My turn: Berners Bay is like a church; don't develop it

Posted: Thursday, May 05, 2005

Last weekend was full of sunny skies and strong gusts from the north. I was in Berners Bay for the hooligan run; I saw more surveyors' flagging than fish.

I grew up near Washington, D.C., amidst a tangle of highways and parkways, interchanges and interstates, avenues and boulevards. I've never watched a place lose its wildness, because where I come from, no place has wildness to lose. Lacking experience, I falter when I try to imagine what one should do when faced with the passing of a beloved place.

Berners Bay is a church; bearing witness to the throbbing life there (new lupine lying like green stars amongst last year's hollow cow parsnip stalks, eagle pairs twirling around each other in aerial displays of love, twin sets of bear tracks pressed into the Antler River's silt) is prayer.

What do you do when your place of worship has been flagged and staked in preparation for a road, a mine, destruction? What do you do when you've tried the usual channels, testifying at public hearings, or writing letters to the editor, or chanting clever slogans at streetside protests, and plans for development continue as if you have not spoken?

What do you do when you join with others who wish to maintain a whole and healthy Berners Bay, and still the chorus of your voices is muted by the promise of private corporations' profit?

Last weekend, en route to Berners Bay, I stopped at Cascade Point and sat on the fringe between forest and beach, listening to songbirds I can't name and smelling cottonwood heavy in the air. I curled up in the sun-dried moss, cuddling desperation. If I had a clear and piercing song, I would sing to stop the road; if I could negotiate color and texture, I would produce endless paintings to keep the mine out of this place. My only tools, though, are words.

So, Cascade Point, 2.5 miles north of Echo Cove, is a place of relief; once this far north, you are away from town. You have achieved distance from your dwindling bank account, your untidy house, your endless to-do lists. Construction of a new road to Cascade Point began recently; the road is being paid for with nearly $1 million in public money despite the fact that it traverses Goldbelt land and literally paves the way for improved Goldbelt profits. When the road arrives at Cascade Point, it will be not just an extension of Glacier Highway, but an extension of everything we want to leave behind. It will no longer be a place of relief.

The miles of gravel road that will tie Echo Cove and Cascade Point are an experiment meant to divine how much we the people are willing to stomach from our government. Will we tolerate public money being used for a private road across private property, the purpose of which is to access a private corporation's commercial venture? Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch has begun a further experiment: Will we speak out when our Legislature can't dig up adequate funding for, say, education, but can generously hand out $10 million to continue the road from Cascade Point in order to more easily access the Kensington mine?

A road to the mine comes at a much greater cost than $10 million; of course it would take $40 million to build and more to maintain, and that's just money. Think more deeply about the costs we'd bear: we'd lose the ability to escape Juneau without spending many days and dollars; we'd lose an unbroken system that provides a rich home for bears, wolves, and moose; we'd lose the magic of wild rivers that trade emerging salmon fry for homecoming hooligan every spring. What's more, the costs are unnecessary; the urgency to build a road into the bay is a false urgency.

Eight years ago, Coeur received permits to operate the mine from the Lynn Canal side of Lion's Head Mountain. The Kensington mine could open, and Rep. Weyhrauch could have his jobs for Juneau, without any pavement in Berners Bay.

I am hopeful that our leaders will finally hear the chorus; leave Berners Bay as it is. It is worth more than we know.

• Emma Brown is a Juneau resident who regularly visits Berners Bay by kayak and skiff.

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