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Time to speak out for Anchorage's Coastal Trail, again

Bill Sherwonit
In 2008, Anchorage's international airport projected an overly optimistic cargo-tonnage annual growth of 2.8 percent. Now it is half that. Loren Holmes photo

As Yogi Berra once famously declared, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” For the second time in less than a year -- and the third time since 2008 -- local residents are being asked to raise their voices in support of Anchorage’s beloved Coastal Trail, which again faces the specter of airport expansion.

As in 2008 and 2012, we residents need to make it clear (as if we hadn’t already done so) that we won’t sacrifice a portion of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail or surrounding wooded parkland, so that the Anchorage International Airport might someday build a second -- and unnecessary -- north-south runway a few thousand feet west of the existing one.

Nothing has changed: such a runway would destroy a three-quarter-mile section of the existing Coastal Trail along with the adjoining 191-acre Point Woronzof Park, a mostly forested area west of the airport, between the city’s wastewater treatment plant and Kincaid Park. It would also require a huge amount of fill, some of it dumped onto Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge lands and waters, to extend the runway into what is now Cook Inlet.

While last year’s threat to the trail and park stemmed from recommended actions in the city’s new West Anchorage District Plan, this time, as in 2008, the danger is posed by the airport’s updated Master Plan. That new plan includes five “draft development alternatives.” Though both Alternatives 4 and 5 propose a second N-S runway, No. 5 is especially worrisome because of the damage it would do to the Coastal Trail and surrounding forested lands.

Recognizing its importance to the community, airport officials say they would of course reroute the Coastal Trail if a new airstrip were built. But their solution would be to either reroute the trail, likely on rocky mounds of riprap and against a chain link fence; or tunnel it under the runway. In short, it would become part of the expanded airport complex. As I noted last year when addressing this same issue, 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, as I’ve commented before, is unacceptable to many of us Coastal Trail and recreation enthusiasts.

I should emphasize here (as I’ve done before) that Point Woronzof Park was established in 1994 as a specific condition of a previous muni-airport land trade. Approved by the Anchorage Assembly, the plot of land was “dedicated for permanent park and recreational purposes.” Its destruction would betray that earlier agreement and dedication.

Some might say, what’s the worry? These are only draft alternatives. But two of the people rallying opposition to Alternative 5 respond that any proposal to add an unnecessary runway must be stopped right from the get-go. Leading the charge are Turnagain Community Council President Cathy Gleason and Alaska Center for the Environment Sustainable Communities Coordinator Nick Moe (yes, he of the recent write-in campaign for assembly). Both urge residents to attend the airport’s May 23 open house/public meeting (scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Coast International Inn, 3450 Aviation Ave.) and voice their concerns as the process to update the plan begins.

Gleason has been fighting this battle for longer than she cares to remember. A resident of the Turnagain area for some three decades and a longtime Coastal Trail advocate, she played a central role in Point Woronzof Park’s creation. As this latest go-round approaches, she says, “I feel like I’m Bill Murray in [the movie] ‘Groundhog Day,’ dealing with this same thing over and over.”

When asked what circumstances have changed to prompt airport officials to resurrect the N-S runway proposal after a loud public outcry in 2008 prompted them to indefinitely shelve that plan, Gleason replies, “Good question.”

In 2008, the airport projected an overly optimistic cargo-tonnage annual growth of 2.8 percent. Now it is half that. The big question, Gleason says, is what would cause even that small annual growth: “Cargo is down approximately 25 percent from its peak and is less than it was a year ago. Even if 1.4 percent annual growth suddenly started, it would take about ten years just to reach peak 2006-2007 cargo operations; and at its peak, three runways were accommodating the flights with no problem. The global economy is still fairly shaky. Newer planes are more fuel efficient and can fly from Asia to the Lower 48 without needing to refuel in Anchorage. Less ‘on-demand’ flights are occurring, and more cargo is being shipped via freighter ships between Asia and the Lower 48.”

In short, there’s no clear need for any new runway (Alternative 4, too, would include a new air strip, but it would be much closer to the existing one -- only 900 feet away, vs. the 3,100 feet in Alternative 5 -- and thus not the same threat to the Coastal Trail and park).

The process seems on something of a fast track, calling for the alternatives’ unveiling at the May 23 open house, followed by any necessary “refinements” to them and the selection of a draft preferred alternative by September and a final preferred alternative by October or November.

“That’s why,” Gleason argues, “it’s so critical for the public to send a loud and clear message right away that we don’t need another N-S runway (as proposed in both 4 and 5) and especially don’t support Alternative 5, that will do everything the proposal in 2008 would do: fill in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, require acquisition of AWWU reserve land and Point Woronzof Park, and destroy the park and a section of the Coastal Trail.”

Gleason points out that the airport’s proposed purchase of the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility’s land is highly unlikely, given what the AWWU would demand in return, making Alternative 5 even more ridiculous.

The May 23 open house and meeting will take place at the Coast International Inn, with an official presentation scheduled for 6:15 p.m. The public is also invited to comment online, at either contact@ancmasterplan.com or www.ancmasterplan.com/comment. Those with questions are invited to contact Nick Moe at nick@akcenter.org or 947-8777, or Cathy Gleason at tccpresident@yahoo.com.

We Anchorage residents who value trails and parks need to make ourselves heard once more: nothing has changed, we’re still opposed to any airport plan that threatens the Coastal Trail and Point Woronzof Park, while also dumping fill into the nearby coastal refuge.

Anchorage writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including "Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness." He frequently writes about Alaska’s wildlife and wildlands, including the wild nature to be found in Alaska’s urban center.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.