Unity Trail link to face environmental review

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2001

A key section of the proposed Unity Trail looping between Kenai and Soldotna is about to face an environmental review.

Public comments regarding the section of trail along Bridge Access Road, connecting the existing bike paths in Kenai and on Kalifornsky Beach Road, are being compiled by the Kenai engineering firm of Wince-Corthel-Bryson.

The Unity Trail, once complete, will go up the Kenai Spur Highway from Soldotna, down Bridge Access and along K-Beach, back to Soldotna.

Project engineer Mark Blanning said he will summarize the comments and submit a recommendation to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

The range of environmental review ranges from rubber stamping the plan, all the way up to an Environmental Impact Statement, with many levels of review in between. DOT will commission the study, though no due date has been set.

Response has been largely in favor of the path, though several state and federal agencies have concerns about disturbing habitat for migratory waterfowl and the Kenai lowland caribou herd.

"Comments from the community have been almost 100 percent in favor of the project," Blanning said.

He said he's received about 50 comment forms and a petition with about 250 names in favor.

The one private citizen who submitted comments somewhat opposed is Ken Tarbox, a fishery research biologist retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"I want to make it clear I support bike paths in general," he said. "People who use them tend to be environmentally conscious and aware, so I don't want to sound like I oppose bike paths in general."

He said he only opposes a four-tenths of a mile section, north from the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge to the bird-viewing platform.

"The reason I'm opposing that section is that we have literally tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl using that area," he said. "And I'm afraid that the bike path could cause the waterfowl to change their behavior to their detriment. It is a critical area for waterfowl and shorebirds."

Several different species of geese, ducks, widgeons and others use the Kenai River flats as a rest spot on their way from their winter nesting grounds in the Lower 48 and Mexico to their breeding grounds in northwest Alaska and Siberia.

Tarbox said there are many ways to reduce the disturbance to the birds, including a seasonal closure in April and May, using the highway's shoulder for that four-tenths mile section or putting the path as close to the road as possible.

"Having a seasonal closure in April and May will mitigate some of my concerns, but I haven't seen that anywhere in writing," he said.

He said the people signing the pro-path petition may not know all the facts.

"Those who are passing around the resolution and trying to build -- not consensus -- but political will for the trail, are not discussing what the real ramifications are," he said.

Tarbox said the cars that use Bridge Access every day are outside the area of concern for most birds. They are both far enough away, and the contact is brief enough, to not cause the birds to flush. Bike paths, with the longer contact times from the slower travel and their closer proximity to where the birds are resting and eating, are another matter.

"There's some fairly good information on people and activity along bike paths causing a population to flush," he said.

He said children and dogs also cause birds to flush quicker than adults.

Blanning said he is trying to gather as much information about the migratory birds as possible, to include in his recommendation to DOT. He said Bristol Environmen-tal and Engineering Services in Anchorage is helping with the study.

Once the environmental document is put together, Blanning said it will be available for public review.

"I hope that in the not-too-distant future we can get into the actual nuts and bolts of the review," he said.

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