Activists protest Juneau road

US forestry officials asked a team of protestors camped in the woods near Haines, Alaska, to move their operation on Tuesday.

US forestry officials asked a team of protestors camped in the woods near Haines, Alaska, to move their operation on Tuesday.

The protestors complied and moved their giant “No Road” banner down the beach.

But they have no intention of giving up the fight.

For more than a month, 10 residents from the Alaskan boroughs of Haines, Skagway and Juneau have been taking turns manning the camp just north of the Katzehin River on the east side of the Lynn Canal, where Governor Frank Murkowski wants to build a road, about 80-kilometres long, through cliffs of temperate coastal rainforest.

The camp marks the spot immediately across the canal from Haines where a ferry terminal will be built, if Murkowski’s plan is successful.

“The Murkowski administration plans to build a road from Berner’s Bay about 50 miles along the water to the Katzehin River delta,” said protestor Michael George, one of the organizers of the unaffiliated activist group.

“It would be a big, huge, 50-mile scar along Lynn Canal,” George said in a telephone interview Monday.

“The reason why cruise ships come up here is because it is a pristine area.

“It’s wilderness. Skagway and Haines are little communities in the midst of wilderness, and the whole character would be gone if you had a road going all the way up Lynn Canal.

“And the road doesn’t even have a place to be built. It’s so steep it’s vertical in some places, and there are up to 60 avalanche chutes along the way.

“For 20 years people have said that it doesn’t make sense. All the governors before were against it.

“But this time it’s different.”

The protestors show up with their kids and stay in wall tents for days or weeks at a time.

Construction on the road has not yet begun at the Katzehin end, but the route has been flagged and protestors have dug in for a long political battle.

The day after Murkowski visited Haines to sign a piece of unrelated legislation, the US National Forest Service police visited the camp and told the protestors to move, said George.

The group’s banner, consisting of wooden letters two-and-a-half-metres tall, was planned to be moved down the beach Tuesday. It is meant to capture the attention of cruise ship passengers.

Seafarers are the only members of the public likely to see the banner, because the area is so isolated.

But that isolation is exactly what the protestors are fighting to preserve.

Five cruise ships pass by each day during the summer months, said George.

Later in the day, the protesters shine a boom light on the banner, he said.

One of the activists has been polling cruise ship captains and passengers, and most of them oppose the road construction, said George.

“People have written thousands of letters against the road, and the administration is not listening.”

Murkowski has been pushing for road access to Juneau for several years.

Currently, there’s a short segment of highway along the Lynn Canal north of Juneau, but access from the more populated mainland is limited to airplanes and the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Murkowski released a 2004 plan to develop a surface transportation system including construction of a Juneau road by 2010.

“A road to Juneau will make the capital more accessible for a greater number of Alaskans and help in keeping the Alaska Marine Highway System on more stable fiscal footing,” Murkowski said in a March 2005 release.

The road would cost an estimated US$300 million, according to the US department of Transportation.

But the road would save the ferry system 5,000 hours of vessel time and $8 million each year, said Murkowski.

“Southeast Alaska will have a better transportation system when our vision of putting in roads where practical and ferries where necessary is achieved.”

Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie endorsed Murkowski’s plan in April 2006, when the state legislature was debating authorization of $45 million for the four-year project.

“Yukon clearly sees the benefits in moving ahead with this particular initiative,” Fentie said in a telephone address to the Alaska State Finance Committee.

“As we do on many instances and many occasions and with respects to many issues, Alaska and Yukon always find reciprocal arrangements that result in support coming both ways, from our territory to Alaska and Alaska to us.

“The Yukon … will continue to support Alaska in its efforts of building a road from Juneau, linking us all to what is a marvelous capital city in the state of Alaska.”

Fentie’s announcement provoked the ire of conservation and small business advocates, who argued tearing up the scenic coastal rainforest would be a dangerous and costly boondoggle through terrain that is prone to avalanche and habitat for many wildlife species, including whales, sea lions, bald eagles and grizzly bears, that are major seasonal draws for tourists on cruise ships.

“I heard several comments in the halls of the legislature that it was inappropriate for someone from another country to be interfering in our public testimony process,” Jan Wrentmore, a Skagway merchant and spokeswoman for the Skagway Marine Access Committee, said in a previous interview.

People in Juneau are split on the issue, but majorities in Haines and Skagway oppose the road, she said.

“We want to preserve the marine highway system, and this road is going to have a huge impact.

“I could understand if they’re getting their hard link to the highway that they want, but they are still going to have to operate three shuttle ferries at the north end of Lynn Canal.”

The Juneau Planning and Zoning Commission voted against the road, but the borough assembly voted to build the first 37 kilometres around Berner’s Bay, said George.

But the US Army Corps of Engineers has to approve it first, and the engineers have concerns about backfilling wetlands with rock and gravel blasted from the canal, he said.

George doesn’t believe access to Juneau is Murkowski’s true agenda.

Murkowski has friends with mining interests in the Kensington gold project located in the mountains between Haines and Juneau that is owned by Coeur d’Alene Mines Corporation, said George.

“He’s got friends in the mining business, and he’s after the gold.

“He’s not interested, in my mind, in helping the people out, transportation-wise.

“He’s just interested in the gold.”

Murkowski is also seeking re-election this fall.

His Republican challenger, John Binkley, also endorses the Juneau road plan.

Which means the protestors camped on the Lynn Canal will be voting for a Democrat, whomever that might be, said George.

In the meantime, the protestors will keep their camp somewhere along the Lynn Canal for the rest of the summer, he said.

“If they do start construction, we’ll have to face them and somehow stop them, use civil disobedience or whatever is necessary, at that point.”