My Turn: A different dose of common sense

Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Juneau Empire Publisher Don Smith recently wrote that the airport controversy needs a dose of common sense. This is true. That is why so many people are concerned about the chainsaw approach being taken to the airport safety issue. Let's look at the facts.

Between 1991 and 1999 there were 20 reported bird strikes at the Juneau airport. None of these caused any injuries to humans. Fifteen of the reported strikes caused no recorded damage, two caused minor damage and three caused substantial damage. Two of the three substantial damage incidents were caused by great blue herons that had been frequenting a pond near one of the runways. That pond no longer has water in it, and here have been no strikes involving Great Blue Herons since 1997. There were 127,000 passenger flights (not including helicopter, cargo or military flights) at the airport in 1995. Assuming this is a typical year, there have been more than a million passenger flights during the time when the 20 strikes were recorded. This equates to approximately one strike every 50,000 flights, of which only approximately one in every 350,000 flights has caused substantial aircraft damage. These are very low numbers. It could be argued that there is no way to ever get the numbers lower, especially since the source of the heron strikes has been eliminated.

Even with such low numbers, any reasonable steps to increase safety at the airport should be taken. At the Nov. 15 airport meeting, the experts told us that the species of greatest concern at the airport are Canada Geese and other waterfowl. Amazingly, the proposed airport wildlife management plan does not consider what to do about geese and ducks that are forced to fly off the wetlands by hunters and people who let their dogs run free. Instead, the plan simplistically recommends that all of the trees around the airport should be cut down.

The authors of the proposed management plan cannot predict what will happen if the trees are cut down. There is no doubt that cutting the trees will have an effect, but what will it be? Those of us who are familiar with the airport area, and the birds that use it, are very concerned that cutting the trees will likely increase the danger of bird strikes. The eagles, ravens, crows, and other birds that sit in the trees along the dike, and fly directly to the channel and wetlands to feed, will no longer be able to do so. Rather, they will have to perch inland and fly across the runways to get to their feeding areas. The dike trees have also been observed acting as a barrier to birds that are flushed by activities on the wetlands. If the trees are taken down, the likelihood that geese and other waterfowl will fly directly into the path of aircraft may increase.

The airport plan recommends filling all of the finger ponds that branch off of the float plane pond. Yet, it has been noted by dike walkers that birds in the finger ponds feed quietly and seldom flush at an airplane's approach. By filling the finger ponds, the birds that would have been feeding and resting quietly, far away from aircraft, will be forced to relocate to the main float plane pond. If that is the only area where they can sit, waterfowl will be more likely to be flushed by planes coming and going from the pond. We have also seen that past airport hazing has greatly increased the possibility of aircraft collisions, especially with regard to swans. Trail walkers have observed that swans fly off the ponds during hazing, then make a big circuit over the Mendenhall Valley, and cross right back over the runways to return to their feeding areas. Unfortunately, the airport management plan proposes increased hazing. Juneau residents need to become more informed on this issue. The community needs a common sense approach to airport safety. Far from solving safety problems at the Juneau airport, implementing the proposed wildlife management plan may create more dangerous conditions.

Steve Zimmerman has a Ph.D. in oceanography and has studied birds and other wildlife in the Juneau area since 1972. He is president of the Juneau Audubon Society.

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