Ferry decision avoids lengthy lawsuits

Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Gov. Knowles' decision to bring fast ferries to northern Lynn Canal in lieu of pursuing the option of a road to Skagway with a shuttle ferry to Haines should be applauded by both road and ferry advocates for giving us a plan that can be immediately implemented.

The governor pointed out that the current system is entirely inadequate for both Alaskans and visitors, and that it would be at least eight to 10 years before a road could be operational.

I believe even the 10-year scenario for a road to Skagway is optimistic. It is also possible that the road would never be built.

In 1984 I witnessed the founding of Friends of Berners Bay and the huge out-pouring of local support for keeping that area roadless. At that time, the Forest Service had plans to extend the existing road about five miles, with associated smaller logging roads between Echo Cove and Sawmill Creek inside of Berners Bay. The timber sale was approved and federal money had been set aside to build the roads in advance of advertising the timber for sale.

By May of that year, the agency was about to let the road contract, and nothing further stood in the way.

At least, that's how it appeared until over 300 angry residents turned out for a public meeting. Friends of Berners Bay was formed from that meeting, and within weeks its ranks swelled to 1,200 members, including hunters, fishermen, families, campers and anyone else with a skiff, canoe, kayak, or jet boat who loved this area.

More meetings were held at places like Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce and in front of the Juneau Assembly, and legal suit was brought against the agency.

By the end of the summer, the project was dead, and in subsequent years scrapped altogether by the Forest Service.

Since then, Congress designated Berners Bay a federal LUD II roadless area. It was included in land protections in the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990, chosen from a long list of areas throughout the region because of strong support from Juneau residents.

Its inclusion was also supported by the Southeast Conference. A Forest Service recreation cabin now sits at the head of Berners Bay, where once a road was proposed. The bay and its two main rivers are used far more now than in 1984.

I believe many users of Berners Bay are like myself; we can't believe a road to Skagway could ever become a reality, and so have largely ignored the issue. But if a road corridor proposal got beyond the discussion phase and became imminent, we would erupt against it.

Because of the federal land protection given to Berners Bay in 1990, and because of Congress's intent to keep this area roadless as long as other transportation options are available (such as fast ferries), the opposition to stop a road in the future would come not just from residents of Juneau (and Haines and Skagway), but from all the major national environmental groups. Lynn Canal would become the focus of a protracted legal battle that I believe road proponents would eventually lose.

If you remember the recent successful battle to stop a short road corridor from Cold Bay at the very remote tip of the Alaska Peninsula, you have a taste of what the national environmental opposition will be to a waterfront road through Berners Bay and across the Antler and Berners rivers.

As someone who travels to Haines and Skagway for both work and pleasure, I wish to thank the governor for sparing us from more than 10 years of litigation and controversy. His plan for Juneau access will get us comfortably and safely to Haines in about two hours, every day of the year. And it can happen within the next few years.

Ken Leghorn was a founding member of Friends of Berners Bay in 1984, and am co-owner of Alaska Discovery, which has operated guided camping trips in Berners Bay for the past 20 years.

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