Monday, October 30, 2000

Babbitt to try again for Ohio nature area

Some owners oppose restrictions on land use

The Associated Press

        LONDON, Ohio — While U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is not giving up on a proposed wildlife refuge, he is aware that opposition from local landowners may mean that some alternative might have to be found.

        Mr. Babbitt, who plans to visit Madison County late next month to make another pitch for the proposal, said recently that protecting the state and national scenic river is more important than creating a refuge.

        “The issue is not the name on the map,” Mr. Babbitt said. “The issue is the reality out there in the area.”

        Mr. Babbitt oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says that purchasing and preserving large tracts around the creek for the proposed Little Darby National Wildlife Refuge would be the best way to protect one of the Midwest's most diverse aquatic life collections.

        If the refuge is approved, the agency would buy 23,000 acres during the next 30 years from willing sellers in Madison and Union counties in central Ohio.

        Development rights would be secured for an additional 26,000 acres to ensure the land is kept in farming, instead of being used for subdivisions or strip malls.

        Some members of Congress, local politicians and a group of landowners are opposed to the idea, however. Mr. Babbitt and other agency officials say they are willing to discuss alternatives.

        One possibility would involve a more aggressive campaign by state and federal officials to get farmers to set aside strips of land along both the Little Darby and nearby Big Darby Creek.

        “If there are other ways we can do this, we should do something to protect what everybody agrees is an important area,” said Dan Ashe, director of the National Wildlife Refuge system.

        Landowners opposed to the refuge and farmland-preservation boundaries have put deed restrictions on 18,000 acres, and “No Darby Refuge” signs have popped up throughout the area.

        Refuge supporters cite low participation in existing conservation programs as a reason to create a refuge along the Little Darby.

        Denise King, lobbyist for the Ohio chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said her group favors a mix of public and private efforts to protect the Darby. U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, also favors that type of approach.

        Mr. Babbitt said he hopes to resolve the dispute by the end of the year.


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