News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

March 27, 2011

FLASHPOINT: Army needs to protect the prairie at Newport Depot

There are a lot of misconceptions that the 336-acre U.S. Army Newport Chemical Depot prairie will be saved. For the record, this is the largest black soil prairie in Indiana and there are no guarantees that it will be saved. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) stated in a March 2009 letter about the future reuse of the Depot, “Today in the 21st century, prairies and the grassland animals dependent upon them are considered globally threatened. The importance of prairie to endangered grassland species, floodwater retention, groundwater recharge, watershed protection, return of carbon to soils, erosion control, and aesthetics, among many other realized benefits, has caused prairie conservation to be an increasingly important issue. A restoration on this scale would be of national significance.”

Last November, the Army released a “Finding of No Significant Impact (FNSI), Environmental Assessment of the Disposal and Reuse of Newport Chemical Depot, Indiana” and the Final Environmental Assessment (EA) of the Implementation of Base Realignment and Closure at Newport Chemical Depot, Indiana.” There were many concerns and comments sent to the Army about these documents. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was submitted to the Army on Dec. 28, 2010, requesting all of the public comments. The Army finally responded on March 8. They denied the request for a fee waiver and gave only one day to answer if more than $1,600 could be raised to get the 800 pages of public comments. This is clearly a case of the fox watching the chicken coop; and it is obvious that the Army does not want those comments to get into the public’s hands in a timely manner.

The Hoosier Environmental Council had this to say to the Army:

“Neither the NeCRDA reuse plan, nor the Army’s disposal action, provide for protection of the 336 acre black soil tallgrass prairie area, which is a rare and biologically valuable natural area deserving of permanent protection. Instead, the reuse plan includes most of this prairie area in an agricultural and forestry designation, meaning it could be plowed and planted to row crops in the future. The EA acknowledges this, stating, ‘some loss of the restored prairie areas would be expected.’

“Contrary to the EA’s statement, ‘tallgrass prairie’ is not an agricultural reuse. It is illogical, and inconsistent with a goal of the NeCRDA reuse plan, to include a high quality natural area such as this black soil tallgrass prairie area in a reuse category that may allow its destruction. It is unimportant that this prairie area is restored prairie, because it represents, now and in the future, a rare and important natural community that is worthy of preservation.

“Given that this prairie area constitutes less than 5 percent of the total Newport area, and that more than 3,000 acres would remain for business and technology reuse, it is wholly reasonable and prudent to permanently protect this area. The Army’s disposal action should require that this prairie area be included in the ‘natural areas and open space’ reuse classification, or otherwise assure its permanent protection through an easement or other encumbrance. The Army should reach a finding of significant impact for the Newport Chemical Depot disposal action and prepare a full environmental impact statement which evaluates industrial reuses and their compatibility with the medium-low and low intensity reuses contemplated by the NeCDRA reuse plan and EA. The EIS should also include a disposal alternative which provides for full protection of Newport’s important natural areas and habitats— forests, prairie, and wetlands.”

We agree with the Hoosier Environmental Council, that the documents do not adequately evaluate the effects of destroying the prairie by using it for agricultural production or industrial development purposes.

The Army has received hundreds of comments concerning saving the prairie. The Indiana Wildlife Federation and the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club both passed resolutions to save the prairie and other natural areas at the Depot. Space concerns for this letter do not allow the organizations to be recognized. In addition, the IDNR stated, “We were disappointed, however, to see that a significant portion (maybe 85 percent) of the 336 acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie in the southwest part of the Newport Chemical Depot has been labeled as ‘Agricultural and Forestry.’ This would indicate to us that these acres can be converted to row crop agriculture destroying years of work and expense. Perhaps more importantly, a host of wildlife species will lose the habitat that they have colonized and thrived in over the past 10-5 years. Grassland birds are among the most threatened species in Indiana, primarily because less than 1 percent of Indiana’s native prairie remains today. Many of them prefer larger expanses of open grasslands.”

The Army needs to do the right thing and absolutely protect the prairie and all the wildlife that inhabit it. Vermillion County could become a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and educators alike. The prairie could even be named the Ernie Pyle Veterans Prairie to honor all of the heroes from Vermillion County that have fought for our freedom. The possibilities are endless.

— Marty Jones, president, Wabash Valley Audubon Society, Terre Haute

— Phillip Cox, past president, Wabash Valley Audubon Society, Montezuma

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