Begich weighs in on highway
State officials and organizations are weighing in on the proposed improvements to the Haines Highway, and a local environmental group is looking to spotlight the project in statewide and national press.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Sept. 16 urging the agency to address concerns from locals before the project is finalized.
The $100 million Department of Transportation proposed project will widen the roadway, straighten curves, and address slide issues from Mile 3.5 to 25.3. Concern about negative impacts to fisheries stem primarily from the project’s intended use of 23.6 acres of fill in wetlands and 8.3 acres of fill in the Chilkat River and its tributaries.
DOT’s failure to identify bald eagle roosting and feeding trees in the agency’s environmental assessment also aroused the concern of residents and caused them to demand an environmental impact statement, a more comprehensive document.
“The project as proposed would remove eagle nesting trees, impact nearby historic and cultural sites, and fill in wetlands critical to fish habitat,” Begich wrote. “While the environmental assessment includes proposed mitigation measures, many local residents say this project would still degrade the value of the preserve, adjacent historic sites, and the general experience of the drive.”
The National Audubon Society’s Alaska branch also submitted a comment to DOT, claiming the project warrants an impact statement.
Jim Adams, policy director for Audubon Alaska, wrote that an impact statement is required by law and is also “good public policy.” The document also offers a better opportunity for examining alternatives, Adams wrote.
The Alaska Audubon also posted a notification on its website linking to the environmental assessment and asking concerned citizens to comment.
“The Alaska Department of Transportation’s plan to widen and straighten the road will compromise the values for which the preserve was established – perpetual protection for bald eagles and essential eagle habitats, and the eagles’ salmon food source,” the site read.
Mayor Stephanie Scott said she was curious about the impetus behind Begich’s letter, as the borough didn’t solicit it. “As far as I know, he had no contact with the Haines Borough. He was responding to some constituency. It wasn’t the elected officials asking for help, which is usually what happens,” Scott said.
Scott said she intended to contact Sally Smith, Begich’s staffer in his Juneau office. Smith did not return calls from the CVN for comment.
Scott said the borough incorporated environmental concerns in its official comment to DOT, but that elected officials have prioritized the “significant safety value” of the project’s improvements.
“It’s clear to me that it’s okay in somebody’s book to go outside of the local government. If you feel that your local government isn’t acting in your best interest, then you go around them. And that’s what this was,” she said.
Media consultant Sue Libenson said environmental group Lynn Canal Conservation (LCC) contacted her recently to “bring wider attention of this nationally important resource to a wider statewide and national audience.”
In an interview Monday, Libenson said she would be contacting media outlets statewide to see if they would pick up a story on the highway improvements. “This is the habitat that supports the highest concentration for eagles in the world and supports our local fishing fleet... No one is saying, ‘Don’t touch the road for that whole section.’ They are saying give special consideration to the parts with special eagle, fish and scenic values,” she said.
Libenson also is a member of LCC.
LCC member Peter Goll said Monday he sent a “note” to Begich’s office, as did other members of the community.
DOT is currently processing more than 250 comments, and plans to have responses to those comments published by November or December in its next draft of the environmental assessment, said DOT communications officer Jeremy Woodrow.
The comments might yield changes to the project, but Woodrow was hesitant to say what those changes might be.
“The department is looking at possibly modifying some of the design. If there are any changes, they aren’t final yet,” Woodrow said.
“The changes we’re looking at making would, if anything, help reduce the environmental impact that the project currently proposes,” he added.
The National Marine Fisheries Service also recently expressed concern about the project, writing in comments to DOT that the project as proposed would have “substantial and permanent” adverse effects on essential fish habitat along the river.