U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Reconsiders Expansion of Alabama's Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that it "will take six months to review its options about how to proceed with a proposed expansion of the Cahaba [River] National Wildlife Refuge's acquisition boundary."

The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge is located in Bibb County, Alabama, and encompasses seven miles of the Cahaba River. The refuge is home to such federally protected species as the Cahaba shiner, goldline darter, round rocksnail, and cylindrical lioplax snail.

FWS' announcement came in apparent reaction to the criticism of the proposal in central Alabama, where FWS had proposed to expand the existing 3,600-acre refuge by 106,415 acres. The expansion would have made the refuge larger than all other National Wildlife Refuges located in the state of Alabama combined.

Although FWS had been actively coordinating the expansion with local environmental groups for three years, the news of the proposed expansion came as a surprise to the landowners located within the acquisition boundary. A public hearing on September 2, 2010, drew a hostile crowd of residents who roundly condemned the proposal and questioned FWS' failure to provide them with individual notice of the proposal.

Other commentators, notably the Alabama Forest Owners' Association, criticized the proposal's failure to adequately address the economic impact of the expansion. According to the AFOA, the land acquisition would, with respect to the timber industry in the region, cost $22.8 million in payroll contributions and $778,958 in state tax contributions annually. It would also cost 702 forestry-related jobs.

Although groups such as the Cahaba River Society and The Nature Conservancy argued that the expansion was necessary to protect the Cahaba's water quality, other commentators questioned the proposed price tag of the expansion -- estimated by USFWS at $290 million.

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) greeted Monday's announcement warmly.

"I have consistently made clear to the FWS that the proposed acquisition is an egregious and unjustified overreach by the federal government that is unacceptable," Shelby said. "Today's announcement indicates that the FWS now agrees that the scope and enormity of the proposed acquisition is not only disproportionate, but also lacking any legitimate justification."

According to FWS personnel, FWS will review the concept of the expansion and will "start from scratch with a public scoping process. There will be a much more intensive effort at obtaining public input."