NOSB paper

This paper was written as part of the 2003 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Juneau International Airport—Safety concerns and estuarine habitat values


Holly Rhoden
Colin Conerton
Chris Frank
Natalie Hale
Josh Finley


Team Tempest
Juneau Douglas High School
10014 Crazy Horse Dr.
Juneau, AK 99801

Tempest team photo

Table of Contents:

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
    2.1 History
  3. Habitats
    3.1 Tidal Mudflats
    3.2 Low Marsh Sedges
    3.3 High Marsh Grasses
    3.4 Uplift Meadows
    3.5 Deciduous Brush and Young Spruce
    3.6 The Mendenhall River
  4. FAA Proposed Changes
    4.1 RSA Background
    4.2 Required Dimensions
    4.3 Current Dimensions
  5. Aviation Navigation
    5.1 Terrain
    5.2 Wind
    5.3 Lights
    5.4 Weather
  6. Bird Strikes
    6.1 Canada Geese
    6.2 Great Blue Heron
    6.3 Mew and Glaucous Gulls
    6.4 Mallards
  7. Alternatives for Mitigating Bird Strike Risk
    7.1 Clearing Trees
    7.2 Dredging
    7.3 Filling
    7.4 Wire Grids
  8. Airport Expansion Alternatives
    8.1 Gaining RSA
    8.2 Alternative RSAs
           8.2.1 RSA-1
           8.2.2 RSA-2A/B
           8.2.3 RSA-2C
  9. Economic Impacts
  10. Environmental Impacts
    10.1 Impacts of RSA-1
    10.2 Impacts of RSA-2A/B
    10.3 Impacts of RSA-2C
  11. Preferred Alternative
  12. Conclusions and Recommendations
    12.1 Long-Term
    12.2 Short-Term
  13. Resources
    13.1 Books and Publications
    13.2 Electronic References
    13.3 Personal Communications


The Juneau International Airport (JIA) is plagued by safety hazards including hazardous terrain, inclement weather, and bird strikes. The JIA is located on wetlands that are critical habitats to a variety of bird species and numerous salmon runs. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposes an expansion to the airport runway safety area (RSA) in order to meet current federal standards for larger aircraft. Proposed RSA increases come at the expense of valuable wetland acreage. In order to meet present and future transportation needs while preserving important habitat, improvements to existing facilities or relocation possibilities are examined along with recommendations.

Introduction (2)

The Juneau International Airport (JIA) is nestled in a narrow valley between tall, steep glacial mountain peaks at the convergence of two glacial valleys: the Gastineau Channel and the Mendenhall Valley. The foot print of the JIA is on estuary wetlands on the Mendenhall River delta. Glacial river deposits combine with one of the fastest isostatic rebound rates in the world to develop the delta into a thriving environment for a plethora of plant and animal species. Conifers, shrubs, grasses, sedges and other plant life have gradually developed the delta into one of the richest bird habitats in the region. Because of its ecological importance the habitat has been set aside as the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge.

The delta's flat, well-drained surface is also invaluable for human development. The extreme terrain of high mountains and abrupt channels that define southeast Alaska make for an inhospitable environment for airports, so any segment of flat land that can support facilities is quickly employed.

In Juneau, the airstrip that eventually evolved into JIA was built in the 1930's without evaluating the impact it would have on the environment. Having an airport is crucial for the economic development of the Juneau community.

The airport's increasing traffic and safety concerns require expansion out into the wetlands. The wetlands, in contrast, would benefit if the airport were moved and no longer encroached onto natural habitat. Because the wetlands recommended for expansion are valuable from both aviation and environmental standpoints, a solution should be designed to meet the needs of both. However, the reality of the situation is that wetlands cannot be paved and preserved simultaneously.

History (2.1)

Due to growing conservation concerns, the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge was established in 1976. (Fig. 3) The 4,000-acre refuge, stretching nine miles along the Gastineau Channel estuary, provides a flourishing atmosphere of nourishment and rest for over 140 species of birds, a number of mammals, eight anadromous fish species, and many other aquatic organisms. Isostatic rebound, along with mineral rich silt deposits from the Mendenhall, Thomas and Lemon Glaciers cause the wetlands to rise at a rate of 0.6 inches per year, which is one of fastest rebound rates in the world. Seventeen freshwater streams including Fish Creek, Jordan Creek, and the Mendenhall River flow through the refuge, providing spawning grounds for many fish including sockeye, coho, chum, and pink salmon, Dolly Varden, Char, and cuttthroat trout. Intertidal sedge meadows are the most ecologically important plant community. On higher ground, spruce and hemlock forests surround such areas as Fish Creek and the south side of the airport runway (Fig 4). Aquatic habitats on the refuge range from rivers to shallow ponds to tidal sloughs to saltwater (Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, 1997-1999).

