It seems that efforts to protect Alaska’s wildlands, wild waters, and wildlife are never-ending. While conservationists—and yes, preservationists—are sometimes derided and mislabeled as “antis” (for instance anti-development or anti-hunting), in fact we greenie sorts are pro-life in the largest sense of the word. We are voices for those who have no voice, advocates for the larger, wilder world we inhabit; the world that is our original home. So many of us humans have become disconnected from our wild and natural roots, that we forget—or overlook or ignore—that our hunger to develop (or in some cases, “control”) more and more of our state’s natural resources is despoiling our home, the wild Earth.
(An aside: I sometimes shudder at the overuse of “resources” to describe what to me are natural treasures, because the term resource inevitably implies “for human consumption” and ignores the fact that life forms and landscapes have inherent value, in and of themselves.)
Because industry holds huge sway in our state, there’s an absolute need for residents to insist, in certain circumstances, that we hold back, do no more harm, especially now that we know how much damage certain types of development are doing. Need I mention oil and gas and coal as prime examples?
There is also the fact that Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration seems all too willing to sacrifice long-standing, renewable resources—most notably salmon, marine mammals, and other wildlife—for polluting, non-renewable ones.
So. Anchorage residents have two opportunities to speak out for wild places and wild critters in the next couple of days. The first is a “Bristol Bay Public Meeting” hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Monday evening (June 4) at 5:30 p.m., in UAA’s Wendy Williamson Auditorium. This event—and the EPA’s recent draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment—has already gotten lots of publicity, so I won’t say more except it’s an opportunity to speak out for Bristol Bay’s economically and culturally significant salmon runs. What’s more important: world-class salmon fisheries and habitat that support local culture and Alaska Native traditions, or a world-class mineral deposit that could threaten the salmon, their habitat, and local economies and subsistence lifestyles?
Monday’s meeting is followed by one on Tuesday (June 5), at 6 p.m. in the Loussac Library’s Anchorage Assembly chambers. There, locals can speak on behalf of the Coastal Trail and a small but significant municipal parkland, Point Woronzof Park. Until this past week, this local land issue had received little media attention. To help spread the word, I’ve written a commentary that first ran as a Compass in the Daily News. Here I include an expanded version of that opinion piece, with a few additional comments at the end, in response to Sunday’s ADN news story, “Airport resurrects land-swap proposal.” Here, then, is my commentary, “It’s time to protect our Coastal Trail for keeps.”
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It's time, once more, for Anchorage residents to raise their voices on behalf of our city's beloved Coastal Trail.
It's time, again, to make it clear that we won't sacrifice a portion of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail or surrounding wooded parkland, so that the Anchorage International Airport might some day build a second--and unnecessary--north-south runway a few thousand feet west of the existing one.
Some of you may be shaking your heads and experiencing déjà vu. You may be thinking, didn't we fight--and win--this battle only a few years ago?
Yes, that's right. In 2008, a loud public outcry (and airline opposition) prompted airport officials to indefinitely suspend plans for a second N-S runway, which threatened a section of the Coastal Trail and 191-acre Point Woronzof Park, a mostly forested area west of the airport, between the city's wastewater treatment plant and Kincaid Park.
Four years later, the trail and park are again in jeopardy. City planners want to give them to the airport in a "comprehensive land exchange" that's a key recommendation in the West Anchorage District Plan (WADP), which goes before the Assembly on June 5.
Exactly how and why this has happened is complicated. The entire story is far too long to present in this space, but Casey Grove gave a good overview in Sunday’s news story “Airport resurrects land-swap proposal.” Even that reporting, I should note, doesn’t present the entire context for the current land-swap proposal. Here I'll share only the most pertinent details I've learned from Cathy Gleason, a 30-year Turnagain resident and longtime Coastal Trail advocate who played a central role in Point Woronzof Park's 1994 creation. Right now she's also president of the Turnagain Community Council (TCC).
But first I want to echo an appeal that Gleason, the TCC, and others have been making: Anchorage residents who value the Coastal Trail and its forested buffer west of the airport need to: 1) contact Assembly members by phone or email (you can reach them all via email@example.com) and/or 2) attend the Assembly's June 5 public hearing (6 p.m. at the Loussac Library).
Coastal Trail advocates need to make it clear that we oppose the WADP's proposed comprehensive land exchange or any other agreement that would give the airport Point Woronzof Park and the trail that runs through it, or any other municipal lands that provide a forested buffer around the existing Coastal Trail. We also need to express our strong--and continued--opposition to any plan that advocates a second north-south runway.
And instead of trading city-owned Heritage Land Bank (HLB) holdings to the airport (leaving only the narrowest of forest buffers), the city should transfer all HLB lands west of the airport to the Parks and Recreation Department, as permanently dedicated parklands.
