Touring the area, it's easy to forget that this fertile and relatively isolated piece of marshland is at the center of a mounting controversy. Most of the refuge is open to the public, and visitors travel freely on a grid of well-maintained dirt roads. But the southern-most third of the county, which abuts the refuge, is often off limits, because it's the site of another potentially endangered entity: a U.S. military bombing range.
On a road leading from the refuge into the range, the surrounding swamp bubbles with activity. Lizards, frogs, snakes and turtles plop in and out of the canals. Dragonflies, birds and butterflies dart about, and there's a steady chorus of buzzes, calls and rustling brush on the way into the target area.
Then another sound, a low, distant rumble, comes up in the mix. Out of nowhere, a hulking black shape--a giant bird?--appears 200 feet overhead, and then, just as suddenly, it's a half-mile away, a mere speck on the horizon. The thought, "Must have been a plane," almost has time to register when, BOOM! The sky seems at once shattered and frozen by a deafening blast. Sheets of noise swirl around the strike zone and through the wetlands, and a shockwave sets the plants swaying.
The noisemaker is a Navy F-18 fighter jet, and two seconds later, another one screams along the same route, laying down another barrage of engine noise. The cacophony echoes then slowly dissipates--until the planes circle and return. During one of their five repeat approaches, a cloud of dust rises from the heart of the range. It's too far away to see what the planes fired down, but it had to be either a dummy bomb or machine-gun bullets, since no live bombs are permitted at the range.
Similar scenes play out six days a week at the Dare County Bombing Range, where nature and national security have tenuously co-existed since 1965. But they promise to be even more frequent if the Defense Department follows the recommendations of its experts and expands military training in North Carolina.
The reason for the expansion is public protests on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques that have led to a pledge by the Bush administration to end training there within two years. The military is now hunting for new places to stage large-scale combat drills.
The Air Force owns the Dare County site, which houses two target zones operated by the Air Force and Navy and used by all branches of the armed forces. According to figures provided by Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, which oversees the range, on an average day, 27 planes train there and 164 weapons--bullets, bomb casings and non-explosive rockets--are dropped into the soil or slammed against targets made of wood and metal.
The present payload will seem mild by comparison if training is expanded. During the next year, a blue ribbon panel of former military officials will study the options and select a new spot or spots. Preliminary reports put the Dare County Bombing Range, along with several other North Carolina training sites, at the top of the target list.
Coastal residents have put up with military overflights like the ones in Dare County for decades, but that doesn't mean they like them. At base towns and in other areas where overflights occur, citizens are speaking out against existing training operations--to say nothing of increased activities.
Many of those voices belong to local businesspeople like Bill Meredith, who runs The Waterworks, an outdoor sports center in Nags Head near the Dare County range.
"We don't need the jets and we don't need the noise," he says, recounting how low-flying military planes in his area often rouse people from sleep and crack windows on charter boats. "Our economy is based on tourism, our economy is not the U.S. Navy." If the Navy tries to stage additional operations in Dare County, Meredith adds, "I'm going to say the same things they say at Vieques and other places: Not here."
Other critics are environmentalists like Rick Dove, southeastern representative of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international group of water-quality watchdogs that's headed by Robert Kennedy Jr., one of the better-known Vieques protesters.
When asked about proposals to expand bombing sites in North Carolina, Dove says simply, "That is insane. That's the only word I can think of to describe that."
For the Defense Department, which insists that U.S. forces cannot maintain sufficient readiness without regular access to training sites like Vieques, the problem of where to locate those sites is a long-simmering issue. But it's never been harder to find a spot where the neighbors don't mind the boom and bang of combat practice, due in large part to fallout from grassroots protests in Puerto Rico.
Residents of Vieques, which has a civilian population of 9,300, had long complained about the noise, danger, and long-term environmental impact of training exercises. The current crisis was sparked on April 19, 1999, when a Marine Corps F-18 pilot released two 500-pound bombs on the wrong target, killing security guard David Sanes Rodríguez and injuring four others.
