Will reported sightings of bald eagles alter road plans?

By: David Campbell , Staff Writer 01/17/2003
ANALYSIS: Advocates say birds' presence bolsters area's status as wildlife refuge.

What do the recent spate of reported American bald eagle sightings in the vicinity of Lake Carnegie have to do with the former Millstone Bypass? Let's just say they're on the agenda.

In recent months, reported sightings in the area of the lake and the Kingston lock of the Delaware & Raritan Canal have been pressed into service by environmental advocates seeking to highlight the area as a wildlife refuge that should be protected.

Sightings reportedly have been made by amateur and Princeton University rowers, residents and at least one out-of-towner, and have been registered by the state and national Audubon Society.

But most outspoken about the eagles regardless of whether they saw them themselves or not have been environmentalists affiliated with the Penns Neck Area Environmental Impact Statement Partners' Round Table. Of those interviewed by The Packet, only one person reported actually seeing the birds.

The round table, a community-advisory panel to the Voorhees Transportation Policy Institute at Rutgers University, is helping weigh cultural and environmental impacts from potential alternatives to the former bypass.

A draft Environmental Impact Statement evaluating 18 roadway alignment alternatives to the former state-endorsed roadway is expected to be released in the spring. The state Department of Transportation commissioned Rutgers to study possible solutions to traffic congestion in the Penns Neck area around Route 1 and Washington Road after former Gov. Christie Whitman rejected the agency's recommendation favoring the Millstone Bypass.

A chief component of many of those alternatives incorporate an eastside connector road between Route 571 and Route 1 that would run along the Millstone River, and according to those most vocal about the eagles, cut a swath through a wildlife preserve.

Ridgeview Road resident Lincoln Hollister, a geology professor at Princeton University and a longtime opponent of the former bypass, said the Penns Neck Area EIS was very much on his mind when he called The Packet about the eagle sightings.

In December, members of the round table delivered reports and a photograph of an eagle reportedly taken by a rower and Kingston resident to the project team at Rutgers as further evidence of the need for conservation in the region, said Mr. Hollister, who hasn't seen one of the birds himself but cites five others whom he says have.

Jon Carnegie, senior project manager with the Transportation Policy Institute, confirmed receiving the reports and said the institute has notified state and federal wildlife agencies.

"We're taking appropriate actions to fully consider the sightings of these eagles in the vicinity of the project area," Mr. Carnegie said, noting that preliminary feedback from wildlife experts indicates the birds probably are migratory.

"For the people dealing with the EIS, it's not a question of stopping (the roadway) or being obstructionist," said Mr. Hollister. "The agenda is preserving this wild area, and that's not against the Penns Neck EIS. The eagle is being used as an attention getter to this existing bird refuge."

Nassau Street resident Karyn Milner, one of Mr. Hollister's sources, said she saw two eagles in October while driving past the Lake Carnegie boat launch off Route 27.

For the past year and a half, Ms. Milner said, she has observed what she believes are several immature eagles along the Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath along the lake, evidence she said that the birds are nesting and not just stopping for food on their fall migration.

Ms. Milner said she is concerned about encroachment by university construction and the bypass plan. She reported her October sighting to the state, and spread the word through an e-mail network of the Millstone Bypass Alert, an affiliation of around two dozen area advocacy groups.

It was through this network that Ms. Milner's e-mail reached Mr. Hollister, first alerting him to the birds.

The Sierra Club's Laura Lynch, who sits on the Partners' Roundtable and has been quoted in the media linking the eagles with the Penns Neck Area EIS, said she would be outspoken about the birds whether or not their habitat was in the path of a possible future roadway.

"The impulse hasn't been 'let's fight the road, so hey, let's find an endangered animal,' " said Ms. Lynch, debunking the notion that the eagle is a fraud perpetrated by bypass opponents.

Those seeking to raise awareness of the eagle in the context of the EIS have no illusions that one or two eagles if they are, in fact, nesting in the area can kill the road, said Ms. Lynch. But they do want the birds' presence to be considered along with the trove of other environmental and cultural data under review, she said.

"We haven't been plotting and scheming; it's just another factor," Ms. Lynch said. "There's no aim to find the nest with an agenda of stopping the road. The project is too big, and a lot of little pieces. If there's something in the way, you move the piece."

Laurie Larson, a Montgomery Township resident and compiler for the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count in December, said she received a report of a bald eagle sighting at Mercer County Park in West Windsor during the count.

As secretary of the New Jersey Audubon Society's Bird Records Committee, she has received numerous reports of sightings in the vicinity of Lake Carnegie, she said.

Given their biology, Ms. Larson said, the birds likely were migrants stopping for fish at the lake and not nesting.

"You have to have much more than one sighting of a migrant eagle to protect a habitat, but I'm sympathetic to their (environmental advocates') concerns," she said. "Anyone who's interested in birds understands it's important to protect their habitat."

Bald eagles, which are on the state's threatened species list, are on the rise in New Jersey, up from a single nest reported between 1970 and 1988 to 27 in 2001, said Ms. Larson, who credited efforts by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Ms. Larson said it is important for sightings to be reported to the DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program, which can be reached at http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensphome.htm.