- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) — Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a stopover for thousands of birds on the Atlantic flyway, is on the verge of its 13th consecutive expansion after receiving a new round of federal money to buy neighboring land.

Much of the change isn’t visible to the naked eye — it’s mostly deeds and money changing hands.

And although the land looks the same, the overall expansion is striking.

What started in 1938 as a 3,400-acre preserve for migratory birds has more than doubled, to about 12.5 square miles of marshy coastland and beach forever protected from development. The refuge now is larger than the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.

This year, Back Bay was one of only 28 wildlife refuges out of about 500 nationwide to get land-acquisition money. The refuge requested $1 million, but got $750,000.

“We compete with hundreds of other projects, and that’s the beauty, that Back Bay has been able to stand out,” said Molly Brown, president of Friends of Back Bay.

Most of the expansion has occurred since 1990.

Refuge manager Jared Brandwein said the parcels of land that the refuge purchases generally range from just a few acres to about 50 acres, with an assessor determining the value.

Miss Brown and Mr. Brandwein gave credit to U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and probably the refuge’s most influential friend in Washington, for winning some of its funding. But they also said a dedicated group of local residents keeps the expansion issue alive.

The biggest beneficiaries of the refuge are migrating birds that pass through on their continental journeys twice a year. But other creatures benefit, too. Endangered sea turtles nest on the refuge’s darkened beaches south of Sandbridge, and a pair of bald eagles roam the sky above the refuge.

Though protected from development, refuge land is managed intensively by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge doesn’t include the bay waters, where waterfowl hunting is prohibited, but it encompasses the islands within the bay.

Along the narrow strip of land that connects Sandbridge and False Cape State Park, refuge biologists use dikes to manipulate water levels in a series of shallow pools.

Those areas, closed to the public at times, attract various species.

This time of year, ducks and geese are most numerous. About 10,000 snow geese stop annually.

The expansion began in the late 1980s, when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed buying more than 6,000 acres near the refuge.

Miss Brown, who has testified before congressional subcommittees for years about the expansion, estimates that Congress has allocated more than $20 million for the project in the past 15 years.

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