An 18-acre piece of the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge has become a battleground between the Juneau International Airport management and advocates for wildlife habitat.
The airport wants the Juneau Assembly to ask the state to transfer 18.65 acres of wetlands - less than 0.5 percent of the 3,800-acre refuge - to the airport for a runway safety area expansion project. But some residents are concerned that the project will affect wildlife habitat.
Assembly members, who previously declined the airport's request, said Monday that they needed more public comments before making a decision.
"This issue is a perfect nexus between environmental issues and transportation needs of our community," said Deputy Mayor Jim Powell. "We were unable to hear all the public testimonies tonight. We need to have another public meeting."
The land the airport management wants is split between the east and west ends of the current runway.
The airport plans to use the land at the east end to expand the runway safety area. It proposes filling the land on the west side, which is near the Mendenhall River, to reduce bird hazards to aircraft and possibly use the filled land as a runway safety area.
Both projects are included in a Federal Aviation Administration environmental impact statement, a draft of which will be released next year.
Airport Manager Allen Heese said the FAA mandates that the airport expand its runway safety area. Although a standard runway safety area should be 1,000 feet beyond each end of the runway, Juneau's current safety area is about 250 feet at each end.
In a June 28 meeting, the Assembly declined to approve the airport's request because of public concerns over the project's environmental effects. The Assembly asked airport managers to provide more information to justify why the Assembly has to make the request now instead of waiting for the FAA environmental study. The Monday meeting was a follow-up to the July meeting.
Heese said the Assembly should act now because the FAA will not approve the projects if the land remains in the refuge.
"Just because the land is in the city ownership doesn't mean that the airport is authorized to fill the wetlands," Heese said. "We are still required to complete the environmental impact statement in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act regulations and guidelines."
Heese said the airport has no plans to eliminate access to the wetlands.
"The exception to this is that during construction, access would be cut off," he said.
Ron Swanson, chairman of the airport board, said the expansion project is important if the airport wants to continue receiving federal funds.
"If we decide to do nothing, we will lose our certification of the airport. That means no Alaska Airlines planes coming anymore," Swanson said. "We are not asking to approve filling the land. It's just a request to ask a question. There will be plenty of public process before dump trucks show up."
But some residents don't think the projects are so urgent that the Assembly cannot wait for the environmental impact study.
"The airport has never had a fatal accident because of overshooting the runway," said Mark Rorick, member of the Mendenhall Refuge Citizens' Advisory Group to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "The airport can use other measures other than taking away valuable wetlands."
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.