Speak up: Windy Corner project will permanently deface Chugach State Park

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (ADOTPF) plans to unlawfully blast six huge rock quarries out of our favorite Scenic Byway vista, the awe-inspiring drive along Turnagain Arm inside Chugach State Park. The department's Windy Corner highway improvement project is marching ahead, out of sight and out of mind to most Anchorage residents (the department appears to be deliberately designing and presenting it that way). This project involves the massive relocation and reconstruction of the existing Seward Highway and the Alaska Railroad between Milepost 105 and MP 107. This highway improvement lies almost entirely within the legislated exterior boundaries of Chugach State Park, and lies both inside and outside the existing Seward Highway right-of-way that passes through the Park, along Turnagain Arm.

The finished product will probably make the highway safer and faster for Seward Highway motorists. It will also perhaps be a more developed and "high-class" site for bicyclists, windsurfers, rock climbers and wildlife viewers (though this is a debatable point). Yet all of the park visitor benefits, taken together, will be far outweighed by the gigantic scale of the devastation that will be inflicted on the park by the six separate rock quarries proposed to be drilled and blasted for material to build the Windy Corner project.

Many people were shocked several years ago when the massive, ugly cavity of the Bird Creek parking lot was blasted out of the natural rock to provide the department with fill material for the Seward Highway relocation south of Bird Creek. They pledged then, "never again in our park." Well, here it is again -- and with a vengeance.

For comparison purposes, the Bird Creek quarry/parking lot is 285,000 square feet; the depth of the cut is not known but it obviously forms a very high artificial precipice. The six rock quarries for the Windy Corner project now planned by ADOTPF, all lying within the park and immediately adjacent to the highway, are these:

Site 1: 920,000 square feet; depth of cut: 70 feet
Site 2: 85,000 square feet; depth of cut: 40 feet
Site 3: 430,000 square feet; depth of cut: 60 feet
Site 4: 334,000 square feet; depth of cut: 15 feet
Site 5: 180,000 square feet; depth of cut: 100 feet
Site 6: 900,000 square feet; depth of cut: 50 feet

Only one of those quarries (Site 4) lies within the limits of the Windy Corner project itself. The other five quarry sites have entirely no reason to exist, except as an easy source of rock for the project. Two of these quarry sites will each be considerably larger than the existing Bird Creek quarry site, and two other quarry sites will each be more than three times the size of the Bird Creek site.

The Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund requires compensation and mitigation to Chugach State Park for the conversion of its land to non-park purposes. The state will presumably compensate the park for the gravel removed (though this is unclear). However, instead of compensating the park for the conversion of dedicated park land into a string of giant, visually offensive blasted and excavated cavities directly adjacent to the Seward Highway, the department plans to simply leave the excavated quarry sites as parts of the park. By this ploy, ADOTPF will avoid any mitigation or compensation for taking the land it will gut and permanently deface inside the park. Why the Division of Parks would condone this tactic has not been explained.

Any so-called "public outreach and information" about the Windy Corner project has to date been deplorable. The department and its contractor have held only two public information sessions (in 2013 and 2014), and only in Girdwood. There have been no public hearings or scoping meetings in Anchorage. It is not known whether any are planned in Anchorage that would occur early enough to effectively question or influence the scope or direction of this project.

Finally, there are two significant legal questions adverse to the park rock-quarry plans that have yet to be publicly addressed. First, this is a federal-aid highway project. The Federal Aid to Highways Act at Section 4(f) prohibits the sacrifice of public parkland to a federal highway project unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative. The department has not shown that the use of rock from the park is anything more than a convenience, since rail transportation is readily available to efficiently bring rock to the project from non-park sources. Section 4(f) does not predicate any lack of alternatives to destroying parkland merely on a reduction in cost.

Second, rock quarries are not within the statutory list of authorized land uses for which the Legislature created Chugach State Park in 1970. Therefore, it appears that the department lacks legal authority to demand (and the park lacks authority to consent to) the conversion of scenic park land into rock quarries. These quarries will provide no lasting benefit and will remain only a detriment, leaving our park with gigantic, blasted artificial cavities and gouges where more natural, scenic, park-like vistas once prevailed. So much for the recognized "National Scenic Byway" and "All-American Road" designations for the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm.

If you liked how the Bird Creek quarry/parking lot turned out, you're going to love what ADOTPF has in store for you now. All of the gory details are available online: http://www.dowlhkm.com/projects/windycorner/documents.html.

Tom Meacham is an attorney who has practiced law in Anchorage since 1971, specializing in natural resources law. He served for 10 years on the Chugach State Park Citizens Advisory Board, including three years as chair. He is a long-time member of Friends of Chugach State Park and the Chugach Park Access Coalition.

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