The bombing accident galvanized the movement to push the Navy out. After two years of protests by thousands of Puerto Ricans and a host of high-profile allies--including Edward James Olmos, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson and his wife, Jacqueline--it appears that the guns of Vieques will soon fall silent. In May, the Bush administration announced that the United States will cease training in Vieques by 2003. Protestors say that's not soon enough, but for the military, that leaves less than two years to find a suitable replacement site.
The search went into high gear last month, when the Navy, which oversees operations at Vieques, formed a study panel headed by retired senior military officials to find replacement training grounds. A think tank, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), was hired to coordinate the search. In a report called "Alternatives to Vieques," that was completed in August 2000 but has just been made public, the CNA outlines the Navy's options.
Analysts surveyed 434 potential training spots around the world, and none of them possessed the unique attributes of Vieques. Instead, they recommended a piecemeal approach, spreading the training around to several sites--most of them in North Carolina.
"The leading candidate," the report says, "is a collection of ranges accessible from the Virginia Capes," including Fort Bragg, Dare County, Camp Legeune and the nearby Cherry Point range (see "The New Vieques?" on page 22). This string of sites "could become comparable to Vieques in terms of the quality of tactical training it offers, while being superior in two important ways," the report says. "It is closer to Norfolk where most Atlantic Fleet forces are stationed and its future is less vulnerable to unfavorable political developments." Such statements suggest that the Navy is banking on citizens in communities on the U.S. mainland being less sensitive to--or less organized around--the issue of bomb testing sites.
Military officials say it's too early to predict where the Vieques training will be relocated. But a spokesperson for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base estimates that an additional six weekends of training a year will be needed to complete some of operations that have previously been conducted on the Puerto Rican island.
Logistically speaking, North Carolina's existing training ranges could, with some alterations, accommodate the three essential training operations now conducted at Vieques: air-to-ground bombing, amphibious operations, and ship-to-shore fire support. But the CNA notes that there are other important considerations.
"Any military ranges will have an impact--often an undesirable impact--on the environment, the local economy and the people who live in the area," the report says. "It is reasonable to expect opposition to any new range development proposal from many different groups for many different reasons. Some of the opposition may be disingenuous or contrived, but there will also be opposition over legitimate concerns."
Not only are the concerns legitimate, says William "Punk" Daniels, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, they are running at an all-time high since news reports began appearing last month about the possible escalation of military traffic in the area.
A retired Air Force officer and longtime public school teacher, Daniels believes that sufficient armed forces training is important, indeed crucial, but that Dare County has all it can handle right now.
"As a former military man, I have great interest in doing the right thing for the military and the training, but we are trying to preserve our quality of life," he says. "Most of our airspace is preoccupied with military activities, and we have a vested interest in keeping our little municipal airport, in keeping our little air corridor open." During most of the year, that corridor serves a local population of 29,000, but in the summer tourist season, 10 times as many visitors travel through the county.
Daniels has a ready avenue for airing his concerns about proposed new bombing sites. Four times a year, the military sends officers to meet with local citizens and government officials under the auspices of the Dare County Bombing Range Advisory Council. The meetings have helped iron out some local worries, like ensuring that hunters have greater access to the buffer zone around the range. But on the question of whether the area will become the new Vieques, Daniels says, the military is keeping citizens in the dark.
In a July 11 letter, Daniels told military representatives on the council that "I am greatly concerned about recent media implications of proposed increased activity at the Dare Bombing Range," and pressed them for information on potential new bombing sites. He also wants assurances that the military will take steps to reduce aircraft noise over tourist attractions like the outdoor drama, The Lost Colony, which is staged five miles from the range.
"Naturally the Air Force [which owns the bombing range] wants to maintain good public relations here, and, recognizing that, I've just asked them to be up front about it," Daniels says. But so far, he hasn't heard anything from military officials. The next meeting of the advisory council is scheduled for October.
The Vieques replacement search isn't the only issue that has Dare County residents worried. The Navy is also contemplating a new airstrip either on the Dare County range or in neighboring Hyde County, according to a recent report in the Outer Banks Sentinel. The Navy says it needs an additional landing area to accommodate refueling and training for a new fleet of jets that will be based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va., another East Coast military hub.
Aside from concerns about how new bomb sites will affect human populations along the North Carolina coast, there are also questions about how expanded training operations will affect local wildlife habitats. The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is, after all, a place where animals are supposed to enjoy a federally protected haven--not scurry in fear from bombing runs and bullets.