Development of the Mendenhall Wetlands began in the early 1930's when a small landing strip was constructed on a patch of local farmland. The Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Gastineau Channel to gain better access to Stephens Passage in the late 1950's, leaving behind spoil islands which were dumped onto the wetlands and have subsequently grown into small spruce patches. In the early 1970's the Egan Expressway was paved directly through the wetland area, which isolated and limited tidal influence in many important wetland areas (Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, 1997-1999).

Habitats (3)

Perhaps the greatest challenge to be faced by those managing the Juneau Airport is to balance the needs of the thriving wildlife with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety mandates. The Mendenhall Refuge is an ideal habitat for birds, the most hazardous to aviators being heron, waterfowl, gulls, eagle, and corvids, which include ravens and crows. The airport area is host to various habitats, some more attractive to birds than others. Tidal mudflat and slough areas, the Mendenhall River, brackish and saltwater lagoons, freshwater streams, sedge dominated low marsh, and diverse uplift meadow are most attractive to the above problematic bird groups and pose high risks when close to the runway. Deciduous brush, seeded grass runway margins, grass dominated high marsh, young conifer forest, and paved runway surfaces pose a lesser threat to aviation safety (FAA 2002 f).

Tidal Mudflats (3.1)

Bare tidal mudflat interlaced with sloughs extends from the subtidal up to about 12 feet above Mean Low Tide (Fig 7). Great blue heron, swans, geese, ducks, shorebirds, and eagles are commonly found in this lower marsh habitat, especially during migration. Otter and mink feed here on shallow-water invertebrates and small fish. Tidal mudflats and sloughs pose a threat to JIA in that they attract many species of large, relatively slow moving birds close to the east end of the runway (FAA 2002 C).

Low Marsh Sedges (3.2)

Lyngbye sedge-dominated low marsh lies between tidal mudflat and high-marsh grasses. Some of the most notable foragers in this habitat are Vancouver Canada geese. Canada and white-fronted geese are significant threats to aviators in the sedge-dominated areas around the airport (FAA 2002 C).

High Marsh Grasses (3.3)

Above 17 feet in the intertidal, grasses take over from low-marsh sedges. Because grasses are more fibrous and less palatable to herbivores, the high marsh generally is not a major bird attractant. However, birds such as geese will rest here. (Richard Carstensen, pers. comm.)

Uplift Meadows (3.4)

Uplift meadows were once tidal marsh, but due to glacial rebound have risen and gained a larger variety of plant life (Fig. 7). The diverse uplift meadows are found just above extreme high water in places like the spoil islands placed on the wetlands in the 1950's. The plant communities of these habitats that grow on sandy soils include moss, beach rye, and fireweed. Shrews and voles generally occur in these areas. Sparrows nest in this environment (FAA 2002 C).

Deciduous Brush and Young Spruce (3.5)

The woodland habitat is a mosaic of small spruce, deciduous brush, and lush meadow. Many species of birds nest, roost or feed in these areas including the blue heron, crow, raven, bald eagle, and swallow. Mammals such as the Sitka black-tailed deer, red squirrel, and weasel are common (FAA 2002 C)

The Mendenhall River (3.6)

The Mendenhall River habitat is host to many bird species including goose, swan, and tern. Gulls and crows are year-round residents of the Mendenhall River area, feeding from the water and on the banks. Muskrat, harbor seal, river otter, and mink are common in this area. Otters and occasionally seals feed just above the west portion of the runway, with a diet consisting of mollusk and small fish. This habitat is one of the most serious problems for the airport area due to the abundance of food for heron, waterfowl, gulls, eagle, and corvids (FAA 2002 C).

Proposed Changes by the FAA (4)

To better comply with FAA standards, the latest proposal in wetland development is an Airport Expansion project meant to increase runway safety areas, provide sufficient navigational lighting, and to provide facilities such as snow removal equipment buildings, fuel farm access roads, and tie down aprons. A Wildlife Hazard Management Plan has also been prepared for the JIA. Currently the airport has less than half the runway safety area width for a majority of the runway, and the runway safety area (RSA) extends only 250 feet in either direction as compared to the FAA recommended 1,000 feet (FAA, 2002 B).

