An Alaska Department of Transportation tree-cutting program alongside the Sterling Highway has started up again despite mixed reactions on the technique’s effectiveness at reducing collisions between vehicles and moose.
DOT project managers say the program is meant to be on a three-year cycle that would cover about 70 miles of highway between Homer and Soldotna. However, the initial tree-cutting phase of the project is entering its fourth year and managers anticipate making it to the south end of Cohoe Loop, leaving about 20 more miles of highway to cover.
Meanwhile, several miles of highway that were cleared years ago have been untouched since the initial pass, leaving them open to regrowth of the brush that critics say draw moose toward the side of the highway in search of food.
“If you cut this stuff on a three-year cycle, eventually what will happen is eventually the grass chokes out the brush,” said Dave DeMenno, owner of Alaska Land Clearing, the company currently contracted with DOT to clear the Sterling Highway roadside on the Kenai Peninsula.
One of the objectives of clearing an average of 200 feet of the DOT right-of-way alongside the highway is to increase visibility and reduce collisions between drivers and moose, said Jill Reese, DOT spokesperson.
But critics of the tree-cutting program say increasing visibility is just one part of the solution to reducing collisions.
“There is no way you can eliminate road kills — eliminate people hitting moose on our highways,” said Ted Spraker, a former wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and chairman of the Alaska Board of Game. “There’s a lot of ways to reduce, or at least reduce the number, of accidents annually. Especially in places like Kenai. It has everything to do with increasing visibility ... and not creating habitat along the roads to attract moose.”
Spraker said the lack of consistent maintenance on the sections of the highway that had already been cleared has caused problems and anticipated that the amount of brush needing to be cleared could also be an issue.
“I’m not an engineer, so maybe they need (200 feet) for visibility, but I would think clearing 50-75 feet would work,” Spraker said. “The main thing that they need to do is have a program where they come in every year — or when necessary — and they clear the road right-of-way to destroy the moose browse. ... I’m not sure about DOT’s budget, but I would guess that it would take quite an expenditure annually to mow 200 feet of cleared right-of-way. That would cost them a fortune.”
When the right-of-way clearing progressed in early 2013, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed a resolution during a February meeting after several frustrated residents testified that the project was creating more hazards than it was eliminating.
“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 during the meeting. He said DOT clear cutting in the past has not lead to safer roads or kept 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.
The resolution requested that DOT limit its right-of-way clearing to 75 feet.
Brent Johnson, District 7 borough assembly representative from Clam Gulch, said he introduced the resolution after hearing complaints from residents in his district.
However, not all of the feedback was negative.
“I heard from some people who were a little bit quieter, they didn’t want have their name out in the public but said they liked the openness, they liked it that wide,” Johnson said. “But, I could certainly see, one point that I believe is that instead of cutting 200 feet wide, you could cut 75 or 100 feet wide and maybe cover twice the length.”
Johnson said he was not critical of DOT management of the project, just suggesting an alternative that could be easier to manage.
Several people who criticized the project said the current right-of-way clearing could be more effective if DOT had funding to continue the project annually at a scale that would keep the moose browse to a minimum.
Carl High, maintenance and operations supervisor for DOT, said the DOT funding was contingent on whatever the Legislature decides to appropriate for the agency each year.
“Ideally, we’d probably do (the clearing) on a tighter cycle than three years,” he said.
Once the initial phase of clearing took out the larger trees, the project should become easier — and therefore faster — to complete.
“That is our objective is to get it on a cyclic cutting to where it’s just like mowing your grass,” he said.
DeMenno, whose company held the DOT contract for the clearing for three years before it was re-bid last year, said he charges the state about 45 percent less than he does private contracts.
His company was originally awarded the contract in 2010 and both organizations have the option to pull out of the contract annually, he said.
“The state will give you more money if you treat them right,” he said. “We actually gave them a better price this year then we did three years ago.”
One benefit for his company, DeMenno said, was the ability to keep his employees busy on the project during the winter when other projects are not available.
DeMenno’s company also has the contract to clear the right-of-way in Anchorage.
“At the Anchorage International Airport we cut it on a three-year-cycle, we did it three times and now all it grows is grass,” DeMenno said. “So the thing works as long as the state gives (DOT) money to do it.”
While the crews have not yet completed the entirety of the Sterling Highway slated to be cleared of trees, DOT has plans to move into the next phase of clearing.
“We’ll actually be dropping back and mowing what’s been established,” High said of next year’s cutting program.
High and DeMenno said mowing the areas that had already been cleared would accelerate the project.
“The clearing part of it is the most expensive part of it,” High said. “When it comes to mowing, we’ll be able to do a lot bigger sections of it with just the mowers. It will take less time to get from Homer to Soldotna. A lot less. We are going to start that up for next year, even before they finish clearing. We’ll be doing both at the same time and will get on that three-year cycle.”
Clarion file material was used in this article.
Reach Rashah McChesney at email@example.com.