My Turn: Don't run the bridge over precious wetlands

Posted: Friday, February 02, 2007

The Juneau Audubon is very much concerned with the status of the present second crossing proposals. Although the city originally had 15 possible crossing sites for a second crossing, they have narrowed their focus to four. Unfortunately all four of these alternatives go right through the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge. Juneau Audubon believes that going through the refuge is misguided, and also quite possibly in violation of federal law.

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The Mendenhall wetlands was made a state refuge because of its unique and significant characteristics. It is one of the most productive wetland complexes in Southeast Alaska and is important habitat for thousands of shorebirds, ducks, geese, and other species. Many of these species use this wetland as a stopover on migrations north in the spring and south in the fall. For many birds it is a long and difficult migration from the Lower 48, or farther south, to the Arctic, where many of these species breed (shorebirds in particular).

Besides its importance as a migration stopover, the refuge is also an important over-wintering area for other species of birds, especially waterfowl. Because of its importance these wetlands have been designated an important bird area by the National Audubon Society.

Accordingly, it should not be assumed that because we have so much forest and open space around us that the destruction of part of this refuge is of no consequence. This type of habitat is rare in Southeast Alaska.

There is another issue that goes hand in hand with the refuge status of this land. And that is a federal law known as 4(f). Congress passed the Department of Transportation Act (Section 4(f)) in the mid-1960s. This law prohibits the use of public park and refuge lands for the use of road building unless there is no prudent and feasible alternative. This federal law came about as this country was planning to build large numbers of roads and the question arose as to where to push these roads through. In many cases the easiest and cheapest route would have been through parks and refuges.

Our society, however, decided not to take that easy route. The argument was that these public park lands are there for a purpose and that purpose will only grow and become ever more important as population pressures increase. And so a decision was made to preserve our parks and refuges, unless there was no alternative. It was a wise and progressive approach and it should be followed here by our progressive city and borough. It is also the law.

Juneau Audubon believes that there is no need to go through this refuge with our bridge and road. As previous studies have indicated there are reasonable and feasible alternatives besides building through the refuge. And, in fact one of them, the Salmon Creek area, may be the best overall choice. A crossing there would do the following:

• Be the cheapest to construct. This was the shortest and cheapest of the original 15 alternatives to construct. This may prove to be critical as there is presently no funding for this project. If some funding is found it may be limited. Salmon Creek likely would be a fraction of the cost of other crossings.

• It is outside of the refuge and if kept out of the mouth of Salmon Creek would present no great environmental concerns.

• Would work well for future traffic relief on the existing bridge. As congestion on the downtown bridge increases, North Douglas residents on their morning commute to town, could easily cross at Salmon Creek. A crossing farther out, and going off in a northerly direction, would be much less attractive to these commuters, and to Bonnie Brae residents.

• Would allow the efficient passage of boats and cars. At the Salmon Creek area a bridge could be constructed tall enough to meet navigability requirements without having to use a moveable bridge structure, which is how most of the present proposals would have to be done.

• Avoid affecting navigable airspace at the airport. Two present proposals may be problematic because of being very close to the runway.

• Improve emergency response, particularly as it relates to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

We do not see a need to build a road and bridge through the refuge, and certainly do not agree that there is no feasible alternative but to go through this refuge. Juneau Audubon suggests that the city of Juneau put the Salmon Creek or other non-refuge alternatives back into consideration.

• Jeff Sauer is the president of Juneau Audubon.

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