Background on RSA (4.1)

The RSA is area around the runway that is meant to allow the aircraft a margin for error when landing, adding a crucial element of safety. By having an adequate amount of RSA, the potential for serious injury and aircraft damage is mitigated in the event of an overrun, undershoot, or veer-off (U.S. Department of Transportation, FAA order 5200.8)

Required Dimensions (4.2)

Juneau International Airport has only one runway, which is given two different terms depending on the direction from which a plane is landing. (Fig. 4) An arrival from the east lands on 'runway 26', while an arrival from the west lands on 'runway 8'. The RSA for runway '8/26' must have a rectangular area centered about the runway that is 500 feet wide and the mandatory length is 1,000 feet beyond each present runway end.

All of these dimensions are based on the types of aircraft using the runway, the wingspan and approach speed of the design aircraft.

Current Dimensions (4.3)

The current width of the east end of the runway measures 224 feet wide, and is 276 feet too narrow to meet the standard for the FAA width requirements (FAA 2002 D). The current RSA for runway 26 (the east end) extends 289 feet from the runway, but does not meet the full 1000-foot requirement. To meet FAA standards, the safety zone must be lengthened by 711 feet (FAA 2002 D).

The current RSA for runway 8 (the west end) is 232 feet wide and 268 feet too short. The length runway 8 is also inadequate by 870 feet (FAA, 2002 D). The east end of the runway is narrower than the west due to the slope of the land and estuarine channels next to the runway.

The Runway Safety Area Program states that all airports should adhere to FAA safety standards to the feasible extent (DOT FAA Order 5200.8).

Aviation Navigation (5)

The Juneau International Airport (JIA) is located in a challenging and potentially dangerous region for airplanes. Located nine miles west of downtown Juneau, the airport spans 662 acres of estuarine land. JIA is uniquely situated on wetlands created by glacial river deposits in a sediment-laden fjord. Its elevation is rising due to glacial isostatic rebound and possibly tectonic forces. The present location of JIA is difficult for pilots to navigate. The terrain, wildlife, and weather associated with the airport create the need to plan for expansion or move the facility entirely.

Terrain (5.1)

The high terrain surrounding the JIA makes approach routes into the JIA difficult. Approaching from the west to land on the single runway, pilots navigate around or over numerous mountains with heights of up to 4228 feet. When descending from the west, a small miscalculation can be disastrous. On September 4, 1970, before navigational aids like the Global Positioning System (GPS) were available, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 727 jet made a miscalculation and crashed into the Chilkat Mountain Range killing all 111 people on board.

Once a plane navigates over the surrounding mountains, the 573 foot high Mendenhall Peninsula poses a serious obstacle to a plane on final approach. The peninsula is a major navigational obstacle to pilots and must be avoided to the south. In descent, the aircraft must turn sharply to the right at speeds of 90-150 MPH at altitudes of less than 600 feet and then correct itself so that it is in a straight path towards the runway (Fig.1) (FAA, 2002 A).

In the event of a missed approach on runway 26, planes have a straight escape route to a comfortable altitude of 5000 ft. However, on a missed approach to runway 8 the emergency route is much harder. The larger aircraft must negotiate the mountains that surround the airport and Gastineau Channel. To avoid the surrounding terrain, not only must jets use tremendous engine power, but they also must climb at very steep angles in very short amounts of time. During this ascent the deck angles are such that forward and downward visibility become extremely limited (FAA, 2002 A).

Wind (5.2)

The Gastineau channel acts as a wind funnel, directing gusts directly towards the airport. Most planes approach JIA from the west due to prevailing southeast winds.

When facing west winds, aircraft use the more desirable easterly approach. Approaches from the west are confined by tall mountains and provide little room for lateral movements in the event of missed landings.

Lights (5.3)

No medium intensity approach lights with runway alignment indicators (MASLR) are presently found on the easterly approach runway (runway eight). MASLR enhance safety in non-precision landings and improve night visual approaches (JIA EIS). Without MASLR on runway twenty-six, many smaller aircraft not equipped GPS cannot land in low visibility.

Weather (5.4)

Weather conditions at JIA are a frequent problem prohibiting many flights. The average number of days with dense fog at the JIA over a 30 year period (1970-1999) was 20.6 days (National Weather Service, 2002). On average 12.3 days with less than a quarter mile of visibility are experienced in the months between August and December (National Weather Service). In 2002, twenty-two days of dense fog that created hazardous flying conditions were experienced in these months due to lack of strong southeasterly winds and rain (Fig.2, from National Weather Service data). During winter months, darkness prevails and warming during the day does not compensate for nighttime cooling, and the air is unable to dry out, creating a pattern of daily fog that can last for days.

