My Turn: Pesticides and salmon on the golf course

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2003

Concerns about pesticide use, its impacts on water quality, and dramatic changes to the rainforest close to town continue to make the proposed golf course on Douglas Island a troubling project for local conservationists.

For years, Juneau golfers have held a vision of a championship 18-hole golf course in the capital city. In the mid-1980s, the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) chose public land in the Peterson Creek watershed at the end of the North Douglas Highway as the location for a course. When the city started taking serious steps in the early 1990s to move the project forward, Juneau Audubon Society began a long vigil to reduce the impacts the project would have on the environment.

Juneau Audubon has never opposed the development of this project. We are, however, asking the CBJ Planning Commission, at their hearing on the golf course April 8, to require the course be operated "pesticide-free." We are making this reasonable request because of our concerns that the proposed use of pesticides threatens to pollute the ground water and streams that feed into Peterson Creek.

The 400-acre site on North Douglas is a special place. It's as fine an example of a healthy watershed as one could find in the rainforests of Southeast Alaska. The spruce and hemlock forest contains several huge Landmark Trees and provides habitat for more than 60 bird species, including the northern goshawk and marbled murrelet. It also is home to deer, black bear, otter, mink and porcupine. More than 20 salmon streams and tributaries lace through the site, all flowing into the main stem of Peterson Creek. All species of adult salmon, Dolly Varden, and cutthroat trout likely spawn in Peterson Creek and its major tributaries.

Juneau Audubon members familiar with the project were stunned when Gov. Murkowski made the golf course a "poster child" for his efforts to eliminate the authority of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to enforce state laws to protect salmon and wildlife habitat. Far from delaying the project, the Department of Fish and Game issued permits for golf course activities that would affect fish streams as soon as it was legally possible under state laws.

In fact, golf course proponents brought considerable political pressure to bear on the state agencies involved. As a result, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game consented to minimal buffers along fish streams (in some locations, no trees will be left standing along streams), and the Department of Environmental Conservation turned a blind eye to the issue of pesticide toxicity to salmon and other aquatic life in these streams.

To their credit, the golf course developers have submitted a well-designed plan for controlling insects, weeds, moss and fungus that can attack the turf. However, the plan lists for use nine pesticide products containing at least 12 chemicals, most of which have reported toxicities ranging from moderate to high for fish. Additionally, the "inert" ingredients in these products can also be highly toxic to salmon.

Operating this golf course "pesticide-free" would significantly limit the very real risks to water quality and salmon viability. It would alleviate the concerns of Juneau residents who take their drinking water from Peterson Creek and use the creek and its tributaries for fishing. "Pesticide-free" operation would save the course developers the expense of complying with the requirements of chemical pesticide application, and it is the only way the golf course can honestly be promoted as "environmentally sound." Further, prohibiting the use of pesticides in proximity to salmon streams would demonstrate CBJ's commitment to helping Southeast Alaska's commercial fishermen maintain the reputation of our wild salmon as being wholesome.

Golf course advocates repeatedly have expressed their desire to build a quality course Tiger Woods would be happy to play and to operate it in an environmentally sound manner. Juneau Audubon encourages golf course advocates to "walk their talk," assure the public they will not use pesticides, live with a little mold on the turf, and protect the incredible habitat values of Peterson Creek watershed for years to come.

Sue Schrader is a past president of the Juneau Audubon Society and a local conservation activist.

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