tampabay.com

Woodpecker may turn airport plan to sawdust

Sightings of a bird once thought extinct could doom a planned Panhandle air facility .

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published October 20, 2006


Can a woodpecker stop an airport?

Maybe it should, if it's as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker, say environmental groups.

On Thursday two organizations sent the Federal Aviation Administration a letter urging it to reconsider approval of a new, $240-million airport serving the Panama City area in light of possible sightings of the woodpecker.

Last month a team of researchers led by Auburn University professor Geoff Hill announced they had found evidence that ivory-billed woodpeckers, long believed extinct, were thriving in a remote swamp in the Florida Panhandle.

The area is near the proposed 4,000-acre airport that would be built on land donated by the St. Joe Co., the state's largest private landowner. The company hopes to develop the 70,000 acres surrounding the site.

The Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council sent the letter to the FAA and also urged the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to look into the issue before okaying the airport's permit to destroy wetlands.

The area where Hill's team says it found the so-called Lord God Bird is in a wilderness area along the Choctawhatchee River. That's about 19 miles from the proposed airport site, as the woodpecker flies.

"The proposed airport could have direct or indirect impacts on the ivory-billed woodpecker and at a minimum warrants further investigation," wrote Melanie Richardson of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Jason Rylander of Defenders of Wildlife.

Environmental groups oppose the airport because it would wipe out 2,000 acres of wetlands and 4 miles of streams. A nonbinding referendum vote found a majority of local residents also opposed the taxpayer-funded proposed airport.

But local and state officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, have pushed the airport as a way to jump-start the Panhandle's economy. The St. Joe Co. has said that without the airport, many of its development plans in the area will not come to fruition.

Meanwhile, Hill's researchers will be returning to the Panhandle this fall to search for conclusive proof that the ivory bill is there. Hill's team say they have recordings and visual sightings, but no photos.