Road would change the landscape of recreation

Project would bring more cabins, pullouts, trails

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Road Series

When Scott Foster dips his kayak in the ocean, the whole point is to escape from Juneau's road system.

Road isolation provides some benefits to Juneau's lovers of the outdoors, who can navigate quickly by boat to wildlife-rich spots such as Berners Bay for "a real wilderness experience," Foster said.

In contrast, Mark Wilke is itching for a road out of Juneau.

The avid Juneau snowmobile rider yearns for weekend visits to the vast snowy terrain of nearby Haines, British Columbia and the Yukon.

But he must lay down $500 to haul his machine 80 miles north to Haines on an Alaska state ferry.

"It's pretty much cost-prohibitive for a weekend trip," Wilke said.

The proposed $281 million Juneau-Skagway road, connecting the capital city to the web of North American highways, is a nightmare for some Juneau, Haines and Skagway residents. It is a bright opportunity for others.

If built, the road could profoundly change how people such as Foster and Wilke spend their weekends and vacations in and beyond the northern Panhandle of Alaska.

Once the state selects a route, federal officials say they will develop a new recreation plan for areas of the Tongass National Forest next to it.

The plan could include road- and disabled-accessible U.S. Forest Service cabins, scenic pullouts and some trails, said Ken Vaughn, the Forest Service's regional assistant deputy for engineering and aviation.

State biologists list other effects. They say a road would offer new opportunities for hunting and fishing, and create new pressures on wildlife.

It would make hunting in places such as Berners Bay "a heck of a lot easier," said Carl Schrader, a habitat division biologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Mixed opinions

Northern Southeast Alaska residents offer a wide spectrum of ideas about how the road could affect recreation.

"It would open up some areas that people don't see," said Larry Hooton, a Juneau guide-outfitter.

"Berners Bay would become a roadside camping and picnicking area," predicted Foster, the kayaker.

"There would be a highway running through our sanctuary," said Skagway bartender Raymie Eatough, of the road's course through the town's prime recreation area, Lower Dewey Lake. "For me, that's my haven, my little peace of mind."

"It will destroy prime moose habitat," said Robert "Swede" Haffner, who has been visiting Berners Bay by airboat for 45 years.

Haffner also worries about litter along the road marring the breathtaking scenery of the bay.

"People are filthy," he said. "Just look at the sides of the roads now."

Today people kayak or motor their boats out from Juneau's Echo Cove to watch Berners Bay's locally famous hooligan run, which attracts up to 900 hungry Steller sea lions and tens of thousands of birds.

If the road is built, people could drive to that spectacle.

In a recent study of the road's potential consequences, state contractors predicted traffic levels would be about 30 percent higher at the current terminus of Juneau's road system due to local traffic to and from Berners Bay and other spots.

"I'd get a lot of traffic," said Hooton, who lives near the north end of the current road and supports extending it to Skagway.

"You'd end up with some RV (recreational vehicle) parks out in this direction," he added.

Some sport fishermen, hunters and snow sport fans say a road would invite them to point their cars north to the Interior to sample new territory.

Fly fisherman Mark Vinsel said his fishing excursions north of Juneau, especially on the Berners and Antler rivers, are limited now by the expense of travel and the limitations of his small boat.

"I look at (my) maps and think someday I'll get to those places, but in my current situation, with the small-size boat I can afford, it's too risky," Vinsel said.

Wilke predicts up to 40 Juneau snowmobilers would get on the road north nearly every weekend during winter.

From the other direction, Holly Rudell, a hospital lab assistant in Whitehorse, Yukon, would like to travel south to Juneau.

She said she has heard about Juneau's Eaglecrest Ski Area.

"I'd use it if I could, but it's hard to get there. If I could drive there ... I could go for a weekend and come back. I think a lot more people would go to Juneau if there was a road."

Eaglecrest managers say the road is not a panacea to their financial struggles, which have led some critics to suggest privatization of the city enterprise.