Bird Strikes (6)

Due to the abundance of bird-life found on the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge adjacent to JIA, the potential for aircraft bird strikes is high. This land is an attractive site for an airport and to birds: it is flat, which is essential for airport development, and is home to a unique environment of fish, small rodents, shelter, and other features which make the area a habitat for birds. However, birds and airports are a poor match, as both human safety and the perpetuation of good bird habitat jeopardized with such a combination. To totally eliminate the problem, either the airport would have to be moved or the birds would have to be displaced or eradicated. The practicality of building another airport is in question, and because the annihilation of bird life from the area is unacceptable to many hunters, bird enthusiasts and environmentalists, a solution should be considered that would satisfy both interests and make flying safer for both birds and people.

Bird strikes at JIA have happened to both jets and to light craft. Of the six reported strikes at JIA that caused damage to aircraft, five of them involved jets while only one involved light aircraft (FAA, 2002 F). Also, the potential for loss of many human lives is greater in the event of a bird strike to a commercial jet than in a strike to a light aircraft.

While bird strikes can be a problem when a bird merely strikes the body of an aircraft, the biggest safety concern is that of birds being ingested by the jet's engines. While there are Federal Aviation Regulations for jet engines' capacity to ingest birds, they are not sufficient for some of the species that reside near JIA. Some of these species include Canada Geese, great blue heron, greater white-fronted geese, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, and tundra swans (FAA 2002 C). Standard engine regulations are not made to suit the JIA environment, therefor it is likely that plane engines would not be able to withstand the ingestion of these larger birds.

In spite of the fact that large numbers of birds live in close proximity to the airport, bird strikes are not a common occurrence in Juneau. There were 21 reported bird strikes from 1990-present. Fifteen of the strikes resulted in no damage while three caused minor damage and three more caused serious damage to aircraft. Thirteen of these strikes were to jets, two causing minor damage and two causing substantial damage (FAA 2002 f).

However, it should be noted that not all bird strikes are reported. According to the Bird Strike Committee USA, pilots fail to record an estimated 80% of bird strikes to U.S. civil aircraft (Bird Strike Committee USA). If these statistics hold true for JIA, then as many as 100 bird strikes may have actually occurred from 1990-present.

Despite the possibility of 100 strikes having occurred at JIA between 1990 and 1999, there have been no injuries to people.

On average, there are 9500 take-offs and landings of jets every year at JIA (Annette Baker, pers. comm.). There are around 100,000 take-offs and landings of light craft every year (Allan Heese, pers. comm.). Using these averages, from 1990 to the present there have been about 1,300,000 take-offs and landings. If there were truly only 21 reported bird strikes, we calculate that the chances of a strike during a take-off or landing are about 0.0016%. If there were actually 100 strikes, the chances are about 0.0077%.

However, in spite of these apparently minute chances of a strike, disastrous strikes do occur. In 1995 there was a deadly bird strike in Anchorage, which killed 24 people on an Air Force plane whose engines ingested four Canada geese during takeoff (Juneau Empire 2001). Canada geese are common residents of the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge. While one can point to low statistics arguing that bird strikes are not a problem, it would only take one of these catastrophic crashes to spark an outcry as to why something had not been done to prevent it.

This section focuses on birds by species, evaluates their risk, and suggests a method to mitigate their risk. A following section lists potential solutions. From the 230 species known on the refuge we have chosen the four of greatest concern (FAA, 2002 c). In a yearlong study beginning in April 2002 by Richard Carstensen, Bob Armstrong, and Mary Willson, bird counts were made throughout the refuge. Number of birds by species, habitat, and activity, and weather conditions were recorded. Some of these 'hotspots' are shown in figure 4.

Canada Geese (6.1)

While most sub-species of Canada Geese range from 3-12 pounds (Canadian Wildlife Service, 2002), the local non-migratory sub-species is one of the largest in North America and can weigh up to 14 pounds. They also feed and fly in large flocks. The fact that they travel in flocks is dangerous because a jet could potentially strike a number of birds simultaneously.

Of the 21 reported strikes, one involved Canada geese (FAA, 2002 f). It should be noted, however, that the species of bird in eight of the reported strikes was not determined due to mangling, so there could possibly have been more. The deadly bird strike that occurred to an Air Force plane in Anchorage involved Canada geese.

