Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Expansion Project

Dan Ashe


February 3, 1999

I am Dan Ashe, the Assistant Director for Refuges and Wildlife of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I am joined today by Mr. Rick Schultz who is the refuge manager of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. I appreciate the opportunity to provide testimony to the Committee concerning the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the agreement reached between the Metropolitan Airports Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Service to address the impacts of the Twin Cities airport expansion project on the refuge.

The Minnesota Valley NWR was created over 25 years ago as a result of local residents' strong interest in restoring and protecting fish and wildlife habitats of the Lower Minnesota River Valley. These citizens brought together a variety of interests...environmentalists, industry, transportation, elected officials, the general public, and natural resource agencies who recognized the value of the natural resources of the area. Based on their hard work and dedication, Congress passed Public Law 94-466, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Act, on October 8, 1976, which established the refuge. Unlike most other National Wildlife Refuges, Minnesota Valley NWR is somewhat unique in that it is primarily located in an urban setting. In this area, fish and wildlife populations coexist with over two million Twin Cities residents.

The mission of Minnesota Valley NWR is two-fold...(1) to restore and protect the important fish, wildlife, and plant communities of the lower Minnesota river valley and its surrounding watershed...and (2) to provide top quality wildlife-dependent outdoor recreation and environmental education to Twin Cities residents. Since establishment, the refuge has acquired 10,000 of its authorized 14,000 acres, it has built a state-of-the-art wildlife interpretation and visitor center, and it has developed top-quality public use programs and facilities.

In the establishment legislation, Congress acknowledged of the refuge's urban setting and the need for the Fish and Wildlife Service to work with industry and transportation. Section 9 of the Act, entitled "continued public services" provides that, "nothing in this act shall be construed as prohibiting or preventing the provision of vital public services, including (1) the continuation of commercial navigation in the main navigation channel of the Minnesota River...; (2) construction, improvement, and replacement of highways or bridges, whether or not the highway is a federal-aid highway; or (3) any other activity which the Secretary determines to be necessary; if the provision of such services is otherwise in accordance with law. Any activity referred to in this section shall be carried out so as to minimize the disruption of the wildlife and the reduction of recreational and scenic values of the area, consistent with economic feasibility."

Under section 9 of the Act, we interpreted the expansion of the Twin Cities International Airport to be a "vital public service." Further, under the Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, the Fish and Wildlife Service has no authority to regulate airspace above a refuge. However, under section 4(f) of the 1966 Department of Transportation Act (49 U.S.C. 303), the Secretary of Transportation may not approve a transportation project which requires the use of any publicly-owned land from a public park, recreation area, or wildlife and waterfowl refuge of national, state, or local significance unless there are no feasible and prudent alternatives to the use of such land and unless the project includes all possible planning to minimize harm resulting from the use. This law applies to projects that make "constructive use" of such lands, including through the type of overflights that would occur over the refuge in this case.

It was under this provision of law that we worked with the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ensure that disturbance to wildlife and wildlife-dependent recreation was minimized. From the onset, it was the Service's objective to ensure that this project would not result in a net loss of wildlife habitats and that the public would not experience a net loss of opportunity to view wildlife in its natural setting. We believe those objectives have been achieved.

Let me explain, beginning with some information about the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport expansion project. At the direction of the Minnesota state legislature in 1989, the Metropolitan Airports Commission and the Metropolitan Council began a process to determine the best alternative to meet the region's commercial aviation needs for the next 30 years. In 1992, FAA and MAC began the public phase of this planning process by announcing their intent to prepare an environmental impact statement concerning this project. This process was known as the dual tract airport planning process and at that time, several alternatives were considered including expanding the existing airport and the construction of a completely new facility in the outlying areas of the Twin Cities. In December, 1995, FAA and MAC issued a draft EIS. Comments from the public and affected agencies were then requested and received.

In March 1996, MAC and the Metropolitan Council submitted their report to the state legislature which contained recommendations on the preferred alternative. In response to this report, the Minnesota state legislature, in April, 1996, selected the expansion of the existing airport as the preferred alternative and mandated its implementation.

Among other items, this alternative called for a new 8,000 foot north-south runway to be constructed on the west side of the existing airport property. I want to emphasize again that no part of this new runway will be constructed on either existing or future refuge lands. The south end of this new runway will be located approximately 1 1/4 miles north of the refuge. Upon completion, however, the new runway will result in at least 8,000 commercial flights per month either departing or descending over the refuge at elevations as low as 500 feet. This translates into at least one flight over the refuge at relatively low elevations every other minute. Clearly, this project presented a matter of grave concern for the refuge and the Service.

