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Funds to preserve refuge boundary

Newly accreted lands face threat of developement

Posted: Sunday, December 27, 2009

To some, it's just acres of mud. But for many who live along them, Juneau's tidal flats provide a special connection with nature.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

There's a fresh view with each changing tide, a multitude of birds that show up every season and an array of sunsets all through the year. Many who live nearby know what they have is special, said Mark Rorick, who has lived on Mendenhall Peninsula Road since the 1970s.

A narrow strip of Rorick's steep property abuts the wetlands. Like his neighbors, he's considering a proposal to preserve some of the land in perpetuity.

Rorick, a leader of the local Sierra Club, is a full-time environmentalist. But it's not just a penchant for conservation that could entice landowners into preservation. There's money, too, made available by mitigation funds paid by the Federal Aviation Administration for Juneau International Airport's expansion projects. It will affect more than 80 acres of wetlands.

The Southeast Alaska Land Trust is managing nearly $6 million in mitigation funds. The trust wants to focus spending to protect the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, Executive Director Diane Mayer said.

The wetlands, which were internationally recognized in 2006 as an Important Bird Area, are threatened by a state law that allows property owners to lay claim to land that is uplifted due to glacial retreat. These "accreted" lands remain above the mean high tide line after glacial rebound lifts the earth.

"People who might have started out with an acre can end up with five," Mayer said.

As a result, the refuge boundary is shrinking and newly accreted lands pose a threat of development.

The refuge was established in 1976 at 3,764 acres. Since then, about 50 acres were claimed by upland property owners, Mayer said. Claims of one or two acres at a time are typical but 15 acres have been claimed in a single case.

Mayer contacted 130 property owners by mail to explain the potential for placing these lands into conservation, which removes future potential for development.

SEALTrust plans to use the mitigation funds to help owners through paperwork, set up land trusts or purchase property outright. The idea is to work with willing landowners to fix as much of the refuge boundary as possible and avoid urbanization, Mayer said.

Reasons for participation usually have to do with an interest in conservation, since landowners give up property value when they relinquish future development rights. Decisions affect property values now and for future generations.

Rorick and his family have not made a final decision whether to participate, but there's only a small piece of property in play. He's interested in protecting the tidal flats near his home because he wants the area to stay the same.

"I don't want to see development on there, don't want to see houses going onto it, don't want to see 'No Trespassing' signs," he said. "I just like it the way it is and want to keep it the way it is."

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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