The Mendenhall Wetlands as seen from the Glacier Highway Interchange.
Bonaparte's Gulls often capture Dolly Varden in Gastineau Channel off the mouth of Fish Creek
A local dog leads the way down a trail through the Mendenhall Wetlands.
Story last updated at 9/30/2010 - 3:04 pm
JUNEAU - Walking through the Mendenhall Wetlands in Juneau, you are bound to come across a diverse assortment of visitors. Hunters looking for ducks. Photographers - both locals and vacationers - snapping shots of the scenery. Strollers trying to keep their dogs from charging after birds. People inappropriately dressed for a wet hike seeking refuge from work when the sun peeks through the clouds. Anglers in shades with, hopefully, a cooler load worth of fish.
Depending on the time of year and how intrepid and quiet you are, you might also run into some of the wetlands' other residents. River otters or black bears looking for a quick bite to eat. Local eagles nesting or hunting nearby. Touristy Arctic Terns or Canada Geese resting during their long journeys. Avian groups too numerous to count. Digging in further reveals an ecosystem a person could spend a lifetime studying. One such person is naturalist Bob Armstrong, who has been studying the Mendenhall Wetlands for 50 years.
Armstrong moved to Juneau in 1960, and since then he has labored towards building awareness of the regional environment, working as a writer and photographer, a biologist and research supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and an associate professor of fisheries and ornithology at the University of Alaska.
Armstrong is also considered one of the world's experts on the fish species Dolly Varden, though he says it's easy in the biology field to become a leading specialist.
"All you have to do is study something that nobody else is studying," he said.
Humble joking aside, there is doubtless no person better equipped to talk about the past, present and future of the wetlands of Juneau.
Hundreds of species of birds, mammals and invertebrates live off the wetlands. The regional fish population is also deeply dependent on it.
"I suspect that a fair percentage of adult coho salmon caught in the Juneau area are produced on the Mendenhall Wetlands," Armstrong said.
Pacific sand lance, one of the key food sources in the North Pacific, reside in there.
Many of the streams used by salmon and Dolly Varden that empty into the wetlands have been channelized, and have subsequently degraded considerably over the decades.
"Would you believe that Duck Creek, back in 1960, used to support 500 adult coho every year and 10,000 adult chum salmon?" Armstrong said. "This year, the fish couldn't even get into it."
To date, about 39 percent of the original Mendenhall Wetlands have disappeared, but the area has at least weathered the encroachment of civilization better than many regions of the world.
By the early 90s, half of the Earth's wetlands were drained for real estate development or agricultural use, or flooded to create recreational areas. In New Zealand, more than 90 percent of the country's wetlands have been emptied.
The ramifications of continued loss of Juneau's wetlands could be devastating for the region. Fish productions could be reduced. Wildlife, both year round and itinerant, could be disrupted. Even bird strikes at the airport could become a larger threat by reducing the amount of safe feeding and resting areas.
"In my opinion I think we should think about drawing a line in the sand, and just saying no more wetland loss," Armstrong said. "It's a very, very special place. It needs to be saved, not only for the creatures, but ourselves."
The refuge was established in 1976 by Alaskan statute. While designated as a significant home to fish and wildlife, hunting, fishing and recreation are all "expressly permitted."
The Mendenhall Wetlands were also recognized as being an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society and BirdLife International in 2007. To be designated, an area has to be home or refuge to a significant portion of a population of resident or migratory species.
Thousands of people pass the area on a daily basis, commuting or shopping or heading to an adventure out the road. Some may not think about it all. Others might view it as one of the many unique environmental features that keep them from moving to a drier spot down south. Still others see it as a bridge to Juneau's future.
AT A CROSSROADS
The term "bridge" has been castigated to the point where it has been rendered unusable when discussing land use and development projects in Southeast Alaska. Whether you call it a causeway, a crossing or "the dirty b-word," the issue is being brought up during this year's Juneau's Municipal Election.
Development is an essential part of the future of Southeast. Situated across a scattered rainforest archipelago, many communities depend on growth as a way to gain access to better schools, transportation, medical care and community integration. The dilemma is not whether to develop, but rather how to do it in both an economically viable and environmentally conscientious way.
A second crossing between Juneau and Douglas has been discussed for decades. The Safe, Affordable, Future, Efficient, or SAFE, Committee was formed to harvest support for Proposition 2, which will be on the ballot next week.
