Eagles fail federal crash test

In the single-minded doublespeak of the Federal Aviation Administration, birds have become "hazardous wildlife" and wetlands targeted as dreaded "wildlife attractants."Neither is recommended within two miles of areas of airports where jets are being moved, unloaded or parked, or within five miles of lands below departure and arrival paths.

With Advisory Circular150/5200-33, the FAA seems to have dragged out its heaviest jargon in declaring open season on the natural habitat favored by our feathered friends. The guidelines set out in the 12-page advisory are to be used not only by airport authorities, but by anyone planning or developing anything within the "separation" distances established by the FAA.

"Most public-use airports have large tracts of open, unimproved land that are desirable for added margins of safety and noise mitigation. These areas can present potential hazards to aviation because they often attract hazardous wildlife," decrees the FAA in the advisory issued May 1, 1997. "During the past century, wildlife-aircraft strikes have resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives worldwide, as well as billions of dollars worth of aircraft damage. Hazardous wildlife attractants near airports could jeopardize future airport expansion because of safety considerations."

The implications came home to roost on Aug. 13, when the guidelines were used to justify the chainsaw massacre of a tree and eagle's nest in the path of a runway project at the Orlando Sanford Airport. Fearing for five nests nearby, The Florida Audubon Society filed a complaint with state authorities who sanctioned the removal of the nest.

The FAA has declared war on birds. We're responding to airport issues all over the state," Audubon president Clay Henderson says. Audubon also recently toured Orlando Regional Airport where authorities plan to eliminate a mile of wetlands used by nesting birds, including sandhill cranes, in building a $965 million terminal.

Audubon charges authorities are using the guidelines to sidestep environmental-protection regulations. In the Sanford case, there seems to have been little proof required. In the letter clearing the airport for the take-off, the state said there had been no collisions. Yet they noted the FAA had deemed the nest an "unacceptable hazard" and sided with the bureaucrats. "Under no circumstances would this agency, as a matter of policy, intercede on behalf of the welfare of a single pair of bald eagles at the demonstrated expense of public safety," concluded the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

By requiring authorities to demonstrate the safety hazard, Audubon hopes to bring down the FAA. At its Birds of Prey Center in Maitland, not a single injured eagle has come from an aircraft collision, Henderson says: "Safety is a concern. I want people to prove it up." But Jack McSwain, an FAA inspector, says the potential presence of wildlife is enough to justify preventative action. "It's not a matter of whether it's going to happen, it's just a matter of when."

The advisory fails to provide statistics supporting its introductory claims of hundreds of lives and billions of dollars lost. But stats circulated recently indicate 4,500 collisions a year cost $250 million. The military is also concerned, particularly since four major collisions in the past two years. Yes, this has become a matter of national security, as well as public safety. And while much of the danger has been traced to a lack of pilot training, the FAA has chosen instead to focus on eliminating wildlife attractants and hazardous wildlife.