It's time to protect our Coastal Trail for keeps

COMPASS: Other points of view

By XxxxJune 1, 2012 

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 here, so 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 wwmas@muni.org) 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 tccpresident@yahoo.com.

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.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of 13 books and an "Alaska Voices" blogger.

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