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Plan to straighten Haines Highway ruffles feathers of Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve supporters

Sean Doogan
An eagle perched not far from the Chilkat River in Haines. Courtesy Mark McNamara

Alaska Department of Transportation plans to straighten a 21.8-mile section of the Haines Highway – a 152 mile-long scenic byway that connects Haines with Canada – has drawn the ire of conservationists and environmentalists. The highway cuts through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve – an area that annually sees the largest gathering of the birds in the world, with up to 3,500 packed into the preserve.

The state said it is working to incorporate more than 250 public comments it received about the work. Many asked the agency to consider an alternative that has less impact on salmon streams as well as eagle nesting and roosting areas. Since most of the $120 million cost is being picked up by the federal government, FHA will have the final say on how the roadwork will be done.

Many Haines residents and even the Audubon Society – which helped set up the preserve in 1982 and opposes the current highway plan – agree the road needs work.  Its often-sharp turns are dangerous and, in many places, speed-limit signs warn drivers to slow below the 55 mph limit that governs the length of the highway.

Is there any middle ground? 

But in a 15-mile-long section of proposed work, construction would affect salmon streams and take out some trees eagles use to spot fish and roost.  The Department of Transportation believes its work will have little impact and is necessary for the safety of drivers using the road.

However, the Audubon Society and others want the state to leave parts of the road alone. Simply lower the speed limit, they suggest.

“There should be a middle ground,” said Beth Peluso, communications director for the conservation group. “There’s a way we can make it safer without ruining part of the eagle preserve.  One of the main reasons people drive on that road is because of the eagle preserve,” Peluso said.

According to the state, an average of 584 people use the highway each day.  Many are taking goods to and from Haines, a small coastal town of 2,500 that’s 756 road miles southeast of Anchorage.  The Haines Highway is the area’s only land link to the rest of the world, and it goes to Canada, not Alaska.

Alternatives not being considered

The Department of Transportation said the road is safe but could be safer -- although at this point it is not considering alternatives, such as simply lowering the speed limit through curvy sections of the road that border eagle areas. “It would be unsafe to put a slower designation on the road, because drivers won’t always go slower, and that would create a danger,” said Jeremy Woodrow, a department spokesman 

Woodrow said the safest option for the road would be to do as many improvements as possible to bring it up to a 55 mph standard.

The state will submit its road plan to FHA in a few months and hopes to begin construction on the Haines Highway project next summer.

The Audubon society said it will have to wait and see what is ultimately submitted to the FHA, before it decides how to proceed, but did not rule out further protest or legal action. 

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com