Sterling Highway plans stir e-mail campaign

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state Department of Transportation wants public comment on moving the Sterling Highway through Cooper Landing but is getting more than it asked for.

Worried that the state already has decided on an option that lops off a stretch of popular Resurrection Pass Trail, environmentalists have launched an Internet-based campaign to stop it.

On June 2, National Trails Day, the Alaska Center for the Environment posted a form letter on the Web. The letter, opposing a highway spur across the historic trail, can be edited and sent at the click of a button.

In the past week, an estimated 200 versions of the message jammed inboxes at various agencies involved in the project.

Planners said they were taken off-guard by the wave of e-mail, and some were annoyed, since the process is just starting. But environmentalists said the state is expected to decide within a few months, so they wanted to make a strong case.

''I think it's time people know the process is beginning,'' said Michelle Wilson, who monitors Chugach National Forest issues for the center.

She said the center acted too slowly to halt the Whittier road project, which connected a previously remote corner of Prince William Sound to automobile traffic via the state tunnel last summer.

People familiar with Cooper Landing and its highly charged environmental and political issues say that no matter how the state eventually routes the Sterling Highway, it will upset somebody.

''This one has more than just two sides,'' said Mark Dalton, project manager for the state's consultant, HDR Alaska Inc.

The goal is to come up with a highway capable of handling traffic at 55 mph.

Among three main alternatives is an 11-mile detour that climbs from Kenai Lake's northern shore and cuts across the Resurrection Pass trail before descending back to the existing highway.

Another proposal would steer the highway south and climb the hills through private residential properties.

A third option would widen and straighten the existing road along the Kenai River, requiring five new bridges.

Wilson, as well as Anchorage Audubon Society president George Matz, came away from a road meeting last month with the impression that engineers were leaning strongly toward the first route.

Environmentalists, hikers and mountain bikers dread the thought of losing part of Resurrection Pass Trail. It would turn the first seven miles of trail into a noisy day hike, parallel to the new highway, Matz said. In addition, critical brown bear habitat could be harmed, he said.

But many people who live in Cooper Landing don't like the idea of a widened highway carving up their properties or the idea of faster traffic, which they already say is a menace to pedestrians.

DOT has delayed its release date for an environmental impact statement, from late this summer to next spring. Its plans call for naming a preferred highway route by next winter; construction could begin by 2006.

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