Vote No group: Crossing through refuge will have significant impact

Posted: Thursday, September 23, 2010

A former biologist and research supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game discussed the damage he believes a crossing to Douglas will cause to the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge Wednesday at a gathering of people opposed to Ballot Proposition 2.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Bob Armstrong, a former biologist and research supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and an environmental author, spoke at the Silverbow Inn about the kinds of wildlife at Mendenhall and the impact a causeway could have through it. Armstrong has been in Juneau since 1960 and has studied the refuge ever since.

He said due to development and other issues, 39 percent of the original wetlands are gone.

"What remains out there is very important for both birds and fish," he said, adding that the wetlands were named an area of significant global importance in 2007.

Armstrong said in order to get that designation an area must support at least 1 percent of a particular species. Mendenhall is host to that amount of several species of birds.

"The majority (of birds) are migrants," he said. "Seventeen percent could be considered year-round residents. The bald eagle is a good example. There are about 24 nests associated with the wetlands that are active."

Birds aren't the only ones nesting or feeding in those wetlands, he said. Fish, such as the Dolly Varden and Coho salmon, and the critters they eat spawn and eat there as well. Another fish, the Pacific sand lance, is an important food source for other fish, bald eagles and humpback whales, Armstrong said, adding he believes the sand lance is the most important fish in the North Pacific Ocean.

"Almost everything out there feeds on Pacific sand lance," he said.

Another key element of the wetlands are sedges. The sedges trap the algae and arthropods come and feed on it. Armstrong said arthropods are a major food of young Coho. Armstrong pointed out that salmon are also important for the area's black bears.

Armstrong said a causeway would displace birds and fish and cause a lot of loss of habitat. He said the Safe, Affordable, Future, Efficient Committee takes part of an environmental study out of context with Sunny Point. They say it will be the least disruptive, when in reality the study shows low levels of bird use because it's largely inaccessible to humans.

He also noted the walkway proposed to run alongside the causeway would be disruptive because of how many people let their dogs chase birds.

Many people in the audience voiced concerns with the proposition, which asks for an extension of the 1 percent temporary sales tax for 10 years for a crossing at Sunny Point.

Many had an issue with it being too close to the airport, which will cause more birds to fly up into air traffic. Sunny Point is less than a mile away. A pilot spoke and said the emergency landing in the Hudson required miles of space to land. If the causeway is put there and a plane runs off the runway, it will likely crash into the causeway, he said.

One person who worked on a 2007 report that specified Vanderbilt Road as a crossing point said there was zero opposition for that location and couldn't understand why Sunny Point was being touted.

Another person raised a concern about a problem with fill structure. She said that looking around all the fill that the Department of Transportation has brought in for other projects, it also brings in invasive species of plants and those things could harm the wetlands.

A Douglas resident said the Sunny Point location was the worst option environmentally because at low tide bears feed on salmon right in the spot where it would go. He added that the point of a refuge is to get away from all the traffic and noise and now they're proposing bringing it right in the middle.

Others said this is the worst possible way to do land use planning when significant studies haven't been completed and the engineering isn't complete.

A woman who lives at Sunny Point said it's a bad idea to add additional traffic there because commercial trucks will try and use residential roads to get to businesses on that side - trucks that are already struggling with the roads.

• Contact Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

Editor's note: The SAFE Committee held a similar event last month. To see the Empire's coverage of that event and the issues as presented by SAFE, please visit http://tinyurl.com/2be7ryw and http://tinyurl.com/2eg2vhc.



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