Leading U.S. Bird Conservation Group Says Lake Apopka Airport Expansion Could be Disastrous

Black-necked Stilts by Owen Deutsch
Black-necked Stilts by Owen Deutsch

(Washington, D.C. March 27, 2012) American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the nation’s leading bird conservation organization, has called on the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRMD) to reject the West Orange Airport Authority proposal to expand an existing airport adjacent to Lake Apopka, saying the proposal could have disastrous consequences for the area’s birds.

“The expansion would negatively impact millions of birds, be a significant loss for the growing thousands of Americans who travel to the area each year and contribute to the local economy by their bird watching activities, and would imperil taxpayers’ substantial investment in managing water resources for the benefit of Florida’s citizens and wildlife,” said ABC Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, Darin Schroeder in a letter to Lad Daniels, Governing Board Member and Hans G. Tanzler , Executive Director of SJRWD.

In their proposal, the West Orange Airport Authority asks SJRWMD for 600 acres of wildlife habitat in exchange for 90 acres they currently own to expand the regional airport. The ABC letter says that aside from the discrepancy in land value equivalence, this exchange could threaten the way the district currently manages its land for water quality and wildlife. West Orange Airport Authority will be seeking federal stimulus money to develop and expand this airport, meaning the Federal Aviation Administration will mandate buffer areas around the airport based on the types of aircrafts flying in and out. At airports serving turbine-powered aircraft (such as in this proposed expansion), a 10,000 foot radius excluding “hazardous wildlife attractants” is mandated. At Lake Apopka, this radius would extend over the impoundments currently managed for and used by wading birds, shorebirds, and ducks.

In 1998, ABC designated the Lake Apopka Restoration Area as a Globally Important Bird Area (IBA) for its importance to federally endangered species that include a pair of resident endangered Whooping Cranes, Wood Storks, and Florida Scrub-Jays, all of which have a limited population range, as well as to hundreds of thousands of birds that migrate through or winter at this location. This includes many WatchList species such as the Mottled Duck, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Western, Semipalmated, White-rumped, and Stilt Sandpipers. Lake Apopka is also an important breeding site for Black-necked Stilts – in 2011 there were at least 52 nesting pairs.

For 14 years, SJRWMD has collected year-round data on the birds of Lake Apopka Restoration Area. With hundreds of thousands (up to a million) birds per day using the area, these data more than supports its IBA designation, and illustrates the importance of conserving this natural resource for wildlife.

Further, the Federal Aviation Administration is subject to Executive Order 13186, which delineates the responsibilities of federal agencies to protect migratory birds and avoid or minimize adverse impacts on migratory birds when conducting agency actions; and to restore and enhance the habitat of migratory birds, as practicable.

“Should the Federal Aviation Administration access federal stimulus funds for the airport expansion, it would clearly violate the agency’s obligations under the President’s Executive Order,” Schroeder said.

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