The ski area has not recorded a profit since opening 29 years ago. In recent years, Eaglecrest has struggled financially because of light snow and rainy weather. The city has been paying up to 30 percent of its operating expenses.

New visitors from up north could help with, but not solve, the problem, ski officials said. The ski area is considered too remote to become a major destination resort.

"We're really concentrating all our energies on increasing participation from the Juneau market," said Kirk Duncan, Eaglecrest's general manager.

A different experience

Hunters, trappers and recreational boaters who navigate upstream of Berners Bay by skiff or airboat - the most feasible way to visit its lush river valleys that are packed with bears, wolves, wolverines and moose - can get stuck for hours in its vast, shallow sand flats.

"Access is difficult. That's what makes it unique," said Chester Durand, a Juneau resident who travels through Berners Bay on an airboat. He carries a satellite phone for emergencies.

The reward for the struggle - which few make - is a close experience with one of the most diverse wildlife areas and most sweeping vistas in Southeast Alaska.

Hunters have had hair-raising encounters with aggressive bears that occasionally chase their boats, Hooton said.

Haffner, who runs several airboats, said he got "chewed on" by a brown bear in 1974 near the Lace River. He was lugging a freshly harvested moose rack when the bear charged him in the woods. The bear easily batted the moose rack aside. A friend shot the bear while it attacked Haffner, who spent the following week in the hospital.

"I could write a book about the things I've seen in Berners Bay," he said.

Not long ago, a group of state biologists studying coho salmon along the Berners River saw a brown bear slay and devour a newborn moose.

"In the spring, our camp is in the middle of the moose calving area. The bears are cruising around looking for them," said Leon Shaul, a commercial fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 hunters compete every year for 10 to 18 Berners Bay moose permits.

The mainland rivers of the Katzehin and at Berners Bay boast some of the largest populations of wolves, bears and wolverines in the northern Panhandle, said Neil Barten, area game management biologist for Fish and Game.

He said increased demand for hunting in those areas may lead to stricter regulations.

"Another concern is ATVs. I'd hate to see ATV use on the flats of Berners Bay ... but they are hard to regulate," said Schrader, with the Department of Natural Resources.

All-terrain vehicle users have complained that there are virtually no places in Juneau for them to ride.

Pete Griffin, the Juneau District ranger for the Tongass National Forest, said proposed national rules for off-road vehicles such as ATVs would make it illegal for riders to go in national forest areas that have no designated trails.

To protect fish habitat, the state Department of Transportation has agreed with the National Marine Fisheries Service that no new boat ramps will be built along the 68.5-mile road.

Cost to wildlife

Some hunters and environmentalists said the road is not worth its cost to wildlife.

Others, such as fly fisherman Vinsel, are torn.

"I hope that any habitat or recreation areas a road opens up will still be worth visiting," he said.

Current users of the bay and its rivers point to the state's conclusion that the road would reduce bear habitat in Berners Bay up to 29 percent and create a risk of moose and bear deaths from vehicle collisions.

"The road is just going to mess the whole thing up," Durand said.

Loss of wildlife is a major fear for hunters and frequent Berners Bay visitors such as Durand and Haffner.

"We only have 29 square miles of favorable moose habitat in Berners Bay," said Haffner, who worked with biologists to bring moose to the bay in the early 1960s.

State transportation officials say the route they've selected could allow the greatest possible amount of traffic between Juneau and Skagway.

The road, and possibly avalanche control activities, could impede seasonal mountain goat movements, state biologist Shrader warned.

"This time of year, they will come all the way down to the beach," he said.

Schrader said state biologists likely will propose some changes to the project - such as underpasses - to provide safer passage.

Vinsel said he hopes the state has learned from the mistakes of other projects and can "build and maintain the road while safeguarding the recreational areas."

Foster, the kayaker, is bracing himself for the day when he may no longer enjoy paddling to Berners Bay.

"It's a whole other world up there," Foster said. With the road, "It just wouldn't be the same."

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