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Airport, residents have at it over trees

Would clear-cuts solve bird problem?

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2001

When Juneau Airport Manager Allan Heese looks at a large swath of trees near the floatplane pond, he sees a habitat that attracts deer and birds large enough to pose a serious threat to aviators.

Given his druthers, he'd err on the side of caution and cut down the trees.

But some residents at a public meeting Thursday night strongly rejected the idea, saying the airport could force more birds across the runway by clear-cutting the estimated 60-acre woodland and unwittingly increase the danger.

"You may make the situation worse than better," said Steve Zimmerman, president of the Juneau Audubon Society, speaking before a crowd of about 80 people.

The Federal Aviation Administration called the meeting to review tentative proposals by the airport to manage wildlife hazards posed by the woodland and the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge surrounding the airstrip.

The proposals could be included in the airport's Wildlife Hazard Management Plan due out soon, according to Heese. The plan would need final approval by the FAA.

The proposals are controversial to some residents who fear that the airport plan could seriously compromise the environment surrounding the scenic Airport Dike Trail near the runway. Here's a sample of some proposals presented Thursday:

* Fill a portion of wetlands between the Mendenhall River and the north end of the runway to remove high-risk bird habitat.

* Move the mouth of Duck Creek from the north end of the runway to relocate birds preying on fish.

* Cover portions of the floatplane pond with wire barriers to prevent certain birds from landing.

* Eliminate grassy areas between the runway and taxiway to discourage geese and other birds.

* Clear-cut or thin trees by the floatplane pond to reduce or eliminate bird and deer habitat.

FAA staff and consultants spent the first half of the four-hour meeting explaining the airport's conundrum. Birds and other wildlife pose a serious threat to aircraft, said FAA wildlife biologist Ed Cleary, adding that the number of birds striking aircraft worldwide has increased in recent years.

The issue hit home in 1995 when 24 people died on board an Air Force plane that crashed in Anchorage after ingesting four Canada geese into its engines during takeoff. A Boeing 737 landing in Juneau in 1997 ingested a blue heron, which shut down and damaged the engine. No one was hurt, but weeks later it happened again to a jet on takeoff here, said FAA consultant Ron Merritt.

"I'm not saying moonscape a place at all, but there are certain species we have to keep away from the active runways and taxiways," Merritt told the crowd.

However, opponents questioned whether the risk was high enough to warrant such measures as clear-cutting. Pilots reported 21 bird strikes from 1990-99 at the Juneau Airport resulting in no damage to aircraft 15 times, minor damage three times and major damage three times, according to FAA statistics. Wildlife strikes by aircraft have caused about 425 deaths worldwide since 1912.

Juneau resident Skip Gray said the risk to people appeared low compared to other dangers.

"How many people die in car accidents?" Gray asked. "To what extreme extent should we go to try to reduce all risks?"

The meeting included panels of residents interested in the issue plus audience members, and most focused on the proposal to cut the trees. Panelist Bill Wilmoth, who worked on a recent federal study that recommended clear-cutting the woodland, defended the proposal, saying the trees put eagles, crows and other birds in direct conflict with aircraft.

"Those trees do draw birds across the runway," said Wilmoth of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But Zimmerman, of the Audubon Society, argued that the trees divert birds flying toward the runway from other directions.

"I think the trees are a deterrent to the movement of birds," said Zimmerman, also a panelist.

Merrick, the FAA consultant, conceded he did not know whether cutting down the trees would reduce or increase bird strikes.

But Heese, the airport manager, said after the meeting the tree issue goes beyond wildlife hazards. In 2000 a pilot of a small plane already in trouble died after the aircraft clipped a tree and slammed into a hangar, he said.

Some in the audience suggested that hunters on the wetlands scare birds aloft and contribute to bird strikes, pointing to an FAA graph that showed strikes increase during duck season. But Wilmoth, of the USDA, said other Southeast airports showed the same trend even though they are located away from hunting grounds.

Mark Rorick of the Sierra Club said he would support less drastic measures, such as removing fish from the floatpond to divert birds of prey and using wire mesh to put some habitat off limits. The airport also could selectively remove trees desirable to eagles building nests, Rorick said.

The FAA plans to analyze the airport plan as part of an Environmental Impact Statement on other projects, including expansion of runway safety areas. The airport plan was included in the EIS this year at the urging of some residents. A draft EIS is due by April 2002 and a final by November next year.

*****

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



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