Alaska DOT Tries to Ignore Stellar Sea Lions

Dead end at Echo Cove

The Juneau Access Improvements Project is a proposed $570-million road project to extend Glacier Highway out of Juneau for closer road access to the southeast Alaskan towns of Haines and Skagway. Juneau, Alaska’s capital, is the only capital city in the United States whose roads do not connect with the continental road network. Currently travelers either have to fly between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, or travel on one of the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The plan by Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities calls for extending the road 48 miles along the Lynn Canal from its current dead end at Echo Cove north of Juneau (pictured above) to the Katzehin River where a new ferry terminal would be built. From there yet-to-be-built smaller ferries would transport vehicles and passengers to Haines and Skagway with four to eight trips per day.

Conservation Concerns:

Conservation and environmental groups are concerned about potential impacts on marine and terrestrial wildlife. Concerns include increased animal mortality from vehicle collisions and easier hunter/trapper access, habitat fragmentation by wildlife that typically avoid roads, and impacts on bald eagle nests. Another concern is for the Stellar sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) who frequent the Met Point and Gran Point haulouts.

Stellar sea lion haulout

Of particular concern is the haulout at Gran Point, a designated Stellar sea lion Critical Habitat Area (pictured above and below). According to the supplementary Environmental Impact Statement, more than one hundred Stellar sea lions have been counted at the haulout during the spring and fall. As currently proposed, the proposed highway would be built just uphill from the haulout area, approximately 100 to 600 feet horizontally and 50 to 100 feet vertically.

Stellar sea lion haulout

Highway plans near the haulout include blasting steep rock-cut embankments and several tunnels with one tunnel entrance only 550 feet away from the haulout. There is concern for haulout abandonment by the sea lions during highway construction as studies have shown Stellar sea lions are very sensitive to noise, both in and out of the water. It was originally believed that construction could take part during a one to five week period when the haulout was unused by the Stellar sea lions. New studies, and remote camera monitoring have shown that Stellar sea lions now frequent Gran Point nearly year round making the use of explosives and helicopters more challenging.

There are two distinct populations of Stellar sea lions in Alaska. The majority of Stellar sea lions that frequent the Lynn Canal are part of the eastern population of Stellar sea lions which are not listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act; unlike the western population of Stellar sea lions which are listed as endangered. That said however, there have been confirmed sightings of the western population of Stellar sea lions at Gran Point.

Alaska Department of Transportation making things worse:

Conservationists are still waiting to hear how the state will conclude the Juneau Access Project. We remain optimistic that a road won’t be built to the Katzehin any time in the near future, but there has been no official announcement yet.

In the meantime, the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) is applying to take over National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) authority from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). Right now, the FHA signs off on major transportation projects. This change would remove a safeguard that helps ensure environmental review processes are fair and accurate before a project can move forward. The move would cost the state an estimated 1.2 million each year to pay for a service that the federal government already covers.

Basically, the Alaska DOT wants to take away the authority of NEPA from approving their work, and charge Alaskans millions of dollars in the process, all so they can approve their own projects without concerning themselves with any environmental issues.

What you can do:

Check out this recent column by Charles Wohlforth in the Alaska Dispatch News for more on the move.

Let the state know this is a bad idea by May 31 by writing statewide Environmental Protection manager Taylor Horne at taylor.horne@alaska.gov

And it is always helpful to also send your comments directly to the Governor.

For more information, check out the public notice from the state.

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