As land rises, the refuge has shrunk

If city allows, landowner will donate parcel to Mendenhall refuge

Posted: Thursday, May 14, 2009

When Jim and Mary Lou King bought their Sunny Point house in 1964, it had seaweed underneath it, and they encouraged a spruce to grow as a hedge on the shore side of the house to keep the water from thumping the house at high tide.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Since then the land has risen about two feet. The driftlogs are still visible on their property, though covered with moss; the tide hasn't been in that far in years. What was then the Mendenhall wetlands is now the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, and it is slowly shrinking because of a state law that says shoreside landowners can claim adjacent land that rises from the sea.

The land here is springing back because it is no longer weighed down by Little Ice Age glaciers, the theory goes. Its progress is blindingly fast, in geological terms: a half-inch a year, which translates to different acreage depending on the slope.

Data from the Department of Natural Resources, which owns the refuge, shows that 14 landowners have already claimed 32.8 acres of the (now) 3,764-acre refuge. Another 20 acres of claims aren't finalized. Diane Mayer of the Southeast Alaska Land Trust says perhaps 70 acres of new land available to claim have appeared since surveys conducted in the 1950s.

Shoreside property rights are often defined by the mean high tide mark, also called the meander line. That line is set by an official survey. If it is surveyed again and the line has moved, the landowner can go to court and claim whatever land has appeared up to that line. The idea is that their property includes a right of access to water.

Some of the Mendenhall's accreted land, as it's known, is now being used as a gravel pit.

The Kings' property, in the 1960s, hadn't been surveyed since the 1930s. So once they learned they could claim their accreted land, and that their neighbor wanted to build a road through it, they did. They claimed 2.3 acres that had popped up to protect the wetlands.

Jim King was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl biologist and pilot who wrote a book on Alaska's birds. He was a key player in the formation of the Mendenhall refuge, known as a world-class place for birds.

"We thoroughly enjoy having that refuge in front of us," said Mary Lou King.

In 2002 they turned a one-acre strip of that land next to the refuge into a conservation easement that protects the land from development.

Since the 1960s survey, the meander line has meandered farther out, and another 11 acres has appeared.

The Kings are trying to claim some of that land, too - how much they can get is contested - so they can chop it into its own 3.4-acre parcel and donate it to SEALTrust. Jim Kim is a member of its board.

"That is, if we ever have anything to donate," he said lightly. "I'm glad I'm not betting my future on digging gravel out here."

The latest catch, he said, is that one can't create a parcel in Juneau that lacks road access. The Assembly on Monday will hear about an ordinance specific to accreted lands in the refuge that would allow King to do this.

The refuge in King's spot is already protected by the conservation easement. But the donation is important, King said, partly because it may inspire other conservation-minded citizens to donate their accreted lands.

For SEALTrust, which is doing legal work on King's accreted parcels, it's the beginning of a big project to fix the boundary of the refuge.

Mayer is not expecting that everyone will donate their land, so this could be expensive. The land trust is negotiating with the Juneau Airport now to get money that will formally mitigate the airport's runway expansion into the wetlands, and this will launch the project.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or by e-mail at

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