Among "hotspots" closest to the runway, Canada geese were most often sighted at hotspot a03, feeding and resting in groups of 6 to 230 individuals. (Fig. 4) This water body is one of the dredge 'finger ponds' connecting to the float plane pond. Geese congregate here especially in spring because aquatic ditchgrass is available here before sedges have "greened-up." (FAA, 2002 f). A proposed solution to this problem is to eliminate the aquatic vegetation (see Dredging in the following section).

Canada geese have been observed flying daily in between Auke Lake and the refuge. The birds tend to sleep on the lake by day and feed on the wetlands during the night, thus avoiding hunters. The problem lies in the fact that their route takes them directly across the flight-path of aircraft arriving from or going to the North, the end of the runway next to the Duck Creek Outlet. The birds generally travel at predictable times, so a solution would be to schedule take-offs and landings around this event (Laurie Craig, pers. comm.).

Great Blue Heron (6.2)

This bird was responsible for the two most serious of 21 reported strikes. They feed on the fish that live in the streams and ponds around the airport and this is what attracts them to the area. Exterminating all fish in the area is unrealistic. However, there are valves that allow water to run into the float pond from the Mendenhall River (Laurie Craig, pers. comm.). Grids could be put over the valves that would restrict the movement of fish into the float-pond. Then at least blue heron and other fish-eaters like gulls and mergansers would not be tempted to feed at the pond closest to the runway.

When feeding, great blue heron appear to avoid tree cover. They like to be able to see around themselves so as not to be surprised by a predator, as their take-off and maneuvering abilities are limited (Richard Carstensen, pers. comm).

A study done by Armstrong and Carstensen for SWCA Environmental Consultants indicates that tree cover may affect bird numbers in an area. The Jordan Creek Triangle and Duck Creek are fairly similar areas (Figs. 4, 5 and 6). They both contain a small creek and they both had tree cover until the Jordan Creek Triangle was logged. Bird counts of the two areas throughout 2002 found that there were far more birds, including heron and a variety of species considered 'hazardous' to aircraft, at the logged Jordan Creek site than at Duck Creek, which is still forested. Though the Duck Creek site is not a perfect analogue of the Jordan site before tree clearing, these data raise questions about the consequences of tree removal. There are no statistics for the number of birds in the Jordan Creek Triangle area before tree clearing.

Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls (6.3)

Gulls are not as large Canada geese or great blue heron. Mew gulls weigh .95 pounds and Glaucous-wings weigh 2.22 pounds (FAA, 2002 c). Gulls are more maneuverable than heron and waterfowl, and potentially more able to avoid aircraft. But factors making these birds dangerous are their tendency to congregate in large flock, and their habit of searching for worms in the RSA and the median between the taxiway and runway (Laurie Craig, pers. comm.). While they are maneuverable, three of the reported strikes were attributed to mew gulls (FAA, 2002 f). While there was no damage due to these strikes, if multiple birds were to be ingested by an engine, damage could occur. One option for eliminating the presence of mew gulls close to the runway would be to fill in the medians between the runway and taxiway with asphalt. Gulls have been known to rest on pavement during inclement weather.

Mallard (6.4)

Mallards are the most abundant large bird species on the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge and weigh about 2.4 pounds (FAA, 2002 c). They account for two of the reported strikes (FAA, 2002 f). Mallards and other waterfowl are less maneuverable than gulls and some pilots consider them more hazardous. The refuge supports both resident and migratory mallards that pass through in great numbers in spring and fall.

In some ways the migrants are more dangerous than birds that live on the refuge year round. While residents learn to avoid planes, hunters, and airport hazing personnel, migratory birds are uneducated about these hazards (Richard Carstensen, pers. comm.). Their numbers near the runway and float plane pond are continually replenished, and they flush more readily in response to landings or take-offs, making them a higher risk.

According to the 'hot spots' study, mallards are usually found a01, a03, and r01, either feeding or resting (Fig 4). The majority of the feeding was done at the dredge pond at a03, while some feeding and most of the resting occurred at a01 and r01. While site a01 is separated from the airport by a barrier of trees, a03 is close to the float plane pond and r01 is close to the runway. Mallards feed on ditchgrass at a03. See Dredging below.

