When it was my chance to speak for Defenders at a public hearing attended by over 400 people in New Smyrna Beach, I posed a question: Why would we permit a space launch pad for commercial use in the middle of a national wildlife refuge that provides habitat for more endangered and threatened species than any other refuge in the continental United States? That’s just what Space Florida, an agency that promotes private space program enterprise, wants to do at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It just doesn’t make sense, especially when there are alternate sites at the Kennedy Space Center a couple miles away. I was pleased to hear that the crowd agreed with us. We can support a commercial spaceport and the opportunities it offers, but keep the refuge as a safe haven for the wildlife it was established to protect.
Space Florida’s proposal for construction and operation of a launch pad, and the facilities and road expansions that would come along with it, simply aren’t compatible with the purposes of the refuge. Nor with the many ecological and economic benefits that the refuge and the adjacent Cape Canaveral National Seashore and National Park Service historic sites provide to the region.
The Refuge manages habitat for more than 1,500 species of wildlife, including 16 listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Among those that could be adversely impacted by a new space port facility are the Florida scrub jay, piping plover, sea turtles, eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise and Florida manatee, as well as the diverse shorebird populations and our national symbol the bald eagle. The impacts of the facility would go well beyond its footprint and disrupt refuge management. For example, the facility would force the FWS to restrict the prescribed burning program, which benefits fire-dependent species. The project would expand roads and increase traffic, which would increase incidents of roadkill. The new facility would also produce lighting that often disrupts nesting and hatchling sea turtles. More than one million people visit the refuge each year, experiencing not only Merritt Island but also patronizing the many services and amenities throughout the local area. A new facility would also impact how visitors use the area; the frequency of launches would mean far fewer days each year that the waters and lands at and around the refuge would be accessible to the public. Given all of these factors, combined with the fact that NASA has other suitable property available nearby, Space Florida’s request for the refuge acreage is especially disturbing.
Speaking for Defenders at the public hearing, I urged the agencies not to expend local, state and federal funds on a long and controversial struggle over the project. The public would be far better served by directing Space Florida to work with NASA on an alternate site for this venture and on assuring the priceless values of the refuge remain intact. I confess, I’m a huge Star Trek fan who aspires to take a space flight someday. However, while space flight can be inspiring, we should first ensure that we are responsible stewards of the incredible biological diversity at home. We’ll be keeping a close eye on how the decision to allow this facility moves forward.
Laurie Macdonald, Florida Program Director