Jul 15, 2010

New York Times Spins Harris Neck NWR Story

wood storks at Harris Neck NWRIn journalism circles, few things are as well regarded as the journalistic integrity of the New York Times. Unfortunately on July 1, the New York Times published a story by Shaila Dewan titled “Black landowners fight to reclaim Ga. ‘heaven,’” which was actually a heavily biased editorial disguised as a news piece that tried to build a case for the Harris Neck Land Trust to be given Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia.

Land on Harris Neck in McIntosh County was acquired by the Department of Defense for a World War II pilot training base. After the war, that property was contracted to McIntosh County for use as a public airport. After well documented misuse of the property by McIntosh County, the property was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1962 for establishment of the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

In 1979 and 1984 there were well publicized efforts by some of the original owners and descendants of original owners of the property to regain possession and use of the land. In response to a Congressional inquiry, the General Accounting Office issued a report asserting that the owners had been fairly compensated for their land and that other aspects of the acquisition were legal and consistent with practices around the country in acquisition of land by the Department of Defense and subsequent use for other public purposes.

Now the Harris Neck Land Trust — comprised of former residents and their descendants, as well as people described by the New York Times as “white families who owned land but did not live on Harris Neck” — is trying to build local support to regain the refuge land.

The claim is that they want the land back so they can live in harmony with nature and, according to Dewan, recapture “barefoot childhoods spent climbing trees and waking to watch the Canada geese depart in formation.”

But once the reader gets further into the article we read that the Harris Neck Land Trust has rather ambitious economic plans for the land:

But a little more than a tenth of the land would be developed – each of about 70 families would get four acres, with design requirements and a strict covenant that the land, now worth $100,000 or more an acre, could not be sold. There would be an eco-lodge and a convention center, which the county now lacks.

As it turns out, the existence of the wildlife refuge has made living in the Harris Neck area rather desirable and profitable. Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper in nearby Darien, confirms this fact:

As a local resident, though, Ms. Sheppard said she was familiar with the history of Harris Neck and sympathetic to the former residents, displaced from land whose status as a wildlife refuge has helped drive the construction of million-dollar retreats nearby.

“People continue to suggest that people from Atlanta with money can live here in an ecologically sound way – why can’t people with experience hunting and fishing and living off the land live in an ecologically sound way?” she said. “Those people are rightly suggesting that they have a historic capacity to interact well with their natural resources. And the rest of us haven’t.”

What Ms. Sheppard doesn’t say is how building a hotel and convention center is “living off the land” in “an ecologically sound way.” Especially considering how much additional sprawl such development will likely attract.

Reporter Dewan goes on to build her case for the landowners by mentioning that a local politician supports the land trust, and his name is Representative Jack Kingston. What Dewan fails to mention is Rep. Kingston has one of the worst environmental voting records in all of Congress — a 0% rating for the period of 2007-2009. In fact, the League of Conservation Voters reports that during the last environmental legislation scorecard, Rep. Kingston managed to vote against the National Estuary Program bill, the Protecting the Molalla River bill, the Chemical Security bill, the Greening Schools bill, and the Public Lands Protection bill.

What You Can Do

The Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges, which is comprised of volunteers that support Harris Neck NWR, are rightly concerned not only about this refuge but the fact that any decision to return the property to private hands would have immediate far-reaching consequences for other refuges and national parks whose lands were acquired through a similar process.

The Friends are asking for help. If you live in Georgia, letters to editors of your local newspapers and local politicians are needed to show your support for the wildlife habitat, field research, and recreation that Harris Neck NWR provides for more than 90,000 visitors a year. Below are some facts about Harris Neck NWR:

Harris Neck’s 2,762 acres consists of saltwater marsh, grassland, mixed deciduous woods, and cropland. Because of this great variety in habitat, many different species of birds are attracted to the refuge throughout the year, and the refuge serves as a critical wood stork rookery. In the summer, thousands of egrets and herons nest in the swamps, while in the winter, large concentrations of ducks (especially mallards, gadwall and teal) gather in the marshland and freshwater pools.

Over 15 miles of paved roads and trails provide the easy access to the many different habitats. Chosen for it’s accessibility and bird diversity, Harris Neck is one of 18 sites forming the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, inaugurated in 2000.

Tell editors and politicians if you are a birder, a cyclist, a hiker, a boater, etc., and how the refuge matters personally to you and your family. Be sure to fully identify yourself with address and contact information. And please let the Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges know if you contacted any of the following people.

Below is the contact information for local politicians:

The Hon. Jack Kingston (Dear Rep. Kingston)
1st District of Georgia, US House of Representatives
1 Diamond Causeway, Savannah GA 31406
Phone 912-352-0101 Fax 912-352-0105
[Harris Neck NWR is in his district]

The Hon. John Barrow (Dear Rep. Barrow)
12th District of Georgia, US House of Representatives
450 Mall Blvd. Savannah, GA 31406
Phone 912-354-7282 Fax 912-354-7782
[he's supportive of appropriations for local refuges]

The Hon. Joe Wilson (Dear Rep. Wilson)
2nd District of South Carolina, US House of Representatives
903 Port Republic Street
Beaufort, SC 29901
Phone 912-521-2530 Fax 843-521-2535
[he's a colleague of Kingston's]

McIntosh County Commission
County Commission Chairman Boyd Gault
PO BOX 584
County Courthouse
Darien, GA 31305-0584
Phone: 912-437-6671
[home of Harris Neck NWR]

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