My Turn: Preserve Berners Bay now

Posted: Monday, May 23, 2005

Twenty-eight years ago I observed a line of about 15 roaring sea lions charge after a large school of herring in a small cove in Auke Bay. When they reached the end of the cove the sea lions fed on the thrashing herring and regrouped to repeat the process. It was the most spectacular example of predation I have ever witnessed. One does not see such a sight in Auke Bay today because there are no large herring schools here now. Increased shore development, boat traffic and a herring fishery have taken their toll.

Fortunately, the feeding frenzy I described can still be seen in Berners Bay, but will it be possible to see such a spectacle there 28 years from now? I doubt it if development proceeds as planned. The state has already provided nearly one million of our tax dollars to construct a road from Echo Cove through Goldbelt Corporation property to Cascade Point. From that location, workers and supplies would be ferried to Slate Creek Cove near the Kensington mine. As the first trees were falling, Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch was getting 10 million more tax dollars (now five million) to extend the road to Kensington mine. Total cost would be much more.

The issue in question is actually a complex of three interrelated issues: preservation of Berners Bay, extension of a road north of Echo Cove and mining of gold by the Kensington Corporation. If the road is extended to the mine, Berners Bay would cease to exist as a wilderness recreation area, the first two segments of the Governor's coveted road to Skagway would be a fait accompli, and ferry transport across Berners Bay would be unnecessary.

Berners Bay is Juneau's Hope Diamond - priceless, magnificent, awe-inspiring and deserving of preservation into perpetuity. Legions of residents and tourists visit the bay to hunt, fish, boat, view wildlife or simply to recapture their sanity. Over a long period of time, the value of Berners Bay for recreation of many is worth far more than temporary income from gold for a few.

No one knows the extent of the harm that the proposed development would cause to the Berners Bay ecosystem, but it definitely would be harmful. Bruce Baker was right on in his statement to the Juneau Empire (May 1): "If there's any uncertainty, it's over the degree (of harm)." We do know that roads cause increased mortality of incubating salmonids due to increased siltation, that mine effluents and fuel oil are generally toxic and that boat traffic disrupts whales and sea lions. To fill in gaps in our knowledge, several local, dedicated fisheries biologists currently have studies under way. I hope their results will be available before the animals they are studying are in jeopardy.

How do people in northern Southeastern Alaska feel about constructing a road adjacent to Berners Bay or a mine with activities inside Berners watershed? During a two-day hearing last February, 64 percent of those testifying were against the road to Skagway. Additionally, over the past four months 69 percent of letters in the Empire were against the road or mine. If one assumes the two samples are representative of the total population, a sizable majority is in favor of protecting Berners Bay from roads or mines. The consensus of the majority would be addressed by halting construction of any roads north from Echo Cove and insisting that all mine activity is conducted on Lynn Canal which is what Coeur Alaska originally proposed in 1997. Many of us who oppose the mine inside Berners Bay would not oppose it if it were all on Lynn Canal where it would be much less harmful.

I close with a line by the inimitable William Shakespeare: "now is the winter of our discontent." These words aptly describe the frustrations of the majority of local residents who have been discontented with the direction their leaders have been going with the Berners Bay issue. The leaders should stop, listen to their constituents and make appropriate policy changes that will protect this local treasure for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

• Juneau resident Richard Gard is a Professor of Fisheries Emeritus and former fisheries biologist at the Auke Bay Lab.

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