The Air Force insists that it is actively committed to helping maintain Dare County's unique ecosystem--and its track record on that score is surprisingly good. The military has collaborated with a slew of environmental initiatives on the range and the refuge, including studies and preservation activities. Partners in those efforts have included Eastern Carolina University, the Atlantic White Cedar Alliance, the U.S. Forest Service, the N.C. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
Ironically, the fact that the refuge is next to a bombing range has been an advantage when it comes to preservation. "It's sort of a complicated picture," says Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a consortium of state conservation groups. "With many of these existing operations, they also wind up protecting the land by preventing people from visiting."
When asked if the prospect of expanded military training would be a step backward for preservation efforts, Defense Department scientists cite preliminary results of environmental studies at Dare--including an on-going effort to gauge the effects of bomb runs on the red-cockaded woodpecker. Those studies show training activities have little or no discernible effect on wildlife at the refuge.
"The animals are not half as concerned as the people are," says Harry Mann, the Navy's on-site supervisor at Dare. "The deer and ducks don't even pay attention to it."
But Dennis Stewart, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biologist at the refuge, isn't so sure. He says no one can be certain how animals are affected by proximity to bomb training. Even when there's no outward appearance of distress, "there may be a physiological response we can't see," Stewart says. "There's a threshold, in many species, a stress threshold where the animal's health will go down." In addition, Stewart says, small fires occasionally started by training weapons could threaten the habitat.
Environmentalists have been worried about hazards from existing training activities for years. "Before I heard about the plan to move the bombing from Vieques to North Carolina, a number of us had already been doing something about the existing ranges," says Rick Dove, of the Waterkeeper Alliance. "It's our feeling that, without even talking about Vieques, it's time to do an environmental impact statement to see what damage has been done already" by operations in Dare County and elsewhere.
Dove says his organization will take the military to court to ensure that no added training happens before impact statements are done. "If they try to do that, they are in for the surprise of their lives," he says.
The Vieques protests have set an example for communities on the U.S. mainland where military training is an issue, and resistance to expansion proposals now before the Navy is springing up in several spots.
Last month, the Sierra Club announced plans for major protests near another bomb test candidate site in coastal Texas, then happily called them off when the Navy announced it would not venture there. In April, a citizens group in Virginia Beach filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking compensation for base neighbors who believe their quality of life and property values have been harmed by military overflights. And in Emerald Isle, N.C., a group called the Bogue Field Committee has formed to oppose low-flying Marine Harrier jet training.
Military officials are well aware of the potential for more protests. "The Navy should not expect much support from the general electorate or from their political representatives," the CNA report advised, warning that new training sites will be a universally unpopular proposition. If the military does try to expand training in North Carolina, it will have to flex all of its public relations muscle. But so far, since no decision on a Vieques replacement has been made, officials are keeping a low profile.
While organizing efforts by statewide peace activists and environmental groups are just gearing up, elected officials in base towns throughout eastern North Carolina are staking out positions against potential plans to increase military training in the state.
They have some powerful allies. Democratic U.S. Sen. John Edwards is among those who have come out against relocating training done in Vieques to the Tar Heel state.
"Of course we'll listen to our military advisers, but my position is there's no reason at all to move this bombing exercise to North Carolina," he said at a July meeting of the North Carolina Press Association in Pinehurst.
Such high-level opposition, along with local prodding, may help ensure that proposals to increase military operations in North Carolina die on the drawing board. But with the state at the top of the list for new bombing sites, the outcome of the issue is far from certain.
During the coming year, the military, the Bush administration, Congress and citizens groups will all be weighing in on the question of replacement sites for Vieques. While the decision is not exactly a public process, public protest can make a difference in determining where future military training sites will go.
That's a lesson that Bill Meredith, the Nags Head business owner who's also a current candidate for mayor, has taken to heart. He says not only can he identify with people from Vieques--he also admires their tactics in confronting the military juggernaut.
Now, Meredith wants to get the word out to more citizens.
"I want to send a wake up call that, hey, they're about to throw it to us," he says. "Here it is, it's right in your backyard."