As we stated earlier, this particular project will not be built upon refuge lands, so fish and wildlife habitats will not be directly used or harmed from the construction activities. Upon a search of the literature, we were unable to determine that commercial overflights of wildlife areas would have significant detrimental impacts upon fish and wildlife populations common to Minnesota Valley NWR. Some information is available suggesting disturbance to some species, but the literature is inconclusive about whether commercial airport operations have any long term effects upon wildlife species common to this area.

What is clear, however, is that the overflights will significantly impact "noise-sensitive" public use activities of the refuge. At Minnesota Valley NWR, the intense aircraft noise at frequent intervals will, among other things, significantly impede normal conversation of refuge visitors. Neither our long-standing and traditional outdoor activities, such environmental education with inner city youth, nor birding activities, which require listening to bird songs to verify visible sightings, will be able to be continued in their current location due to the aircraft overflights. This includes our youth waterfowl hunting, where we practice and demonstrate hunting ethics and proper hunting techniques. Finally, our visiting public's ability to view wildlife in its natural setting without significant intrusions will also be compromised.

In light of these noise impacts, FAA and MAC correctly determined that the construction and operation of the runway will result in a "constructive use" of refuge lands by the airport. This constructive use is harmful to refuge programs and activities and is therefore subject to Section 4(f) of the 1966 Department of Transportation Act.

As mentioned earlier, the Service position was to ensure that this project would not result in a net loss of wildlife habitats or a reduction in the public's opportunity to view wildlife in its natural setting. Towards these ends, we sent a letter to the FAA during the public comment period on their draft EIS expressing our concerns that there was not a sufficient effort to mitigate these effects of the project on the refuge. Consequently, discussions among the parties led us to the agreement we now have entered into with the Metropolitan Airports Commission and concurred in by FAA. We provided MAC and FAA an assessment of what it believed to be acceptable compensation for the impacts of the new runway. The five major components of this mitigation package included (1) the replacement of approximately 4,000 acres of refuge lands adversely impacted by noise; (2) the construction of a visitor contact and environmental education facility located upstream from existing facilities and away from the aircraft noise; (3) replacement of other environmental education and interpretive facilities; (4) an operations trust fund to underwrite the costs of operating two facilities rather than just one; and (5) costs associated with the planning and administration of this project. Based on our best estimates, we valued the total cost of this mitigation package to be approximately $26.9 million.

Two points should be noted here. First of all, the refuge will continue to maintain ownership of the lands to be directly impacted by the overflights -- these lands will be managed for their residual wildlife values. Secondly, the Service agreed to a cash settlement with the realization that mitigation for this project was quite complex and could not be easily achieved with traditional forms of mitigation. We felt that to ensure quality, mitigation needed to be accomplished over a period of several years and should be accomplished under the direct supervision of refuge managers and/or biologists. Through the Memorandum of Agreement subsequently signed by the Service and MAC, and concurred with by FAA, the Service received assurance that the refuge would not experience a net loss of wildlife habitat and that the public will not experience a net loss of opportunity to view wildlife in its natural setting.

Nearly 60 percent of the mitigation package will be directed towards land acquisition. At this time, the Service has not identified specific lands for acquisition nor scheduled the construction of replacement facilities. To the degree possible, all of these mitigation projects will be determined through the comprehensive conservation plan for Minnesota Valley NWR. Through this process, which is scheduled for completion early in the year 2000, the Service will engage the public and request their assistance in identifying additional lands and facilities which will offset the impacts of the airport expansion project upon Minnesota Valley NWR.

We should also mention that the staff at Minnesota Valley NWR has engaged the public in both the negotiations and subsequent discussions concerning the airport expansion project. The original citizens group, the Friends of Minnesota Valley, has been actively involved and has strongly supported the service in these efforts. In addition, several private conservation organizations including the Minnesota River Valley National Audubon Society chapter, are in support of the mitigation and associated memorandum of agreement.

In closing, we view the impacts of the airport expansion project as a regrettable but unavoidable loss to refuge programs and activities resulting from actions outside our jurisdiction and control. At the same time, we are very pleased with the agreement reached between MAC and FAA and we look forward to working with these two agencies in the future as we address natural resource issues of Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

This concludes my prepared remarks and I will be happy to respond to any questions you and the members of the Committee may have.

Disclaimer: All statements are not the opinions or position of those testifying, rather they are the official positions taken by the Administration.