Federal fish agency pans highway plan
The federal National Marine Fisheries Service has joined critics of the Haines Highway expansion project.
In comments to the state Department of Transportation on the project’s draft environmental assessment dated Aug. 23, the agency’s Juneau office said the project as proposed would have “substantial and permanent” adverse effects on essential fish habitat along the river.
“Currently, 8.3 acres of riverine habitat would be lost due to the placement of fill material into about 7.7 acres of the Chilkat River… (and) (nearly half a mile) of tributaries. Under the current design proposal, 23.6 acres, or about 10 percent, of the 248.4 acres of wetlands in the project area would also be filled,” the agency wrote.
“NMFS agrees that maintaining the Haines Highway along much of its current alignment, including where it is next to the Chilkat River, would have fewer adverse impacts to essential fish habitat. However, there are still practicable alternatives to placement of fill material into much of the Chilkat River,” the agency said.
NMFS disagreed with DOT’s statement that “after factoring in proposed mitigation, the long-term impact of this project on essential fish habitat is expected to be beneficial.”
“Permanent elimination of 8.3 acres of riverine habitat and 23.6 acres of wetlands will not be offset by the proposed mitigation (rerouted tributaries, placement of additional riprap, placement of other structures with an unknown likelihood of success),” NMFS said.
The agency’s comments also note that the draft assessment calls for mitigation that includes a “fee-in-lieu of compensatory mitigation at a ratio negotiated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The agency’s letter goes on to lay out “avoidance and minimization recommendations.”
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires federal agencies to consult with NMFS on actions that may adversely affect essential fish habitat.
State and federal highway officials this week said it was too early to say how the NMFS critique would impact DOT’s assessment. The state has received about 250 comments on the project, said DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow. “We’ve been working on this project for years. To get this many comments this late in the design process was unexpected.”
The volume of comments will delay the project up to six months, Woodrow said.
Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, described the NMFS critique as “meaningful,” but said it’s too early to say they would force changes in the project design.
“We’re not there yet, but (the comments) are a good example of the level of commitment we’re seeing from a variety of folks.”
Eric Holle of Lynn Canal Conservation this week said the NMFS comments corroborate what his group has been saying about the risk to fish. “We also suspect something may happen to the internationally famous Chilkat bald eagles. The people who established the eagle preserve understood that if salmon disappear, there’s no reason for eagles to be showing up here in November.”
Holle said LCC’s first request is that planners rebuilding the highway between 3 Mile and 25 Mile adopt a 50 mph design standard. That would allow them to use the road’s existing alignment for much of the project.
“Design a road that’s more appropriate for a park. The speed limit on the Blue Ridge Parkway is 45 mph and that sees a lot more traffic than the Haines Highway, Holle said.
DOT’s Woodrow said the road’s design standards and speed limit are attached to the road’s designation as a “rural arterial corridor.” “People think rural is a lazy, country road. That’s not necessarily the case in the way they’re designed. The idea is to move traffic.” Slowing the speed and keeping the existing alignment wouldn’t necessarily make the road safer for motorists, Woodrow said.
Holle said DOT has overlooked the first two mandates when encountering fish habitat – avoidance and minimization. “We want them to focus on that. They’ve said very little about mitigation.”
LCC would be opposed to any mitigation plan that would exchange habitat here for cash placed in a fund that would help the environment somewhere else in the state, Holle said. “Any mitigation that happens has to happen in the Chilkat Valley.”
The group also is opposed to a plan to use fill known as riprap to shore up about 2.7 miles of the riverside road. The state instead should use engineered log jams that slow water speed, prevent scouring and, over time, capture floating woody debris.
That style of embankment creates habitat for rearing fish and out-migrating smolt, Holle said. A former Fish and Game technician, Holle said when the state was seeking to catch juvenile fish for studies, it rarely found them at riprap embankments.