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Road out of Juneau is long

Posted: Friday, June 04, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

Here's a story about a road that never got built. Not yet, anyway, after a state has tried for nearly a decade. And it's in a place where bumper-to-bumper traffic makes it pretty easy for proponents to argue they could use more lanes.

The setting and rationale were quite different from those of the proposed Juneau Access Road, but key components were the same. Chiefly, it would run across wetlands - something that Juneau's road also would do in places.

There's practically nothing in anyone's archives about wetlands being a potential hangup for Juneau Access. Some road opponents, such as the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, say that's because there are so many issues - avalanches, sea lions, economics. Wetlands are one issue, but haven't risen to the top.

They may though. Federal resource managers reviewing the state's environmental reports already are discussing the relative value of kelp, estuaries and intertidal zones. Wetlands have been a major sticking point for new highways nationwide.

The road that hasn't been built was and is called Legacy Highway, in suburban Salt Lake City, running through a geographic bottleneck between the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake. In the late 1990s, Utah was getting eager to dig it and augment the existing Interstate 15. All the state needed was for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a permit to build across wetlands, and for the Environmental Protection Agency to keep from vetoing it.

The problem was that the proposed route ran across the lake's eastern shoulder - an internationally recognized oasis for shorebirds annually traversing the Great Basin, a place that starred in a Terry Tempest Williams book, a place that garnered national attention as no place for an expensive road project. And most importantly: a place governed by the Clean Water Act.

Soon the proposed highway was creeping up the list of allegedly wasteful projects singled out by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Friends of the Earth in the annual report "Road to Ruin." The report, with road projects nominated by environmental groups around the country, grades proposals by blending their cost with their potential ecological damage. Utah's Legacy is No. 3 on the latest list, released Thursday.

Juneau Access is among the 27 that made the list, though not in the top 10, after which ranking ends.

The report itself should not be ominous for road builders. It's not surprising that anyone anywhere who hears about whales and sea lions and hooligan and kayaks in Berners Bay might call building a road past it and across 65 miles of wilderness a bad way to spend a few hundred million dollars. But when you combine a groundswell in national attention with wetlands, roadblocks spring up.

In Utah's case, the Corps took a long, hard look, and ultimately approved the project. The EPA threatened a veto, partly because the state hadn't made a serious push toward using mass transit in the corridor to decrease the need for damaging wetlands, but no veto followed. Several years in, bulldozers were working on an intersection for the new highway.

Then a federal court stopped the bulldozers and made the agencies review the proposal for better alternatives. The reason, as environmentalists had argued from the start, was that the government hadn't made a clear case that it had chosen the best alternative.

Often in federal environmental studies the perfectly legal best alternative is just the one that the government says is best. But in the case of the Clean Water Act, the government must choose the least-damaging option that is "practicable." It doesn't mean you can't punch a road across wetlands. It just means that first you have show that there isn't another option that works and is reasonable.

For instance, one might have to demonstrate that ferries aren't doing the job.

So, you say. Wetlands haven't been an issue in the Juneau Access debate. True. There's been little mention of it. And much of the road would be blasted from rock. But look at the proposed route linking Juneau to Skagway and the continental highway system. You don't have to look far beyond Juneau's current road system to see the line approaching and then crossing rivers.

In a possible prelude to years of back-and-forth between agencies and advocates, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in February reviewed the state's latest wetlands and essential fish habitat assessments of Juneau Access improvements. The agency's Feb. 12 letter says the Department of Transportation underestimated the value of certain wetlands - especially intertidal areas and estuaries, submerged grasses and kelp acting as habitat and prey producers for a variety of fish and wildlife - and subjectively ranked the water-cleansing value of wetlands low because of lack of human settlements.

The NOAA report is picky, like a newspaper editor. It even recommends that DOT's report "not capitalize the common name of Onchorynchus tshawystscha, chinook." But the Clean Water Act is clear, and if proponents ever find the money to build a road to Skagway, opponents will pick it apart for a good long time. They have plenty of roadmaps for such an effort.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.



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