May 13, 2013

SpaceX Wants to Claim Part of Merritt Island NWR

The Orlando Sentinel recently reported on the brewing battle between SpaceX — a California company owned by billionaire Elon Musk — and those looking to protect refuge habitat.

SpaceX wants 150 acres in an area known as Shiloh, which is surrounded by the healthiest part of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. SpaceX continues to perform commercial launches on traditional sites, such as Kennedy Space Center, but the company believes that by getting land outside the federal complexes, they can avoid “bureaucratic” inconveniences.

The Volusia County Council recently voted 6-1 to support the spaceport.

The lone “no” vote was Patricia Northey, who said the project would harm the refuge and the eco-tourism that has bloomed around it. “You wouldn’t put a spaceport in the middle of the Grand Canyon,” she said. “This is our Grand Canyon.”

While it’s true that NASA launches have operated in relative harmony with Merritt Island NWR in the past, the land that SpaceX wants will likely impede the use of controlled burns, which help wildlife and habitat at the refuge, and might also close down areas to tourism.

Environmentalists also fear the public-closure zone for launches would be enormous, covering even the Intracoastal Waterway, the primary close-to-shore channel for commercial and recreational boats.

The Florida Natural Areas Inventory describes the 40 miles of coastline bordering the refuge and the national seashore as the longest non-urbanized stretch of Atlantic beach in Florida. “This is the last bastion of pristine coastline,” said Dan Daniels, a United Waterfowlers of Florida board member. “This is stuff that there isn’t any more of.”

Ted Forsgren, advocacy adviser for the Coastal Conservation Association, said “the refuge is a big money maker for the county now. You’re going to lose a lot of jobs if that lagoon is messed up.”

If SpaceX doesn’t get the Merritt Island NWR land they want, their next choice is a piece of property near Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. According to ABC 13:

The Florida refuge encompasses 140,000 acres. The Texas refuge is a mostly narrow string of more than 100 separate tracts that have been pieced together to create a wildlife corridor along the final 275 miles of the Rio Grande. There are about 5,700 refuge acres within three miles of the launch site.

“Probably the biggest thing that all refugees are fighting is habitat loss and fragmentation,” said Robert Jess, a project leader for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees the refuge. “Boca Chica is an anchor point of a wildlife corridor that extends into the Texas ranchlands to the north and then south into Mexico. It kind of ensures our connectivity and genetic exchange for ocelot populations.”

A draft environmental impact statement by the FAA:

acknowledged the project likely will “adversely affect” some endangered species, including the piping plover, northern aplomado falcon, jaguarundi, ocelot, and sea turtles

Ironically, SpaceX is owned by Elon Musk, who was just in the headlines for quitting Mark Zuckerberg’s political action committee after it ran ads supporting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Musk is known as being pro-environment and opposed the ads. But does he oppose damaging national wildlife refuges just so he can avoid “bureaucratic red tape” for his rocket ventures.

According to the Orlando Sentinel:

SpaceX founder and billionaire Elon Musk told the Texas House Appropriations Committee last Friday that the Lone Star state is now the front-runner as he and his company seek a site for operating a more-bureaucratic-free facility for launching commercial rockets into orbit.

“Right now, Texas is in the lead,” Musk told the Texas lawmakers, according to the San Antonio Express News.

“It concerns us greatly,” said Jerry Sansom, chairman of the Titusville-Cocoa Airport Authority, which operates Space Coast Regional. “When you look at the Texas legislature, they’re taking him very serious that they’re going to do everything they can to sweeten the pot.”

So does sweetening the pot include ignoring the environmental impact of a spaceport in or near prime wildlife habitat? It remains to be seen what will play out in Texas, but in Florida, Clay Henderson, an Audubon activist and founder of the Friends of Canaveral wants the U.S. Interior Department “to take a formal role in the Shiloh assessment and not leave that task to the FAA only.”

“We have no confidence FAA will address any environmental concerns,” Henderson said. “They never met a bird they didn’t want to kill.”

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