Oct 26 2010

Cahaba refuge plan shelved for now

Birmingham News

A proposal to expand the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge stalled Monday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, facing withering criticism from landowners and a key U.S. senator who threatened to kill the idea, announced a six-month delay in the planning.

This summer, FWS unveiled a proposal that would allow the service to buy land in an area covering more than 100,000 acres, a vast expansion from the refuge's current 7,600-acre acquisition boundary.

FWS now owns 3,600 acres, and the proposal was intended to give the service more area in which to find willing sellers and to protect water quality in the river, which is a hotspot of biodiversity and home to dozens of endangered species.

But opponents felt blindsided by the plan's scope, fearing it amounted to a federal land grab that would hinder private property rights and stifle forestry and mining.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby characterized the proposal as an "egregious and unjustified overreach by the federal government" and said the "scope and enormity of the proposed acquisition is not only disproportionate, but also lacking any legitimate justification." 

Last month, Shelby, who is a senior member of a committee that controls federal spending, said he'd oppose any government money going to buy land in the expanded boundaries. 

Fish and Wildlife officials on Monday, in a statement given first to members of Congress, acknowledged they had not done enough to earn the support of the people in the region. 

"Moving forward, we are committed to doing a better job collaborating with citizens throughout the Cahaba River basin," said Cindy Dohner, the Service's Southeast regional director. 

FWS previously extended the public comment period until Dec. 6 and had been working to assure Shelby and the public that any land purchases would involve only willing sellers and would take place over decades, as money from Congress became available. But opposition remained fierce.
Questions remain

Balch & Bingham lawyer Jim Noles, who represents the Alabama Coal Association and other landowners, said the statement by Fish and Wildlife doesn't make clear whether the proposal is being simply delayed or completely revised. 

"My advice to my clients is going to be to continue to submit their comments and continue to encourage Fish and Wildlife to fully evaluate this proposal," he said. 

Noles said the service hadn't thoroughly evaluated the expansion's potential effects and should have drafted an environmental impact statement. For instance, there was no evaluation of the expansion's impact on individuals and companies that hold rights to the coal seams that run through the refuge. 

"That is just one example of someone that has a property rights interest within these acres," Noles said. "It looks like so far those interests have not been respected."

Forest landowners objected that the expansion could result in the loss of jobs in the forestry industry, and local governments worried about the long-term impact on tax revenues. Noles said there were a variety of legitimate concerns.

"Their opposition should not be read as opposition to protecting the water quality of the Cahaba River or the species found therein," Noles said.
Reactions mixed

Environmentalists hope the proposal can be salvaged. Cahaba River Society Executive Director Beth Stewart said the river's water quality is threatened and an arsenal of methods, from land protection to river-sensitive development, need to be employed to preserve it. 

"We support the six-month evaluation period to encourage open dialogue between community, business and governmental leaders that results in a tangible, clear plan to restore and protect the Cahaba River long-term," Stewart said. "Additional acquisition of land and easements from willing sellers is an important part of the overall approach." 
FWS refuge manager Stephen Miller believes concerns over the expansion can be addressed.

"We're going to work through the issues," Miller said. "(Sen. Shelby) wanted more public support for this before we did it and we want to work with him."

But the senator said Monday that he hoped the six-month delay would turn into a reversal.

"I wholeheartedly oppose the expansion and think this proposal should be dropped altogether," Shelby said. "I hope the six-month re-evaluation will show Fish and Wildlife Service the error of their ways and they will completely abandon this proposal."

News staff writer Mary Orndorff contributed to this story.