Proposal to cut airport trees meets opposition

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Airport managers in Juneau want to cut down a 60-acre patch of forest to reduce the danger of birds smashing into airplanes. But some bird experts say eliminating the trees could actually force more birds across the runway area and increase the potential problems.

''You may make the situation worse rather than better,'' said Steve Zimmerman, president of the Juneau Audubon Society, speaking before about 80 people at a Thursday hearing.

But Juneau's airport manager, Allan Heese, says the forest attracts birds large enough to pose a serious threat to aviators. He'd err on the side of caution and cut down the trees.

The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing proposals by the airport to manage wildlife hazards posed by the woodland and the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge surrounding the airstrip.

But some residents fear the airport plan could seriously compromise the environment around the Airport Dike Trail.

Birds and other wildlife pose a serious threat to aircraft, said FAA wildlife biologist Ed Cleary, noting that the number of birds striking aircraft worldwide has increased in recent years. The issue hit home in 1995, when 24 people died on board an Air Force AWACS plane that crashed in Anchorage after ingesting four Canada geese into its engines during takeoff.

A Boeing 737 landing in Juneau in 1997 ingested a blue heron, which shut down and damaged the engine. No one was hurt, but weeks later it happened again to a jet on takeoff from Juneau, said FAA consultant Ron Merritt.

''I'm not saying moonscape a place at all, but there are certain species we have to keep away from the active runways and taxiways,'' Merritt said.

Opponents questioned whether the risk was high enough to warrant clearcutting.

Pilots reported 21 bird strikes from 1990-99 at the Juneau Airport resulting in no damage to aircraft 15 times, minor damage three times and major damage three times, according to FAA statistics.

Bill Wilmoth, who worked on a recent federal study that recommended clear-cutting the woodland, said the trees put eagles, crows and other birds in direct conflict with aircraft.

''Those trees do draw birds across the runway,'' said Wilmoth of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But Zimmerman, of the Audubon Society, argued that the trees divert birds flying toward the runway from other directions.

''I think the trees are a deterrent to the movement of birds,'' said Zimmerman.

Mark Rorick of the Sierra Club said he would support less drastic measures, such as removing fish from the floatpond to divert birds of prey and using wire mesh to put some habitat off limits. The airport also could selectively remove trees desirable to eagles building nests, Rorick said.

The FAA plans to analyze the airport plan as part of an Environmental Impact Statement on other projects, including expansion of runway safety areas.

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