Haines residents fear being left out

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2005

The Road Series

HAINES -In the home he built himself on the Chilkat Peninsula south of Haines, artist Rob Goldberg peered out his window Tuesday afternoon and across Lynn Canal to its rugged east slope.

"This road would look like nothing short of a horizontal strip mine," he said of the state's proposal for that shore. "There would just be huge cuts in quite a bit of the terrain from Katzehin up to Mount Villard.

"The view for anyone in Haines who lives in town or along Lutak Road or out here in the Chilkat Peninsula is going to be ruined."

Goldberg was looking at the Alaska Department of Transportation's preferred route for a highway from Juneau to Skagway, a prospect that many in his town consider more than visual ruination.

The 68.5-mile seaside road would not pass through Haines. Instead, plans call for building a ferry terminal at the Katzehin River, from which passengers could ferry 17 miles to town. Where once both Haines and Skagway courted Juneau cars by ferry, now only Haines would need the ships.

Like Goldberg, most of the Haines Borough's 2,265 people look across the water and wonder.

How will this change our town? Will people use the shuttle ferries to come here, or will they continue up the highway? What will it do to the environment? Will we be more isolated than we already are?

"Usually Haines is really polarized on issues, but I would say that a large majority of people are against this road project," said Goldberg, a Haines resident since 1986 and a member of the borough's planning commission.

"We've been saying since the 1997 (state analysis) came out that we don't want this Lynn Canal road. The Knowles administration listened, and they shelved the road and went for the fast ferries instead. Then the Murkowski administration came in, and their plan changed dramatically."

Eighty miles or a 35-minute flight from Juneau, Haines juts out on the Chilkat Peninsula into the narrow head of Lynn Canal. By ferry, it's 14 miles northeast to Skagway.

The Canadian border is 42 miles north on the Haines Highway. Drivers must continue north in a wide swath of the Yukon before turning south to reach Skagway. The trip is 360 miles.

At the state's public hearing Feb. 23 at Haines High School, 39 people testified. Three favored the road.

The Chilkat Valley News, and many in Haines, pointed out that the state had to charter an Allen Marine boat to get to town. The weather was too poor for planes to fly from the capital, and the next ferry reached Haines on Friday.

Welcome to Haines' constant transportation dilemma.

"A lot of times the planes aren't flying, the road (to Whitehorse) is closed, and the only way out is the ferry," said Carol Lawrence, a Haines resident since 1982. She was riding the state ferry Matanuska south from Haines to Juneau on March 7.

"It sounds for all the world like they're going to reduce the number of (mainline) ferries if they build this road," she said. "We'll just have the road, and then that will be closed. Then we're really isolated."

When the state pulled the fast ferry Fairweather out of service Jan. 23 because of labor negotiations, Haines saw how isolated it could be.

The town was down to two ferries a week. February's ferry schedule included Friday stops by the Matanuska, Monday appearances by the Malaspina and two late-month cameos by the LeConte.

The tension was alleviated when the Fairweather returned Thursday to run three times a week.

The recent problems of the Alaska Marine Highway System have not turned Haines against ferries. Instead, they've fostered resentment and distrust toward the state.

Anne Boyce has lived in Haines for 25 years. Her husband, Paul Swift, has been there 35 years. Both are retired, having raised three children in Haines. They were also on their way to Juneau aboard the Matanuska.

"We'd love to see the mainline ferry schedules restored to what it was like 10 or 15, 20 years ago," Boyce said. "This mode of travel humanizes people's lives. It slows them down. When you choose to live in a community like Haines, you accept there are limitations as well as benefits to being off-track.

"I don't think there's any constitutional right that guarantees people to get in an automobile and drive to wherever they drive to," she said. "And I think that the state - the administration - is shoving (the road) down people's throat. They're rigging it by making the ferries more and more problematic."

Saturday, March 7, was a typical winter weekend day in Haines. The Bamboo Room, a restaurant on Second Avenue, came to life in the early morning. The Mountain Market, a cafe and organic grocery, picked up steam around 10:30 a.m. A small contingent of snowboarders ambled through town, heading leisurely for Chilkoot Pass. Much of the town looked forward to the evening's basketball game - Haines High versus Petersburg.

It was winter, and there was scarcely any traffic. But even summer is hardly busy in Haines compared to other Southeast Alaska ports.

