Assembly urges less highway clear-cutting

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, spurred by testimony from frustrated residents, approved a resolution Tuesday that requests future right-of-way clearing of trees and brush along state highways be more limited in size than that which recently occurred.

 

Assembly member Brent Johnson introduced the resolution that asks Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska Department of Transportation to limit right-of-way clearing along the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road to 75 feet from the centerline. At issue is whether or not the clearing is effective at deterring browsing moose if not completed on a regular basis, the effect the clearing has on nearby property owners’ privacy, and other complications.

Currently, the DOT is clearing 200 feet from the edge of the road back into the state right-of-way when possible, spokesman Rick Feller said. The current clearing effort is the second phase of work that’s been done in recent years, he said. When DOT receives additional funding that can be put toward clearing, Feller said the department likes to do that “as quickly as possible.”

In the approved resolution, Johnson wrote that the clearing issue has caused consternation among some residents who think that clearing only 75 feet from the centerline would be more effective and that if not re-cut on an annual or biannual basis, the re-growth that occurs makes for “prime” moose browse, which in turn draws more to the sides of the roads.

“A moose magnet, noise pollution, erosion, fire hazard, eyesore, wind, dust, drifting snow, lower property values and rubberneckers are just some of the negatives of this excessive tree cutting,” Ninilchik resident John McCombs said while testifying to the assembly.

McCombs called the clearing — which he said was not up for public comment — a heavy-handed approach to the situation.

David Martin, who also lives near Ninilchik, echoed a similar sentiment. He said DOT clear cutting in the past has not lead to safer roads or keeping the moose away.

“The Sterling Highway in this area currently has large ice packs and is one of the roughest sections on the Peninsula and the moose are really enjoying the new browse,” he said.

Moreover, the clearing has taken away some of Alaska’s mystique, he said.

“(My property) used to look like Alaska, now it looks more like North Dakota,” he said. “It is a 300-foot eyesore with no trees … it is pretty ugly compared with what it used to be. I and my neighbors have lost our wind, sound and visual barrier between our houses and the road and my driveway drifted in for the first time in 26 years.”

Ted Spraker, a former wildlife biologist and chairman of the Board of Game, submitted a letter of unanimous support from the board addressing the issue and commented as a longtime resident.

“I can assure you that with the state and federal practices of putting out fires, especially in this area over the last 40 years, the best moose habitat is now along our highways with this clearing and will be for the future,” he said.

Spraker said he hopes the assembly’s resolution can influence DOT and the governor to provide funding so that DOT can clear on an annual basis.

“We are really setting ourselves up for more moose-vehicle accidents in the future with this highway design unless we take a very active role in clearing those road right-of-ways on an annual basis,” he said.

Feller said the DOT considers the clear-cutting operations benefits to be threefold: removing the food stock from the road; improving sight distance; and providing increased sun exposure.

Removing the food moose and other game browses on near the highway should reduce their presence in those areas. Additionally, should there be any hazard in the right-of-way, having fewer trees and vegetation improves a driver’s ability to see the animal and enhances response time needed to deal with the hazard.

Also, clearing trees in the right of way provides for “increased solar gain exposure of the road.”

“Essentially what that means is more sun hits the road and that enhances the thawing and evaporation of ice and snow that may have accumulated on the road and improves traction,” he said.

Feller said DOT has heard some comments, but wouldn’t say they have heard a lot of resident concerns. He said he thinks the public is much more supportive than non-supportive of the clearing.

“The majority of that comment has been positive because I think, broadly speaking, the public recognizes the value of that work,” he said. “Typically the negative comments we receive are typically from property owners who are adjacent to our right of way ... and that’s understandable.”

Feller said the borough’s resolution will be accepted and evaluated, but he couldn’t say what would come of it.

“We think that common sense dictates that if 75 feet of clearing provides that much of benefit along the safety lines I mentioned, then 100 feet or 125 feet would provide that greater increment more,” he said. “So we do think that the more sight distance that you provide, the more solar gain you can shed on the highway and the less food stuff you can bring to the highway is all good for the safety of the driver.”

 

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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