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Empire Editorial: The case for conserving the 'Field of Fireweed'

Posted: December 29, 2013 - 12:05am

The “Field of Fireweed” is more important than being just a pretty field to look at as commuters and tour buses speed down Egan Drive in mid-summer.

Scientists, experts and local naturalists say this field — and the nearby Miller-Honsinger Pond — is part of a larger wetlands ecosystem that supports a diverse array of bird and animal species. In fact, the connections between the fireweed, the birds that live there and the water that flows through nearby tributaries and streams, the same ones that support fish species such as capelin, herring and sand lance, as well as young salmon species, can be traced to the humpback whales which provide viewing opportunities for tourists and locals alike. It’s in those estuary nurseries that food for the whales is reared and protected. Furthermore, the large numbers of birds counted on the wetlands, even in the darkness of December, has also been well documented.

But let’s step back for a minute. Historically, this area — the land that now supports the Juneau International Airport, the Mendenhall Golf Club and a host of other nearby businesses and operations — was once exclusively an upland marsh transition zone, an area between intertidal and forest. That was before it was a gravel pit.

Today, according to experts, much of that transition zone has been lost to development. There are some who even say we’ve reached a tipping point and additional development will cause damage to the ecosystem past the point of productivity in this globally recognized important bird area.

That’s likely part of the reason it was initially zoned as rural reserve — a zone dedicated to our community and our recreational opportunities. Not as a combination of industrial and light commercial, as is currently being sought.

Since the time of the area’s days as a gravel pit, fireweed (a native plant in Alaska) has flourished and enhanced the view, a view that helps bolster Juneau’s image as a place where the natural world and the developed one meet in harmony.

To pave over those 82 acres will remove not only the view, but it will also eliminate the role those wetlands play in our local ecosystem. It’s a step that cannot be undone.

And so we ask the question: Is it worth it? Can those same buildings be built in a place like Lemon Creek, where industrial everything abounds?

While an entity has every right to do what they desire with the land they own, in this case the rural reserve zone should remain intact. Because of the ecological importance of the area, warehouses have no place on this land.

• Editor’s note: The Juneau Empire’s Editorial Board weighed both sides of the “Field of Fireweed” debate and believes both arguments warrant consideration as the issue progresses.

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