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Conservationists worry over airport plan in wildlife refuge

GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) — A plan to build an airport in a Louisiana wildlife refuge has shocked conservationists who say it could harm important bird habitat on a coastline disappearing under encroaching Gulf of Mexico waters.

The proposal calls for paving over part of Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge to build a commercial airport serving small jets and private planes, Times-Picayune report ed Wednesday.

Audubon Louisiana Director of Bird Conservation Erik Johnson said he doesn't know of any refuge with an airport and found the plan is bizarre.

"Birds and airports just don't mix," Johnson said.

An airport lease agreement proposing two runways, an air traffic control tower, a terminal and hangars on the property was approved last month by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Part of the airport would be built on an airstrip that predates the refuge and hasn't been used in decades. The plan would have the runways extend across what is now marsh and shallow water.

The agreement says the airport's developer is the Grand Isle Independent Levee District, which is led by Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle.

Camardelle and other officials say the airport will improve public access to the refuge and neighboring Grand Isle, a popular fishing destination linked to Elmer's Island by a small bridge. Camardelle said it could also create jobs and more tourism opportunities.

Louisiana State University conservation biologist Phil Stouffer said the birds at the refuge are a risk to safe aviation. Stouffer also said the airport cannot be built with expectations that the refuge will function the way it did before construction.

Wildlife and Fisheries department lead attorney Cole Garrett said any construction will be subject to permitting requirements from state and federal agencies, and officials will examine any environmental impact during the permitting process.