Tongass trees cut to prepare for road

Logging is under investigation by U.S. Forest Service

Posted: Friday, May 19, 2006

At some spots along the proposed Juneau access road corridor in Berners Bay, crews have felled some big, old Tongass trees.

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A beloved spot for Juneau outdoor lovers - the Sawmill Creek waterfall - is within view of roughly eight large trees askew on the ground.

The felling of the national forest trees - which occurred over the winter - came as a surprise to some Juneau residents this week.

The logging is also under investigation by U.S. Forest Service law enforcement agents, to make sure that the work was all done legally.

"I realize the (state) Department of Transportation has its marching orders, but it is very disturbing to know it is taking such extreme measures early on in the project," said John Hudson, with the Friends of Berners Bay conservation group.

"We promised to put bridges over all of the streams," responded Randy Bayliss, an engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Bayliss said the trees needed to be cut to get "information we needed for design of the bridges."

The project's final federal permits and right-of-way easements haven't been granted yet, but state officials said they are authorized to proceed with prep work for the project.

State and federal officials said, after reviewing photos of the felled trees, that the trees were cut down to allow geotechnical studies of the road's future bridge abutments. The clearing and survey work was approved Aug. 17, 2005, by the Forest Service.

The state's Alaska Coastal Management Program waived any formal review of the drilling project.

Between November 2005 and March 2006, crews employed by Crux Subsurface, of Spokane, Wash., drilled holes in the ground and sediment at approximately 20 locations in Berners Bay and along Lynn Canal.

To put a drill rig down on the ground, the workers first needed to have an open space of 400 square feet. That was the minimum opening needed for a helicopter to safely sling a drill rig into place, state officials said Thursday.

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In some cases, a crew may have cut tree trunks outside the 400 square feet, because their branches intruded inside the space, said Reuben Yost, special projects manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Sawmill Creek is one of at least five creeks in Berners Bay where Tongass trees greater than 6 inches in diameter were cut down to make room for a drill rig. Most of the other drilling sites did not require tree removal, Bayliss said.

The state Department of Transportation plans to begin building the road this summer if permits are granted. Prep work so far has included clearing roughly 50 helicopter landing areas and cutting away brush in a four-foot-wide centerline trail for the road.

This spring, state officials assured that work crews wouldn't cut down trees greater than 6 inches in diameter.

But even that work was premature, some Juneau environmentalists contend.

The state still has not obtained the official right-of-way easement for the Juneau access road, leading 50 miles from Juneau to a ferry terminal on the Katzehin River.

The state also has not received a major water permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, needed before actual road and bridge construction can begin.

"Our position is that the state is acting unlawfully," said Buck Lindekugel, conservation director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

"We don't believe they should allow any clearing until they get permission to construct this (road)," Lindekugel said. SEACC contends that the Corps of Engineers cannot legally approve the road because it doesn't meet Clean Water Act requirements.

In the meantime, "they are compromising our national forest lands," Lindekugel said.

SEACC sent a letter on the matter to Tongass National Forest Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin on Wednesday night, asking him to stop any further clearing activities.

Griffin said Thursday that he would respond to the letter soon. Griffin said he has not stopped any work on the project, at this point.

National forest law enforcement personnel plan to inspect the downed trees at Sawmill Creek within days, said Mark Chan, the Forest Service regional commander for law enforcement.

Lindekugel said the Forest Service should be commended for investigating the matter, but, he said, "it's a little late to watch what they (were) doing."

"Their job is to make sure these guys are following the rules," Lindekugel said.

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