U.S. Fish & Wildlife proposes expansion of Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge

Published 5:01 pm Tuesday, December 19, 2023

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking the public’s review and comment on a proposal to expand the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina.

The proposed expansion spans Bertie, Halifax, Martin, Northampton and Washington counties and would support the restoration and protection of a forested corridor along a 137-mile stretch of the Roanoke River from Weldon to the Albemarle Sound.

The 30-day review and public comment period is now underway and includes two public meetings where the Service will present information and seek input on the proposed expansion.

Increasing access to public lands and waters is a central component of the Biden administration’s approach to conservation under the America the Beautiful initiative. The Service’s proposal is the culmination of a longstanding partnership with the state of North Carolina, The Nature Conservancy and other state and federal agencies to develop a landscape-scale conservation strategy for eastern North Carolina.

Within lands acquired through fee-title from willing sellers only, hunting and fishing, environmental education and interpretation, wildlife observation and photography would be allowed if deemed compatible with the refuge. Additional public uses, including research, hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, boating and kayaking, could also be considered.

The proposal is based on numerous regional and national conservation plans, discussions with numerous stakeholders, public meetings in each affected county, and a 60-day public comment period that identified a variety of conservation and public benefits. The result: a draft Land Protection Plan and Environmental Assessment that identified a 287,090-acre Conservation Partnership Area. Within the Partnership Area, the refuge could purchase up to 50,000 acres in fee-title acquisitions from willing sellers, and as many as 100,000 acres in conservation easements or cooperative agreements with private landowners. The Conservation Partnership Area already includes 93,000 acres managed for conservation by public and private entities.

The proposed expansion would help connect different habitats between the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula and the Roanoke River floodplain. It would also improve water quality and protect against rising seas which are expected to inundate much of the peninsula over the next 100 years.

Conservation easements are voluntary agreements that allow landowners to maintain working and private lands as they are with no further subdivision or development. These less-than-fee-title interests would provide important opportunities for conservation while maintaining private ownership rights and responsibilities.

“The Roanoke River refuge expansion proposal is an incredible opportunity to receive feedback and work with the community to conserve and protect the rivers and lands we so enjoy,” said Michael Oetker, the Service’s acting regional director in the Southeast. “The Service always strives to be part of the community, working alongside everyone to keep the air and water clean for our families now and into the future.”

The refuge was established in 1991 to protect forests along the floodplain, the largest intact, and least disturbed, bottomland forest in the mid-Atlantic. The original acquisition boundary authorized the purchase of up to 33,000 acres from willing sellers, of which the Service has already acquired 21,313 acres.

The area supports the highest density of nesting birds in North Carolina, including rare species such as Swainson’s warbler, cerulean warbler and Kentucky warbler. Wintering and migratory waterfowl, including wood duck, mallard and wigeon, make extensive use of the refuge’s wetlands. The refuge’s floodplain supports hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring while American shad, Atlantic sturgeon and striped bass spawn in the mainstem of the Roanoke River.

“The Conservation Partnership Area establishes long-term connectivity between the habitats of the Coastal Plain,” added Rebekah Martin, Project Leader for the Coastal North Carolina National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “The proposed expansion will help improve water quality and restore the natural flow of the Roanoke River for the benefit of migratory birds and all wildlife.”

The proposal, including possible impacts and alternatives, is now available for public review alongside the draft Land Protection Plan and Environmental Assessment.

All interested parties have the opportunity to participate and provide comments during the open 30-day comment period. Please submit comments to: Roanokeriver@fws.gov. Comments will be accepted until Jan 4, 2024.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information, visit www.fws.gov.