Gleason and the TCC have listed several other "key points" that local residents should make to the Assembly, all of them tied to the complex WADP and all intended to protect existing natural and/or recreational areas, including the Turnagain Bog, Point Woronzof overlook, Little Campbell Lake, Spenard Beach Park, and the northern end of Connor's Bog. Rather than try to summarize them here, I will, at her suggestion, refer people to Gleason: 248-0442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, a little context. Strangely enough, city planners and their consultants—not airport officials—are the ones who've reopened the discussion of a second N-S runway in the WADP, by pushing for a land swap with the airport. Because the only land the airport desires is what it would need for another runway: right through Point Woronzof Park and a three-quarter-mile section of the Coastal Trail.
Recognizing its importance to the community, airport officials say they would of course reroute the Coastal Trail, if a new runway were ever built. So what's the big deal? But their solution would be to either place the newly aligned section on rocky mounds of riprap, against a chain-link fence; or, tunnel it under the runway. In other words, make it part of the airport complex. The tunnel option ignores certain complications, for instance moose-human encounters, or how to place snow inside it for winter skiing. But in either scenario, the surrounding forest that makes this section of trail such a delight--and which acts as a substantial buffer to the airport's industrialized landscape and activities, and especially its noise--would be destroyed. And both the wooded parkland and trail users would be losers. This is unacceptable to many of us Coastal Trail enthusiasts.
What's especially discouraging and irritating to Gleason—and to me—is that Point Woronzof Park was created in 1994 as a specific condition of a previous muni-airport land trade. Approved by the assembly, the 191-acre plot was "dedicated for permanent park and recreational purposes."
Now city planners propose to give it away. So much for permanence.
Anyone who has walked, biked, or skied this section of Coastal Trail knows it to be among the loveliest stretches, with beautiful birch-spruce-cottonwood woodlands that are frequented by moose and other forest wildlife.
Again, Gleason: "It's one thing for the airport to draw a big line through dedicated parkland and try to justify they will need it for future expansion"—expansion, she adds, that now and in the foreseeable future, as in 2008, makes absolutely no economic sense. "But for a municipal planning document to be the instigator of this does not serve the public's best interest, to say the least."
Though planners argue that their proposed land exchange would protect other important natural and recreational areas now in airport ownership, Gleason responds, "I say the price is too high and it makes the comprehensive land exchange a non-starter."
Too high indeed.
To me, like Gleason, planners want to needlessly give away a beautiful section of the Coastal Trail and the dedicated parkland through which it passes, in order to address some future land-use issues that may never arise. And so, once more, we need to say loudly and clearly: Leave the Coastal Trail and surrounding forested lands alone. Permanently.
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A few additional thoughts, after reading Sunday's news story, “Airport resurrects land-swap proposal”:
Airport manager John Parrott admitted to reporter Casey Grove that the airport does own undeveloped lands to the south, which could be used for future expansion. If true, why not use those lands, rather than pave over Point Woronzof Park and mess with the Coastal Trail?
Parrott argues that any such expansion would be better done to the west—where the trail and park are located—so as not to disturb residential neighborhoods to the south. But that argument only has some merit if expansion includes the N-S runway, and there’s no evidence to suggest the airport will inevitably need an additional runway. In fact recent trends—decreased cargo operations, increased fuel prices, the likelihood of future technology that will allow more cargo jets to bypass Anchorage, and a push to direct some cargo traffic to Fairbanks—all suggest a diminished need for any new N- S runway. If expansion is required only for additional structures and on-ground operations (Parrott named cargo and de-icing facilities as possible future needs), those needs would not substantially disturb nearby neighborhoods any more than they are now.
It’s also telling that Parrott dodged questions about the nature of a rerouted, reconstructed Coastal Trail, saying only that “what may be quality to you may not be quality to me.” That’s not the sort of answer to inspire confidence in Coastal Trail advocates.
And while both Parrott and airport spokeswoman Margaret Tyler point out that their facility is a “huge economic engine” and “proven economic structure,” how does that argue for destroying a woodland park and diminishing a trail used and loved by so many residents?
In making their arguments for airport expansion to the west, Tyler and Parrott also note that Anchorage has more parkland per capita than any other U.S. city. The implication seems clear: because Anchorage has plenty of parks and other natural areas, the loss of Point Woronzof Park would be no big deal. It’s a false argument, because this small park has special worth, for reasons I’ve explained above. In fact any argument that our city—or state, or country—has more than enough parkland or other protected lands and waters is a specious one, because the greater push in our culture is always to develop what remains. Our nation's appetite to consume -- or "utilize" -- wild nature seems unbounded. We need to protect what we still have.
Besides, from where I stand, what makes Anchorage a special and appealing place to live is its wealth of trails, greenbelts, parks, and other natural areas, not more developed or industrialized areas.
I would also take issue with planner Thede Tobish’s contention that the WADP’s proposed land exchange is the best way to retain the Coastal Trail in some fashion. If Parrott and other airport officials are being honest in stating their intention to keep “a continuous, permanent Coastal Trail,” then there’s no need to make the proposed trade. It’s a bad deal and one, as I’ve stated above, that is unnecessary to make.
Finally a question that a friend has posed to me: what about all the land that was formerly Kulis Air National Guard Base? My understanding is that this 127-acre property reverted to the state. If the airport needs more land, why not figure a way to add that to its industrialized complex?
Again, leave the Coastal Trail and Point Woronzof Park alone.