My Turn: Berners Bay area a sanctuary to cherish, not one to pave

Posted: Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Anywhere else on Earth, Berners Bay would be recognized as a national treasure. The severe wall of Lion's Head dominates the north, a sharp ridgeline closes in the east and the turbulent Chilkat Mountains tear up the western horizon. The waters erupt every spring in a food-web-wide celebration of hooligan, herring, gulls, eagles, seals, sea lions and humpback whales. Native Alaskan ancestral burial grounds lie in the forest. Moose hunters explore the Antler and Lace Rivers. The bay offers excellent fishing opportunities, including a steelhead run close to Juneau. Kayakers and boaters camp out in secluded coves.

This spiritual and natural grandeur always leaves me awestruck, but I also appreciate the more intimate episodes I have had that epitomize the Alaskan wildness of Berners Bay: The pause given to my beach hike when fresh brown bear tracks dwarfed my size-11 Xtratufs; when a million herring turned the water from green jade to black ink around my kayak; the time I ate lunch with friends and a marmot clan came out to wrestle on the beach and then engage in a grass-snarfing contest; and how an eagle dove into the water near my boat and then swam the butterfly 100 yards to drag a salmon ashore. One hot summer day I tried rolling my kayak and found that the midday heat of the sun is no match for the glacial chill of the water as I shivered for 45 minutes on the beach. Berners Bay offers us a classic Alaskan wilderness experience in our own backyard.

And we are going to build a highway through it.

Many of us live here because we value the wild character of Southeast Alaska and places such as Berners Bay. Unroaded nature is integral to our quality of life and we treasure the prosperity it provides: habitat for game hunting and wildlife viewing; salmon spawning grounds that support commercial, sport and subsistence fishing; ecosystems that give us clean air, water and food for gathering; scenery which attracts tourists who support our businesses; serene places where we get away from it all; waters and mountains that allow us to challenge ourselves; wild places where we bond with family and friends on backpacking, boating, flying, kayaking, skiing or snowmobiling trips. For us, and for the millions who dream of visiting, Alaska is the last place to embrace the wilderness experience that defined the rugged, independent and reliable American character.

For those of us who cherish these unique Alaskan wilderness values, paving a highway around Berners Bay and beyond does not represent progress. It represents destruction.

The Juneau access road will spawn development and additional roads on the private and corporate lands of Berners Bay and beyond. As for the state and federal lands, the road is known as "The Road to Resources." It will facilitate the exportation of logs and minerals. This will foster new rounds of roading roadless areas to log old-growth forests and to extract hard-rock minerals. Southeast Alaska's wilderness will evaporate from the map until it exists as it does in the Lower 48: as small pockets surrounded by the sights and sounds of civilization.

Until we find a solution that does not polarize our community, destroy places like Berners Bay and degrade our Alaskan life, we should focus on progressive improvements to Juneau's existing infrastructure. A tunnel connecting North Douglas to the Mendenhall Valley would alleviate congestion, shorten commutes, save gas, conserve wetlands and preserve the viewshed. New parking garages near downtown would facilitate patronage of businesses and ease residential parking strains. A cruise ship passenger tax could help subsidize a light rail running between Mendenhall Valley and downtown that would reduce the locals' need to drive and double as a tourist attraction. These measures preserve the unique integrity of Southeast Alaska and strengthen the bonds of our community. Extending the road does neither.

Most Americans dream of visiting the wild Alaska of Berners Bay. It would be a travesty if we too had to dream of someday traveling far away to appreciate wild Alaska. Note: The Department of Transportation is accepting comments on the final Juneau Access study through March 13.

• Kevin Hood is a Juneau resident.

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