Alternatives for Mitigating Bird Strike Risk (7)

Clearing Trees (7.1)

Suggestions have been made to clear the woodland habitat directly south of the float plane pond in order to reduce bird strikes at the JIA. However, once trees have been cleared, the area may become a greater foraging attractant for heron, waterfowl, gulls, eagles, and corvids. Also, Audubon biologists and observers have found that the trees act as a barrier. When birds fly north from the wetlands toward the float plane woodland a flight path is chosen to either the right or the left of the forest, instead of travelling through or over the trees to the float pond and runway. By removing this forest space, the habitat for many mammals, small birds and various other organisms non-threatening to airplane saftey would be destroyed, and a cleared path to the runway would be available to the birds.

Dredging (7.2)

A solution proposed by the Wildlife Hazard Management Plan (FAA, 2002 f) is to dredge the ponds to dispose of the aquatic vegetation. However, the ponds would have to be dredged every year, as the plants would grow back. A loss of important bird habitat would result, as this is a main food source for waterfowl in early spring before sedges 'green up' (Richard Carstensen, pers. comm.).

Filling (7.3)

Another solution proposed that the 'finger ponds', shown at hotspots a03 and a09, be filled in. This would eliminate aquatic vegetation all together. However, it could also push birds out into the float pond. During the winter, the finger ponds freeze before the float plane pond and it has been observed that when birds can no longer rest in the 'finger ponds', they rest in the float plane pond (Laurie Craig, pers. comm.). This can be particularly hazardous because the birds are now closer to the planes and no longer have the cover that the 'finger ponds' create.

Wire Grids (7.4)

Grids prevent larger species of birds, such as swans and geese, from being able to physically enter an area, while smaller birds, such as mallards, are deterred by the grids because they are a visual barrier (FAA, 2002 f)). Grids can be put over sections of water that may be attractive to birds. They can also be put over high man-made roosts that may attract larger birds, such as eagles, to the airport.

Other means of deterring birds from entering an area are available. Sound harassment is currently used to scare away birds. However, birds learn that the sound is not really a threat and they have been known to flush for a few minutes and then settle onto the ground again (Laurie Craig, pers. comm.). Pyrotechnics are also used, but they seem to be a very temporary deterrent. When we accompanied Brad Gruning, an airport worker who hazes birds, on a hazing, we saw him fire 12 gauge cracker shells to scare a pair of eagles from the runway. The eagles left their perch and waited for us to leave before returning to the perch a few minutes later. Effigies have been used at the airport as well. A coyote effigy was placed in an area frequented by geese, but was covered in bird droppings not long afterwards, suggesting that the birds learned that it was not a threat (Laurie Craig, pers. comm.).

The issue of bird strikes is difficult to solve. While solutions may be thought of that discourage birds from using the wetlands near the airport, they are also discouraging these bird species from using their natural habitat. The Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge is the center for bird life in Juneau and by building an airport on it, a conflict was inevitable. The issue comes down to priorities and a decision between leaning towards human safety or leaning towards the preservation of a critical bird habitat.

Airport Expansion Alternatives (8)

Gaining RSA (8.1)

The initial method for expanding RSA involves constructing a graded area surrounding the runway. However, it is not rational to create the entire safety area in this way, so after as much RSA as possible has been gained in this manner, the following methods should be employed:

  1. Relocation, shifting, or realignment of the runway
  2. Reduction in runway length where the existing runway length exceeds that which is required for the existing or projected design aircraft
  3. A combination of runway relocation, shifting, grading, realignment, or reduction
  4. Declared distances (FAA, 2002 d)

Alternative RSAs (8.2)

There are many different alternatives for how the RSA should be expanded. For the sake of brevity we have chosen the three main choices.

(8.2.1) In the RSA-1, there would be 750 ft-long expansions to both the west and east ends of the runway, requiring approximately 10 acres of refuge lands. This would not fulfill the 1000 ft long requirements advised by the FAA, and is considered a compromising option. The RSA would also be widened to 500 feet from the centerline of the runway.

(8.2.2) The RSA-2A/B calls for the runway to be shifted completely to the east 2000 feet and would require nearly 11.5 acres of the refuge (Fig. 4). The RSA would also be widened to 500 feet from the center line of the runway.

(8.2.3) The RSA-2C calls for the runway to be shifted entirely to the west 2000 feet and would redirect the Mendenhall River. The RSA would also be widened to 500 feet from the centerline of the runway.

Economic Impacts (9)

The economic benefits of an airport expansion in the context of the proposed RSAs we have considered would be limited, since the RSAs primary objective is to provide a safety buffer. The ability of the airport to serve transportation needs will not be significantly improved. Similarly, economic growth opportunities for the airport under the proposed RSA changes are limited.

