US Fish and Wildlife Service placed under gag order regarding Navys planned OLF

From the Southern Environmental Law Center Chapel Hill– U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists in North Carolina have been prohibited from talking to reporters, opposing parties or the public about the Navy’s proposed outlying landing field (OLF) in northeastern North Carolina. The directive was issued last Friday by U.S. Department of Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Todd Willens and comes in advance of the Navy’s release of a court-ordered Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, expected next month. “This newly issued gag order is an effort to keep the public from knowing the opinions of the Fish and Wildlife service professionals who are concerned about the effects a proposed landing field will have on wildlife and the refuge at the Navy’s preferred site,” said Derb Carter, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center which represents the environmental interests in the case against the Navy’s proposed OLF. “This directive only further confirms that the decision to build the landing field is entirely political and not based on law and science.” Willens’ directive prohibits U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) staff from responding to questions or commenting on the proposed landing field to media, non-governmental organizations and the general public. All inquiries regarding the landing field are to be referred to Jeff Fleming, of the FWS public affairs office in Atlanta. Sam Hamilton, Regional Director of FWS, delivered the directive to the staff. In February the Navy is expected to release its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS), which was ordered by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a partnering agency with the Navy, staff members have expressed concern over the proposed landing field’s impact on the adjacent Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and on endangered red wolves and threatened bald eagles. “Fish and Wildlife biologists who know the region best have made it clear from the outset that the landing field would seriously jeopardize the function of the refuge,” said Chris Canfield, Executive Director of Audubon North Carolina, a lead plaintiff in the case. “An order from political leaders to keep quiet doesn’t change that fact.” Todd Willens is the former policy director of the House Resources Committee when it was chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo (CA). In this position, Willens had involvement with convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff according to news articles cited by the Endangered Species and Wetlands Report (http://www.eswr.com/latest/#N_3_). Just before Rep. Pombo was defeated in his bid for reelection, Willens left the House Resources Committee to become Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the Department of the Interior.