Every November thousands of Bald Eagles descend on the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, 48,000 acres of protected land surrounded by white-capped mountains in Haines, Alaska. The eagles flock to feast on a late run of spawning salmon in a low-lying part of the Chilkat River that remains ice-free through the winter. Along with the eagles come roughly 250 birdwatchers, many for the annual Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, which runs from November 10th - 16th this year, during which visitors take daily trips to the Preserve to witness the majestic birds up close.
But a cloud hangs over this year’s festivities—a new proposal to expand the Haines Highway, a road that cuts through the Preserve, threatens both the habitat and the food sources the Bald Eagles need to thrive. A scenic byway that stretches from Haines, Alaska to Canada’s Yukon Territories, the Haines Highway spends around 22 twisty miles cutting through the Preserve. With its 55 mph speed limit, the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) have deemed some of it too dangerous in its current curvy state. They hope to expand and straighten a 21.8-mile section—15.8 of which is in the preserve—to improve both safety and visibility for drivers. A straighter road would also increase safety for trucks DOT speculates will come with the increased mining operations across Alaska and Canada, and a proposed natural gas pipeline.
Conservationists say the highway expansion will fell an undetermined number of eagle roosting trees and disturb nesting eagles. The proposed plan will also fill in wetlands that provide a critical nursery and passageway for the fish eagles eat.
Organizations including Audubon Alaska, Rivers Without Borders, Lynn Canal Conservation, local fishermen groups, area tribes, and local residents, point to a 1982 state law that protects the Chilkat Bald Eagles and their habitat in perpetuity.
“I want the highway to be safe, but I don’t want it to inadvertently destroy habitat areas,” says Pam Randles, a naturalist and environmental educator for the Takshanuk Watershed Council. Every fall, Randles brings students from the Haines School Environmental Science Class to Chilkat to count Eagles. In their 2014 study, the students concluded eagle populations in the Chilkat Valley primarily occupy wetland habitats, the same ones DOT wants to fill to expand the road.
In its 2013 Environmental Assessment, DOT concluded the projects “do not cumulatively pose an unacceptable risk or significant impacts to the environmental resources.”
Audubon Alaska, which was instrumental in the creation of the Preserve 32 years ago, is one of several organizations that commented on the Environmental Assessment, saying the DOT had not conducted enough research on the plan’s environmental impacts. The organization asked DOT to specify which trees will be cut down so researchers can properly evaluate how this will affect the eagles. Audubon Alaska and others have also complained that DOT’s one-year study of eagle use in the area was not long enough to make any significant conclusions.
As a result of nearly 200 comments and concerns raised in response to the environmental assessment, Alaska DOT and FHWA reduced the number of passing zones, which will allow some curves that weave around sensitive wetlands to stay as-is, preserving the habitat and food source.
“The department is confident that the redesign balances an improved highway with concerns raised during the public comment period,” Jeremy Woodrow, a representative from DOT says.
Conservation groups think there’s a simpler way to balance safety with conservation: If the speed limit is dropped to 50 mph in the preserve, straightening the road is unnecessary, they say. Alternatively, the DOT could maintain the current model of a 55 mph limit, with reductions on curves.
“A straight highway is not necessarily a beautiful one,” says Nancy Berland, a Chilkat Conservation Campaigner and longtime Haines resident, noting that the highway was designated National Scenic Byway in 1943.
But the DOT’s Woodrow says lowering the speed limit may not cause motorists to slow down. A 2013 speed study found motorists drive between 60-63 mph on Haines Highway 85 percent of the time. “It’s much safer to make design changes that improve sight distance in order to reduce collisions,” Woodrow says.
For this year’s Bald Eagle Festival, Alaska DOT has posted temporary speed limit signs to require motorists to drive 45 mph to protect visitors along the side of the road participating in the festivities. Whether DOT is considering this as a permanent solution remains to be seen—a revised environmental assessment is expected by the end of the year.