.”

Foushee and more than a 100 club members watched a parade of planes soar into the sky: replicas of WWII-era P-51 Mustangs, P-47 Thunderbolts and T-28 Trojans. Two model Sopwith Camels, of WWI and Red Baron fame, twisted and spun in a mock dog fight.

“We promote STEM,” said Foushee, referring to what educators call Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. “I’m standing here looking at a sky full of science and engineering and math.”

The club began using the field in 1991 under a handshake agreement with Forestry Service managers. The club maintains the field, mows the lawn and cleans up after every event.

Club president Alberto Scotti said he spoke with the Forestry Service a year ago to see if the club could put their agreement in writing. A year passed with occasional contacts. In March, Scotti met with Piedmont region forester Kevin Harvell, who handed him a letter saying the club had to leave the airstrip in six months.

“I was speechless,” said Scotti, a professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It totally came out of the blue.”

Scotti said club members have received different answers about their eviction. People had complained about the activity. The Forestry Service is planting a forest on the property. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which leases the land to the N.C. Forest Service, has rules forbidding aircraft on its land. The Army Corps wouldn’t approve a sublease.

“It’s a legal issue,” said Brian Haines, a Forestry Service spokesman. “We had to say to them, ‘We are sorry.’ They are good folks, but the Corps won’t let them do a lease.”

Public records from the Forestry Service show that the reason is the bird.

Once common, the woodpecker population has plunged 99 percent since the arrival of Europeans, primarily due to the disappearance of long-leaf pine forests. Birdwatchers first spotted the red-cockaded woodpeckers in October. Bands on the birds’ legs showed they were from Fort Bragg, about 50 miles away.

Birdwatchers and foresters were elated by the news.

“What do you think about the RCW’s at Jordan Lake...,” wrote district forester Mark Bost. “Only the biggest news to hit the NC Forest Service in forever??????”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered an overall plan to protect and manage the birds.

In November, Harvell drew up a list of how the plan would impact Forestry Service land. Among the impacts: “The agreement with the model airplane club that currently uses the area adjacent to the regional office will have to be discontinued.”

The woodpeckers nest in cavities in the pine tree. The forest service had not found any in the area, so federal biologists installed artificial cavities. A state zoologist classified the sighting as “wandering birds for the time being” until nesting trees were found.

Harvell said the birds have not been seen since December, but he plans for their return.

Foushee, the state senator, said she hopes a solution can be worked out.

“There needs to be a meeting where all the impacted folks sit around the table and work it out,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.”

Joseph Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff

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