LETTER: Memorandum of Understanding with the National Wildlife Refuge is needed

This letter to the editor is reprinted here with permission of the author
The Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge was established primarily for the protection of migratory birds. Hundreds of species of birds depend on the refuge as a needed stop to rest and feed during their long migrations. The refuge was once a Naval air field, but that was a time when there were more farms and less development in South County. Migrating birds didn’t depend as much on this one spot along the coast. Early explorers reported the skies of New England made dark with the great flocks of migrating birds. All of North America was wilderness and Ninigret was likely even more beautiful, but not so important as now. This is 2012, not 1492 or 1942. Ninigret Wildlife Refuge and Ninigret Park make up an oasis along a developed coastline. The nighttime satellite images that show the two parks as the one dark spot along the eastern seaboard illustrate the uniqueness of this area.

The number of birds counted in banding stations at Ninigret is higher than other banding stations in Maine and Massachusetts. Migrating birds can arrive thin and hungry. Their chance of survival is reduced if they avoid the Ninigret Refuge.

In the last few years developments have been proposed in the Town owned portion of Ninigret that have had the potential to negatively impact the importance of the Refuge to migrating birds. The three 440 foot tall wind turbines that were proposed for the border of Ninigret would have caused birds to avoid the Refuge. The flight avoidance by birds of tall turbines is well documented and the radius of this avoidance would have made a large number of migrating birds miss a stop in Charlestown. A longer flight for an exhausted and hungry bird means fewer survive the trip. The lighted sports fields were also proposed directly on the border of the National Wildlife Refuge. Many migrations occur at night and the proposed lights would have caused birds to be disoriented and again might have discouraged a stopover in Charlestown to rest and feed.

I believe the members of the Parks and Recreation Commission care as deeply about wildlife as others in Charlestown do. But neither they, nor I, nor a lighting contractor, nor a wind developer, have the necessary expertise to determine what impacts specific developments will have on the wildlife that depend on our National Wildlife Refuge. The Wildlife Biologists who work for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and others at local Universities are much more qualified to make those assessments. But in order to make those determinations, they need to know what is proposed, and for the last few years they have not been consulted or even notified.

The proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) doesn’t give power to the Federal Government. The Federal Government has all the power it needs. An MOU is about information sharing between the Town and Wildlife Biologists. Such an arrangement would benefit the town greatly. In the last few years Town staff have worked hard to submit grants for a boat ramp in a sensitive area, and wind turbines and tall pole lighting in a critical bird migration route. All of those grants were lost when the granting agency found out about opposition from US Fish and Wildlife. If town staff had talked to the Biologists first, they could have modified the applications or pursued other projects. Charlestown forfeited a chance to receive money from DEM recreation funds this year by submitting a grant that was in conflict with the Wildlife Refuge.

In the end, nothing will be allowed by the Federal government that threatens the mission of a National Wildlife Refuge, but time and energy could be saved and more grant monies received if the Town works openly and cooperatively with the staff and scientists at the Refuge. The hysterical opposition by some to the notion of “understanding” is perhaps the best proof we have that a formal agreement is needed. I hope all of the Town Council will support Dan Slattery’s motion for a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Wildlife Refuge.

Ruth Platner

The writer is a member of the Charlestown Planning Commission.