A state project to upgrade the Alaska portion of the Haines Highway could negatively impact bald eagle nesting sites and Chilkat River salmon habitat, scientists and conservationists are warning. The Department of Transportation says the project is needed to increase safety on the winding road.
Southeast Regional Director for DOT Al Clough said the department is reviewing the plan to straighten some of the highway’s curves based on comments made at a recent public meeting in Haines.
“We’ve been working on this design for a number of years,” Clough said. “What we have tried to do all along, and what designers are currently working on, is trying to minimize the amount of clearing and filling needed to make the kind of changes needed on the roadway.
Clough said the Haines Borough supports the DOT plan as-is. He said safety concerns range from the amount of pedestrian tourist traffic on the road, which has few shoulders, to an incident last year in which a truck went off the road.
“It’s a major arterial highway that serves Alaska, the Yukon and (British Columbia),” Clough said. “This is the last section that is still sub-standard and this project deals with the issues.”
The current design would mostly keep the highway speed limit at 55 mph; several curves would have a lower advisory speed limit. Lynn Canal Conservation board member George Figdor said adjusting the speed limit on the road would be more reasonable than filling certain areas and cutting down trees that have eagle nests.
“We feel that if the engineers redesign the road for a 50 mph highway rather than a 55 mph highway, they would avoid almost entirely the list of impacts,” FIgdor said. “We don’t believe this needs to be done by sacrificing safety at all. We certainly agree that safety needs to be primary consideration, but we believe they can design a 50 mph road and make it a safe road.”
Figdor said the current plan would put fill along 2.7 miles of the Chilkat River, affecting 22 of the river’s 25 tributaries. He said the project would also fill in 24 acres of wetlands and an “unspecified number of eagle roosts” would be cut down in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve — which the highway goes through.
“The preserve has the highest level of protection in the state. It’s not a multiple-use area,” Figdor said. “The Chilkat river is sort of one of the major salmon producers; all five kinds of salmon spawn in this river.”
Comments on the project from the National Marine Fisheries Service contradict much of what the DOT asserts in its environmental assessment of the project.
“NMFS asserts that adverse effects to (essential fish habitat) associate with the Haines Highway project will be substantial and permanent,” the NMFS statement reads.
The statement goes on to say that DOT’s measures to avoid impacting fish habitat in the Chilkat River are insufficient.
“NMFS disagrees with ADOT&PF’s determination that ‘Avoidance, minimization, and mitigation measures would offset impacts to (essential fish habitat) and would not be adverse,” read the statement.
NMFS says maintaining the current alignment of the Haines Highway would have fewer adverse affects to essential fish habitat, but there are still acceptable alternatives to placing fill material in the Chilkat River. Some of the suggested alternatives include avoiding or minimizing the use of fill in certain areas and modifying planned road alignment on certain areas of the highway.
Clough at the DOT said engineers are currently reviewing the project and intend to have a revised plan later this year.
• Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Al Clough's name. The Empire regrets the error.