Airport rejects plan to clearcut trees

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

A controversial proposal to improve safety at the Juneau Airport by cutting a large swath of trees near the floatplane pond is dead. The trees will stay for now.

The airport board nixed the project in a 5-2 vote Wednesday night after hearing from a crowd dominated by opponents.

"I'm not convinced we want to cut the trees down," said board member Ron Swanson, also a private pilot. "I think it's too contentious an issue with the public."

The president of the Juneau Audubon Society said he was pleased the board made a "good common-sense decision."

"It needs more study," said Steve Zimmerman, who argued the woodland enhances airport safety. "Once those trees come down it's an irretrievable action."

The question before the board was not whether to approve the clearcut, but whether to submit the proposal and 10 other projects to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval. The board would be allowed to later reject the proposals even if the FAA authorized them, said Airport Manager Allan Heese.

Heese wanted to include the clearcut proposal in a draft Wildlife Hazard Management Plan under review by the FAA, which is analyzing the plan and a host of airport improvement projects in an environmental impact statement, due by November 2002.

The vote by the board means the airport may not clearcut the woodland to manage wildlife hazards, Heese said.

"It's basically a dead issue for the time being," he said.

Heese contends the 60-acre woodland poses a threat to aviators because the trees draw birds across the runway. At least 21 birds struck aircraft at the Juneau Airport from 1990-99 and three caused substantial damage, according to the FAA.

A recent federal study confirmed birds are crossing the runway to get to the trees, said Heese, adding the report recommended clearcutting the woodland.

But locals who walk the scenic Airport Dike Trail debunked the study, saying it was inadequate and failed to analyze whether the woodland diverts birds flying toward the airport from other directions. Opponents argued the trees act as a barrier to birds and make the airport safer.

"If somebody can show us cutting those trees down will really help airport safety, we would not be opposed. We think the opposite will happen," said Zimmerman, the Audubon Society president.

Trail walker Bill Dunn implored the board to heed residents who believe the trees act as a barrier.

"You're representing all of us and the airport is not private property," Dunn hollered at the panel. "It's not a little kingdom or a domain. It's ours. It's public."

But the barrier argument made no sense to Tony Reiger, a longtime hunter on the wetlands.

"If those ducks want to get into that basin, they get into that basin," Reiger told the board. "If you're managing the airport for safety, these trees have to come down."

Airport employee Jerry Mahle said bird and aircraft collisions are a problem in Juneau and that the airport must make the runway safer. However, the most extreme solution may not be the best one, he said.

"We don't necessarily have to cut them all down," said Mahle, airfield maintenance supervisor.

Pilot Butch Laughlin said he did not believe the trees are an issue. However, birds sometimes are a problem in the floatplane pond, said Laughlin, who recommended ridding the pond of food.

"The only problem we've had about three years ago we had hooligan in the pond and that was a mess," said Laughlin, who runs Alaska Fly-N-Fish Charters.

Resident Tom Williams told board members they should not submit the clearcut proposal for federal approval if they did not support it. The board should not assume it will be able to kill the proposal later, he said.

"Things have a tendency to take on a life of their own," Williams said. "Once you get a train going, it's difficult to stop it sometimes."

In the end, the board voted to yank the clearcut project from the list and submit the other proposals to federal regulators. Board members Joe Johnson and Gordon Evans voted no, while Joe Heueisen, Mike Barton, Ron Swanson, Pete Carlson and Al Clough voted yes.

Heese said he will consider other ways to manage wildlife, such as eliminating fish and vegetation from the pond to discourage birds and removing all nests in the woodland, except an eagle nest, which is protected by law.

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



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