Bypass may bump businesses, boggle bears

Plans to relocate five miles of the Sterling Highway through the hills around Cooper Landing have been under way since the 1970s, but questions about the highway’s effect on the town’s economy and wildlife continue to bubble up.

The project’s two leading agencies — the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) and the U.S Federal Highway Administration — solicited comments from the public Tuesday in Cooper Landing and Wednesday in Soldotna, where DOT Senior Planner John McPherson presented the project’s final piece of environmental permitting, the Environmental Impact Statement which the agencies signed March 7.

With that document, the project planners reversed an earlier decision, widely opposed by local governments and several local groups, to route the new highway along the Kenai River and, instead, chose a path known as the Juneau Creek Alternative through the hills north of Cooper Landing.

Taking the high road will require them to build Alaska’s longest single-span bridge (1200 feet) over the Juneau Creek canyon, as well as steep areas with grades up to 5.9 percent — just short of the Federal Highway Administration’s 6 percent maximum.

The agencies will take public comments on the Cooper Landing bypass — formally, the Sterling Highway Milepost 45-60 project — until April 16, and the Federal Highway Administration plans to make a final decision on a route by the end of 2018, to finish designing the project and acquiring land by 2021 and to finish construction by 2025.

What will it do to Cooper Landing?

With the Sterling Highway relocated, McPherson said DOT will continue maintaining the old route as “a local community road.” DOT estimates this will “remove about 70 percent of the traffic from all or a portion of the central commercial area of Cooper Landing,” according to the Environmental Impact statement.

McPherson said this figure is based on a finding that 70 percent of the current traffic in Cooper Landing is through-traffic headed to destinations elsewhere. Speakers in Soldotna questioned whether the new highway would actually divert much traffic from Cooper Landing, speculating that many drivers might prefer the old highway and that truckers might avoid the new highway’s steep grades by taking the old — an especially likely choice in the winter, some in the Soldotna audience said.

How much or how little traffic Cooper Landing’s highway-bordering retail businesses might lose is one question — another is how much new business the traffic may create in new areas.

“Agencies and the public, particularly residents of Cooper Landing, have expressed concern that alternatives built on a new alignment would induce, or spur, development,” the EIS summary states. “One concern is that the highway could provide new access to previously undeveloped State or Borough lands, and new rural residential neighborhoods would spring up.”

About 95 percent of the 13,500 acres that would be used for the relocation are government-owned, either by the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the state, or two federal agencies: the U.S Forest Service and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. In its 2001 Kenai Area Plan, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources decided to give 1,087 acres of state-owned land bordering the Juneau Creek route to the borough for settlement, provided the future highway makes it accessible. This hilly area west of Juneau Creek — which DNR designated Unit 395 — is presently only accessible by logging roads, but DNR took note the potential it may have for land-constrained Cooper Landing.

“The fact that the unit contains developable land and existing and potential future additional access make the unit suitable for community growth,” the Kenai Area Plan states.

When the prospect of highway-side development in Unit 395 came up at the Soldotna meeting, McPherson said existing restrictions would prevent it from becoming a commercial strip. DOT and federal highway decisions, according to the EIS summary, “would not allow driveways and side roads to be connected to highway segments built on new alignments (bypass segments) other than those specified in the EIS. No competing commercial development is anticipated as a result of this project.”

DNR’s 2001 Kenai Area Plan also has language meant to prevent highway-side development in Unit 395.

“Provisions will also be made to ensure that the bypass has limited access in order to preclude a proliferation of driveways along the new route,” the Kenai Area Plan states. “These provisions are intended to prevent strip development, unsafe driveways along the highway, retention of scenic values along the new route, continuing access to the Resurrection Trail, and minimal disruption to the suspected brown bear travel corridor (if a significant corridor is found to exist).”

Bridges, bears and trails

Though Juneau Creek Falls wouldn’t be visible from the new bridge, plans call for a loop trail to a falls overlook, and a pedestrian walkway along the bridge. Two popular existing trails would run under the bridge. The Resurrection Pass trail, which follows Juneau Creek north toward Hope, would go under the bridge about 3.4 miles from its trailhead. The new highway would cut off the Bean Creek trail shortly before it joins the Resurrection Pass trail. It would also be moved under the bridge on Juneau Creek’s east bank.

Humans, however, aren’t the only animals that use Juneau Creek as an easy path in and out of the surrounding hills. The “suspected brown bear travel corridor” that DNR mentioned in 2001 was confirmed by GPS tracking of collared bears in 2010 and 2011.

“Brown bears likely move back and forth in a northwest-southeast direction over the Kenai Mountains and across the Kenai River within the project area… with the area just west of Cooper Landing near Juneau Creek identified by wildlife managers as an important ‘linkage’ zone,” the EIS summary states.

The highway’s effect on bear travel is one of the subjects the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service — parent agency of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which owns a large share of the project’s wilderness land — is preparing to cover in its comments on the bypass.

“Brown and black bears traveling on or even within 200 feet of a public trail, and in a confined space resulting from bridge construction, will increase the likelihood of negative human-bear encounters and pose an added risk to public safety,” Kenai National Wildlife Refuge biologist Lynnda Kahn said. “With the second trail, that’s going to substantially decrease the value of the area as a wildlife corridor. We’d recommended against incorporating a second trail. If they leave the eastern side of that corridor undeveloped it would increase public safety (by making a bear-path) and enhance its value as a wildlife corridor. “

The present plans would allow animal crossing via one 130-foot wide wildlife overpass (Alaska’s first) and three underpasses between 23 and 32 feet wide. DOT has estimated the cost of the overpass to be around $2.6 million, and the underpasses between $400,000–$1.8 million. Earlier plans, Kahn said, would have made two overpasses, which she said animals are more likely to use than underpasses.

“Overpasses are much better, especially for moose,” Kahn said. “Bears will go under, but animals like these overpasses more than anything. They don’t like to go under and through tunnels. It would be nice if they had a couple (overpasses), like they envisioned initially.”

Reach Ben Boettger at bboettger@peninsulaclarion.com

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