The committee proposes that the crossing would provide better emergency services to North Douglas, as well as act as a secondary access in case of a road or Douglas Bridge closing. Also mentioned is the increased access to the Eaglecrest ski area as well as creating a better opportunity of future residential development in West Douglas.
SAFE Chairman Rick Shattuck, a fourth generation Juneauite and local businessperson, said that the project is important to the future growth of the city. The construction of Egan Drive aided in both positive development and access to the wetlands.
"Egan wasn't a road to nowhere, it was a road to Juneau's safety and its future," he said.
Two thirds of the area involved in the project won't flood, as it is already well above the mean high tide, or will be in a few years, Shattuck said. Environmental stewardship is important, but the proposed project will not destroy the wetlands any more than Egan Drive has.
"The wetlands were then and are now a world class environmental area," he said.
Shattuck also pointed out that the causeway won't be thrown up overnight the day after the vote, and that it would follow a long vetting and permitting process by at least a dozen groups. The project, he says, will be able to gather the necessary permits.
The Vote No On Prop. 2 Committee disagrees. Represented by local business owner Jon Tillinghast and former Public Works Director Ernst Mueller, the group criticizes the validity of the proposition, citing issues from environmental impact to economic irresponsibility and the unlikelihood of permits being granted, leading to the further draining public coffers.
Although Tillinghast is outspoken against the specific project, he said the organization is made up of a diverse group of citizens, some of whom support a crossing, just not the proposed one.
What of the residents who might end up with a causeway literally in their own backyards?
North Douglas resident Mark Vinsel recreates and sport fishes on the other side of the proposed crossing site, and has observed the ecosystem up close. He said he doesn't think a location that would have more negative effect on the wetlands could be found. Vinsel's view on the issue of creating better access is that it might be self-defeating.
"I think that the access is already exactly how we would want it," he said. "Improving access would be to the detriment of the value of the place you're trying to access."
On the other side of the channel, Jackie Walden, who lives on Sunny Point, said she is concerned with the proposal. While citing herself as being relegated to the "not in my backyard" camp, she said that rerouting additional cars and trucks through the area will exacerbate an already troubled area.
"That traffic coming to that interchange will be going past Walmart, down through many neighborhoods, through the school zone," she said.
Amid the myriad concerns of who might pay in the end, the one mentioned most by the opponents to the project is of course is who will pay up front.
WHOSE DOLLARS PAVE THE (CAUSE)WAY?
The ballot measure being voted on by Juneauites on Oct. 5 is ostensibly about the continuation of one percent of the city's sales tax rate set to be automatically repealed in three years. The sales tax rate will stay at five percent for ten years, until 2023, with the funds being "appropriated by the Assembly for the purpose of design, permitting and construction of a North Douglas transportation crossing between the Glacier Highway interchange and Henrickson Point." If the proposition gets voted down, the sales tax would be slated to drop to four percent in 2013.
With increasing costs of energy, fuel and housing, money is of course on the mind of all the residents of Juneau.
The Vote No On Prop. 2 Committee - or "Green Tea Party" - has focused its crusade on the financial aspects of the project, putting forth an estimate that the project would cost the average Juneau family $6,000 over the ten years - though it made no mention of its definition of "average." Tillinghast cited what he sees as more important things that need funding, as well as the city's need to raid its "rainy day fund" to make payroll last year.
SAFE's Shattuck said that the long-term value of the crossing would benefit Juneau, but that the citizens have to take the reins themselves if they want to see it happen.
"There is no federal funding available for this project," he said. "If we want it done, we must do it ourselves."
BRIDGING THE COMMUNICATION GAP
The future of the Mendenhall Wetlands - just like the future of Juneau - is not a simple problem to solve. There are no easy answers. It is not a polemic bipartisan issue, not "us" versus "them." The members of SAFE are not villainous foreign land developers twisting their moustaches as their plans to build a Best Buy on Douglas Island are thwarted. The Vote No on Prop. 2 Committee are not radical eco-terrorists spiking trees and building pipe bombs. They are some of the denizens of Juneau, who are discussing, for better or worse, what they want to happen in the little corner of the Earth they have chosen to live. They are sports fishermen and hunters. They are ecologists and economists. They are dog walkers, photographers, hikers and prospective real estate developers. The issue is not simply an up or down vote by residents - at least the ones who bother to show up and do it - on whether Juneau should grow or change, but it is rather their duty to work together to decide how it should grow and change.
Richard Radford may be reached at email@example.com.