Locals wrangle over airport trees

Clearcutting not to be considered in airport environmental study

Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2001

Residents on Wednesday night urged the federal government to weigh the environmental effects of clearcutting a 60-acre woodland at the Juneau airport.

However, a consulting firm hired by the Federal Aviation Administration to write an environmental impact statement on proposed projects there said it will not address the tree-felling issue in the EIS because it's not relevant.

"It's not related to the proposed actions," consultant Ken Wallace told a crowd of about 60 people.

The public meeting at Centennial Hall was the first of several planned for the EIS, a detailed study of several airport improvement projects proposed by the city.

Projects include an approach-light system on the east end of the runway and an access road to it, new parking areas for aircraft, a new building for snow removal equipment, a road across Duck Creek, and a 1,000-foot safety area at either end of the runway for aircraft that undershoot or overshoot the airstrip. The projects would require crews to fill about 70 acres of wetlands, said Patti Sullivan of the FAA.

The airport last year released its own study measuring the projects' environmental impacts, but critics said the study didn't go far enough in examining effects on fish, wildlife and habitat. The FAA agreed and ordered an EIS.

The public meeting was to hear from residents on what issues the consultants should weigh as they write a draft version of the study, which will explore the impact of each project and suggest alternatives.

The trees are important to residents who use the Airport Dike Trail near the runway.

The airport last week cut down about four acres of trees near Jordan Creek because they posed a hazard to aircraft, said airport manager Allan Heese. Trees provide habitat for herons, crows,

eagles and gulls, which can down planes if they are sucked into the engines, he said.

Residents were worried the larger swath of forest near the floatpond would meet the same fate, especially since a recent federal report recommended clearcutting the stand for safety reasons.

"The trees were just devastated," said Laurie Ferguson Craig, commenting on behalf of the Juneau Audubon Society. "This same thing could happen on the south side."

The airport manager said crews cut down the Jordan Creek trees last week after getting approval from the Juneau Planning Commission. However, the airport would go through a more extensive public process if it proposed cutting down the 60-acre swath, he said.

The airport intends to draft a wildlife management plan, and it could propose cutting the trees in that. However, that plan would require federal approval, said Wallace, the consultant.

"The wildlife management plan will be evaluated by the FAA ... for impacts to the human environment," said Wallace, noting the EIS would not include the issue because the proposed projects would not affect the trees.

However, Ferguson Craig of the Juneau Audubon Society pressed the FAA to consider the tree issue in the EIS, saying there is legal precedent compelling them to include it.

"It should be included," she said. "You have to consider all the impacts at the same time if they are foreseeable."

Some residents also questioned whether the airport should expand Juneau's runway safety strips - gravel areas for aircraft that go astray of the airstrip. Federal standards call for a 1,000-foot safety area at both ends of runways where practicable; here they extend only about 250 feet, said the airport manager.

The FAA's Sullivan said safety areas recently became a higher priority after jets in Arkansas and California overshot runways on landing. In both cases the safety areas fell short of federal standards. The Arkansas crash killed 11 people, said Sullivan, noting a storm also contributed to that accident.

Some residents questioned whether the extended safety areas are practicable here. Another speaker said Juneau should not strive to eliminate all risk.

"We all face risks every day - every time we get in a car," said Skip Gray. "It seems like there is a tendency to eliminate all risks at the expense of our natural environment."

Another resident voiced concern about the airport's proposal to increase parking for aircraft. The proposal would add space for 35 fixed-wing aircraft and 31 helicopters. Jim Sundberg, who lives by Fred Meyer, said he's worried about growth of flight-seeing operations at the airport and the noise that goes along with it.

"It seems like it gets worse every year, and I would like to know how you go about assessing the noise impact of it," he said.

The FAA tentatively has scheduled another public meeting in late July. The agency hopes to have a draft EIS by December and a final decision by May 2002.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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