Skagway's 2004 sales tax revenue was $4.9 million. Haines, the larger city, collected $1.9 million.

In 2004, Skagway received 722,905 cruise-ship visitors and 134,500 independent travelers.

In 2004, Haines received 29,132 cruise-ship passengers. The Haines Convention and Visitors Bureau did not have a total for independent travelers, but it counted 43,556 border crossings southbound toward Haines, and 44,182 crossings northbound away from town. The numbers include multiple crossings by one person.

At Elizabeth Wolfe's veterinary clinic, Donald Poling, a Sitka native and a Haines resident since 1996, jokingly pointed out a few advantages to a new road: more business for the wilderness survival and avalanche rescue school in Haines; more jobs in road maintenance and repair; an expensive justification for the state to impose an income tax to balance its budget.

Poling believes the road will make it harder for people to get to Haines, killing the tourist business. He says the town has more faith in a well-supported ferry system than a road that could be closed longer than the Transportation Department's estimate of 34 winter days.

A sense of the road's inevitability lingers on the streets. Walking down Second Avenue to Main Street on a Saturday morning, Gary Arenson called the public comment period "a joke."

"I think it's foregone," Arenson said. "Hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate will be created by that road. They're going to put up gas stations, resorts, God knows what else. The real agenda, access to natural resources and real estate, is the secret that no one's talking about."

Gold miner John Schnabel has been thinking about it. A pro-roader, he's lived in Haines for 66 years. For 45 years he ran the sawmill, one of the main employers in town. Now 86, he feels like a misfit in his own town.

"I've been here 66 years, which represents an observation of coming from a little town that didn't have a sewer or waste system or sidewalk or paved street or electric light on the street," Schnabel said. "Haines is suffering a tremendous downgrade in its economy in the past 15 years, and we're having a real difficulty trying to even find a way to balance the budget."

Schnabel hopes that the road and Haines' proximity to the Kensington gold mine, 13 miles north of Echo Cove, will lure mine workers to town.

"Haines has a great opportunity to be a participant in the effort," he said.

Around noon on Saturdays, the Haines post office turns into a gathering place. Checking a post office box, 20-year-old Roger Smith said he worries. His parents own a cabin and a hostel up the road from Haines.

"The reason people stay there is that the ferry comes in, and then they stay there overnight," Smith said. "If the road comes in, everyone's going to head on to Canada, and they're not going to come to Haines. And they're not going to pay for my college anymore."

Bill Pender, a Haines retiree who moved from Fairbanks when the Interior's cold became too much to bear, was thinking about the long-term.

"Short-term, the ferries aren't paying for themselves," Pender said. "Once the road's put in, that's it. You have a road for all kinds of things."

Residents consider the Lynn Canal ferry routes the most self-supporting in the Alaska Marine Highway System. About a third of all car traffic by ferry in Alaska happens in Lynn Canal - between Juneau, Haines and Skagway - on mainline ferries hauling up to 134 vehicles apiece and on the fast ferry Fairweather's 35-car deck, according to the January-released Juneau highway draft supplemental environmental impact statement. Seventy percent of those cars began or ended their trips in Juneau.

In the 15-year period ending in 2002, the state counted an average of 81 daily vehicle transports between Haines and Juneau, or roughly 30,000 a year.

At Haines' Lutak Lumber, part-time employee Lee Nash, 31, paused between customers. Nash, a commercial fisherman, was born in Juneau and moved to Haines from Pelican in 1987. Nash has friends all over Southeast Alaska because he rode the ferry for school events.

"We have a whole series of islands and inland channels that are like fjord-lands," he said. "And if you want to be like everywhere else, let's just pave it all and put up a bunch of Wal-Marts."

Back near the center of town, at the Haines Senior Center, Becky Nash, Lee's mom, was quilting with six of her friends.

"Is the road going to come here?" she asked rhetorically. "Bye-bye Haines. Just scoot on up to Skagway and forget Haines. The only people that are going to come here are the ones that turned wrong at Haines Junction."

Jenny Lyn Smith, a 38-year Haines resident, was also quilting. She's been hearing the road debate since she moved to town in 1967.

"I'm not for it," Smith said. "The only reason to build it is to get it off their agenda, just to get people to stop wasting money."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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