Monday, June 11, 2001
Soldotna -- The state Department of Transportation wants the public to help it re-thread the Sterling Highway through Cooper Landing, but the process has struck a pothole. Conservationists, worried that the state has already made up its mind to lop off a stretch of popular Resurrection Pass Trail, have launched an Internet-based campaign to stop it.
On June 2, National Trails Day, the Alaska Center for the Environment posted a form letter on the Web. The letter, opposing a highway spur across the historic trail, can be edited and sent at the click of a button.
In the past week, an estimated 200 versions of the message jammed inboxes at various agencies involved in the project. Planners said they were taken off-guard by the wave of e-mail, and some were annoyed, since the process is just lumbering to life. They said they hoped to avoid polarizing people. But conservationists said the state is expected to decide within a few months, so they wanted to make a strong case right out of the chute.
''I think it's time people know the process is beginning,'' said Michelle Wilson, who monitors Chugach National Forest issues for the center. She said the center acted too slowly to halt the Whittier road project, which connected a previously remote corner of Prince William Sound to automobile traffic via the state tunnel last summer. ''We are just encouraging the public to really get involved from the beginning and attend meetings, since it sounds like the DOT wants to finalize this (the Cooper Landing project), probably within the year,'' Wilson said.
DOT chose a whopper of a project for its first attempt at the so-called stakeholders' process, a planning tool that asks members of the public to play a role in decisions. People familiar with Cooper Landing and its highly charged environmental and political issues say that no matter how the state eventually decides to route the Sterling Highway, it is bound to tick somebody off.
''I think there's some legitimate concerns on all sides. Normally, you say both sides, but this one has more than just two sides,'' said Mark Dalton, project manager for the state's consultant, HDR Alaska Inc.
The goal is to come up with a highway that is capable of handling traffic at 55 mph. Among three main alternative routes is an 11-mile detour that climbs from Kenai Lake's northern shore and cuts across the Resurrection Pass trail before descending back to the existing highway. Another proposal would steer the highway south of the current alignment near Snug Harbor Road and climb the hills through some private residential properties, before dropping back down onto the old highway bed. A third option would widen and straighten the existing road, which now snakes along the Kenai River. That plan would require five new bridges spanning the Kenai. Lastly, the state could do nothing at all.
Wilson, as well as Anchorage Audubon Society president George Matz, said they came away from the DOT's first highway get-together in Cooper Landing May 30 with a distinct impression that engineers were leaning strongly toward the route that cuts across Juneau Creek.
Environmentalists, hikers and mountain bikers dread the thought of losing even an inch of Resurrection Pass Trail. It would turn the first seven miles of trail into a noisy day hike, parallel to the new highway, Matz said. In addition, critical brown bear habitat could be harmed by the Juneau Creek alternative, he said.
But many people who live in Cooper Landing don't like the idea of a widened highway carving up their properties or the idea of faster traffic, which they already say is a menace to pedestrians. There are other factors: Some store owners worry that a highway bypass will hurt sales. Road engineers wince at the steep hills and icy conditions drivers might encounter high up in the valley. And at the center of it all is the Kenai River, a magnet attracting thousands of anglers and a highly regulated nursery for multimillion-dollar salmon runs.
''This is a beautiful narrow valley with a river right in the middle. There isn't any perfect solution,'' said Mona Painter, Cooper Landing's resident historian.
DOT has delayed its release date for an environmental impact statement, from late this summer to next spring. Its plans call for naming a preferred highway route by next winter; construction could begin by 2006.
Miriam Tanaka, DOT's project manager, said the state has not settled on the Juneau Creek alternative, or any other. ''We didn't make it clear enough where we are in the process,'' she said. ''We are in the beginning. It is just starting. No decisions have been made.''
Reporter Jon Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 907-260-5248.