There are questions to be considered when looking at Juneau's current transportation infrastructure and its needs for the future. A runway expansion for the purpose of safety would temporarily solve the problem of non-compliance with FAA regulations, but as the population base serviced by the airport increases, the need for expanded, reliable airport facilities will increase as well. Given the 13.6% growth in Juneau's population from 1990 to 2000, more than twice that experienced by the state as a whole, such facility expansion appears inevitable (Juneau Economic Indicators, 2002).

The current location of the airport is not optimal when considering any large-scale airport expansion for the purpose of landing more or larger planes. Juneau's airport started out as a landing strip in the 1930's, built on the field of a local farmer with little regard for implications on surrounding wildlife populations or even for the practicality of the location in relation to weather patterns. This lack of foresight is proving to be problematic; frequent fog is a costly inconvenience for travelers, and others relying on air transportation services. The nature of the present airport is detrimental to various bird, fish, and other wildlife populations.

The proposed RSAs also involve measures that may damage key salmon-rearing streams such as Duck and Jordan Creeks and the Mendenhall River. Efforts have been made to restore these impaired, yet commercially valued streams. Further impacts to these waterways would be counter-productive and potentially damaging to the fishing industry.

Environmental Impacts (10)

Impacts of RSA-1 (10.1)

Construction of traditional graded areas surrounding the runway (RSA-1) would have major implications on both the east and west ends of the runway. The addition of 750 feet protruding to the west would redirect the Mendenhall River. The Mendenhall widens from about 130 feet to nearly 250 feet at the west end of the runway, and creates a 1,000 foot wide channel during extreme high tides. This redirection created by a riprap and concrete rubble barrier protruding into the river would ultimately cause a loss of wetland habitat on the side opposite from the runway due to erosion from heavy currents. Also, during heavy rains, the Mendenhall would have the potential to flood the nearby industrial areas and even the runway. Also, an east end expansion would require a tributary slough of Jordan Creek to be redirected, and would encroach on important fish spawning and bird sanctuary grounds. This plan calls for navigational lights to be placed beyond the airport boundaries, as the RSA would extend the full length of airport property. The maintenance of these fixtures could have further implications to habitats if a proposed access road connected this area to the runway (FAA 2002 f).

Impacts of RSA-2A/B (10.2)

The redirection of sloughs connected to Jordan creek (RSA-2A/B) could inhibit fish movement, and this plan encroaches into valuable bird habitat. This plan does eliminate environmental effects on the west end (FAA 2002 d).

Impacts of RSA-2C (10.3)

Shifting the runway completely to the west (RSA-2C) causes even more damage in redirecting the Mendenhall River. Acquisition of lands in the refuge would be required along with extensive filling and grading of the wetlands. The Environmental Protection Agency has recommended utilization of the current runway towards creation of runway safety area space with smaller additions in width facing the float plane pond. In using already developed runway as the RSA, no further environmental impacts would be placed on the refuge (FAA, 2002 d).

Prefered Alternative (11)

The Juneau International Airport Management currently prefers the alternative that suggets shifting both runway thresholds to the east approximately 620 feet. This will allow the construction of 1000 feet of RSA off the '8' end of the runway without extending into the Mendenhall River. On the '26' end the proposed alternative calls for the extension of the RSA to full standard into the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge. Work to accomplish this will include the relocation of lighting and visual nav-aids, extension of the parallel taxiway, and and construction of 1500 feet of new runway embankment to support the relocated threshold and 1000 feet of RSA. This work will require filling approximately 35 acres of wetlands. The FAA estimates cost to complete this work is at approximately $20 million (JIA, 2002).

Any of the alternatives chosen will be met with public outcry due to impacts on the wetlands, migratory birds, and wildlife. The FAA, airport authorities, city and state regulators have to make this decision knowing fully that there are no perfect solutions to our local dilemma. The do-nothing approach will not succeed in meeting the safety standards. It may even mean the eventual refusal to allow Alaska Airlines' jets to land in Juneau.

Conclusions and Recommendations (12)

The RSAs discussed in this paper and others suggested by the EIS have been determined by our team to be unnecessarily damaging to the environment and ineffective. We feel there are more effective ways to improve airport safety than the currently listed RSA alternatives. Instead of expanding the airport, we recommend that other sites should be examined, most notably the presently undeveloped back side of Douglas Island in the area of Peterson Creek.

