The Juneau Airport Board changed position Wednesday and decided to ask the federal government to study a proposal to clearcut trees by the airport's floatplane pond.
The board voted in December to leave the controversial project off a list of 10 proposals to reduce wildlife hazards at the airport that will be reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Whether the trees contribute to or reduce the hazard of aircraft striking birds has been an ongoing debate.
Board member Gordon Evans asked his colleagues to put the tree-cutting project back on the list for more study. The decision isn't a recommendation to cut the trees, he said.
"We want them to look at it. We're not telling them to do it," he said. "One fatality caused by a bird strike is one fatality too much. I just want it studied to see if there's some alternative to cutting trees."
But board member Ron Swanson said the projects were a list of the airport's recommendations.
"By including cutting trees in the plan we are recommending it," he said. "We need to make it clear that we are not recommending it, but want further study."
The board voted 4-3 to include the tree-cutting project on the list. Evans, Joe Johnson and Joe Heueisen voted yes, while Swanson, Al Clough and Pete Carlson voted no. Board Chairman Mike Barton supported the motion, breaking the tie.
Evans said his decision to bring the issue back was based in part on a letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services office to the FAA. In it, agency officials expressed concern that they could be held liable in a civil lawsuit if there was evidence they had ignored safety hazards - such as the trees - in the event of an accident.
"There is absolutely no evidence that the trees in question deter any bird movement," Alaska District Supervisor Corey Rossi wrote. "To the contrary, our observations document birds of all sizes routinely flying over or through the floatplane pond woodland to access points of interest beyond the woodland."
But other Juneau residents cite observations that the trees are a barrier to the inland movement of ducks and geese and argue cutting trees would hurt a popular trail nearby. In a letter to the Airport Board, Juneau Audubon Society President Steve Zimmerman said nothing has been ignored in the process.
"If the sudden removal of the trees could be construed to be a contributing reason for the collision, won't the FAA and Juneau Airport be just as likely to be sued for ignoring local observations and implementing a controversial action for which there was little scientific or agency support?" he wrote.
Laurie Ferguson Craig, who asked the board to sustain its December vote, said Wednesday's decision "muddied the waters." The fact that the board went on record last month against the tree cutting was important, she said.
"It does need to studied more. What doesn't need to happen is to have a plan that goes forward that says cut the trees down," she said.
Airport Manager Allan Heese said the airport was "caught in a square corner" when it came to putting tree cutting on the project list.
"If it doesn't go there, I don't know where it would go," he said.
Even if the FAA authorizes the projects, the Airport Board will get another chance to review, accept or reject them, Heese has said.
Filling wetlands at the mouth of Duck Creek, moving Duck Creek to the north, upgrading devices on airport equipment to deter eagles and removing vegetation in the floatplane pond are other items on the project list.
EIS Project Manager Ken Wallace of SWCA Environmental Consultants said this morning that researchers are waiting to receive the wildlife hazard management plan to complete the draft EIS.
"We'll take the plan and look at what actions they're considering," he said. "We'll evaluate what effects those actions might have not only on reducing the risks from say, birds striking aircraft, but what other environmental impacts they may have."