Trees may be removed to improve air controllers' view

Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Juneau Airport officials want to cut down tall trees along about 3,000 feet of Jordan Creek because of safety concerns.

The Juneau Planning Commission will consider the airport's request for a variance from the city's streamside setback rules during its meeting at 7 tonight in Juneau Assembly chambers. The rules ordinarily don't allow vegetation to be cut within 50 feet of a fish stream.

Jordan Creek, home to a declining but still substantial coho salmon run, according to state habitat biologists, is on the state's list of impaired water bodies. Streamside vegetation keeps banks from eroding and gives fish cover from the sun and predators. The debris from trees adds nutrients to streams.

But the tall spruce and hemlocks around the creek block air traffic controllers' view of parts of three taxiways and two helicopter operations, Airport Manager Allan Heese has told the city Community Development Department. The Federal Aviation Administration has recommended the trees be cut to a height that doesn't restrict sight lines from the control tower.

The airport also is concerned the trees harbor large birds that might fly into an airplane, and the trees may be a danger to planes that have strayed from the normal flight path.

In separate incidents, two blue herons flying from the Jordan Creek area have hit Alaska Airlines jets, the airport said. And a small plane that crashed into a hangar in August 2000, killing the pilot, struck the top of a spruce tree near the creek as the pilot, already in trouble, was trying to pull out of a sharp descent, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Community Development Department is recommending the planning commission let the airport cut the tall trees but plant willow along the stream banks. The affected area of Jordan Creek is south of Yandukin Drive.

Willows would create a lot of habitat for the stream, and might even be better than the tall trees, which are further up the bank, said Carl Schrader, a member of the city Wetlands Review Board. The citizen panel looked at the airport's plan in mid-February, but didn't make a formal response because it didn't have a quorum.

Habitat biologists at the state Department of Fish and Game are concerned about the airport's proposal, although they said the control tower's sight lines are a valid concern.

"One concern is they're going quite a bit beyond that in removing all the vegetation," said Juneau area habitat biologist Ben Kirkpatrick. The line-of-sight issue could be solved by topping a number of trees, he said.

Trimming the trees wouldn't solve the bird problem, the airport has said. But Kirkpatrick said the Jordan Creek area hasn't been studied for birds. He'd like to see more review of the issue, perhaps as part of the airport's upcoming environmental impact statement about plans to fill wetlands to extend the runways.

Dave Hanna, a member of the Wetlands Review Board, said it's time to consider whether Jordan Creek can be saved in light of the airport's safety needs and the likelihood it will expand in the future.

"A lot of work's being done by different groups to see about restoring Jordan Creek, and it seems like we're fighting a losing battle at the airport," he said. "The safety at the airport must come first, so it's a little disturbing."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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