State and feds squabble over how to conserve Shawangunk grasslands

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently put a halt to work on a federal conservation project at the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is covering the old runways of the Galeville Military Airport with soil to make habitat for ground-nesting and migrating birds. But it seems the feds were a little too fast and loose with their dirt-moving activities. The Shawangunk Journal reports:

The DEC staff found that there were no "sediment or erosion controls" on the site. None of the topsoil stockpiles were stabilized with vegetation, or surrounded with silt fence. The lack of proper erosion and sediment control measures was cited by the DEC as a violation of the SPDES General Permit and Article 17 of the Environmental Conservation Law. Violations of Article 17 are subject to penalties of up to $37,500 per day, per violation.

A stop-work order sent by the DEC said the Wallkill was running "chocolate brown" when it was inspected in late August, the Journal said.

The Times Herald-Record says there's a dilemma at the site: The feds want to use on-site soil, to keep the impact on the surrounding area down, but they can't scoop up soil from the grassland without possibly harming some of the rare birds that already nest there.

Now, the DEC said it will consider whether on-site soil can be used without damaging too much of the habitat for short-eared owls, norther harriers, upland sandpipers and other endangered and threatened species that nest and migrate in the refuge.

"That's debatable," said Mike Horne, the acting refuge manager. "Our goal has always been to restore grasslands and create better grasslands. At the same time, we have to come up with enough soil cover to achieve that goal."

Even though the Galenville airport was man-made, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's website says, it's become a critical piece of habitat for grassland bird species. New York State's open grasslands are disappearing -- some turned into subdivisions, others grown up into forest as farmland is abandoned.

Photo of Shawangunk Grassland National Wildlife Refuge by Daniel Case. Published in Wikimedia Commons under GNU Free Documentation License.