Long-Term Improvements (12.1)

This undeveloped site is far removed from the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge and the weather problems associated with the Gastineau Channel area. (Fig. 3) While the Peterson Creek area contains a productive fish stream and mature forest habitat, the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge is more uniquely important to southeast Alaska's fish and wildlife (Richard Carstensen, pers. comm.). Fewer hazard birds utilize the Peterson Creek area, so the threat of bird strikes would be greatly diminished.

The area is out of the way for most residents, as they would have to drive approximately 15 miles from the present bridge. However, a second crossing to Douglas has been considered for years in order to improve access to the local ski resort on Douglas and other land/resource development opportunities. The new bridge would reduce the distance to north Douglas for most residents. Though strong winds are suggested by forest blowdown patterns in this area, no formal studies have yet been performed. We recommend a study of wind patterns as well as a general study of the Peterson Creek area to judge the feasibility of building an airport on this site. Benefits of moving the airport include:

  • the ability to restore and protect the Mendenhall Wildlife Refuge
  • reduction in fog and inconveniences due to weather
  • easier approaches for planes
  • decreased bird strike potential
  • alleviation of the general noise suffered by residents who live near the current airport
  • the associated second crossing would allow residents easier access to recreation and other development uses
  • restoration of vital salmon producing streams - Duck and Jordan Creeks

This solution, however, could take years of research and construction and should be considered as a long-term goal.

Short-Term Improvements (12.2)

For the short-term, there are other alternatives for increasing safety rather than expanding the RSA, notably the mitigation of bird strike threat. There have been three instances of significant damage to jets due to bird strikes and we know from the incident in Anchorage that bird strikes are a disastrous possibility. Protecting against bird strikes seems to us to be a significant safety enhancement. We recommend:

  • filling the medians between the runway and the taxiway with asphalt. This will eliminate the worm-producing grass that is an attractant to birds and also increase usable RSA.
  • installing grids on the water valves that connect the Mendenhall River to the float pond. This will cheaply and effectively remove bird-attracting fish from the float pond.
  • dredging or filling the 'finger ponds' that branch off from the float pond. Dredging the ponds would be a yearly responsibility, but would remove the ditchgrass that is a major bird attractant. Filling in the 'finger ponds' would be a permanent solution to the ditch-grass, but could potentially push the birds into the float pond.
  • discouraging the clearing of trees anywhere near the airport, as this practice seems to deter birds from foraging in an area.
  • identify places at safe distances from the airport where habitat can be improved, to mitigate for habitat lost in the interest of plane safety.

Resources (13)

Books & Publications (13.1)

1. Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 1997-1999. Wildlife Conservation: Mendenhall State Game Refuge.

2. Federal Aviation Administration. 2002. Alaska Aviation Information. FAA Juneau FSDO Flight Safety Program. [FAA, 2002 a]

3. Federal Aviation Administration. 2002 .Environmental Assessment for Proposed Airport Improvements. SWCA Environmental Consultants. [FAA, 2002 b]

4. Federal Aviation Administration. 2002. Preliminary Administrative Review Draft. Juneau International Airport Environmental Impact Statement. SWCA Environmental Consultants. [FAA, 2002 c)

5. Federal Aviation Administration. 2002. Technical Working Paper 2: Alternatives. Juneau International Airport Environmental Impact Statement, SWCA Environmental Consultants. [FAA, 2002 d)

6. Federal Aviation Administration. 2002. Technical Working Paper 4: Biological Resources. Juneau International Airport Environmental Impact Statement. SWCA Environmental Consultants. [FAA, 2002 e]

7. Federal Aviation Administration. 2002. Wildlife Hazard Management Plan. Sections: 1.1-1.3, 4.1, 4.3, 5.4 [FAA, 2002 f]

8. Juneau International Airport. 2002. Runway Safety Area Determination. 1078A.40.

9. Juneau Economic Indicators. October, 2002. Juneau Economic Development Council.

10. U.S. Department of Transportation. Federal Aviation Administration Order 5200.8.

11. U.S. Department of Commerce. 1999. Local Climatological Data for Juneau Alaska.

12. Zimmerman, Steve. Fall 2002. Juneau Audubon Society Newsletter.

Electronic References (13.2)

1. Alaska Department of Fish and Game; Canada geese. 12/18/02

2. Bird Strike Committee USA; bird strike facts. 12/12/02

3. Canadian Wildlife Service; Canada Goose. 12/7/02.

4. Federal Aviation Administration; airworthiness standards. 12/16/02.

5. Juneau Empire; Dye, Kathy, Residents Have it Over Trees, 11/16/01. 12/5/02

6. National Weather Service, Juneau Forecast Office; fog statistics. 12/10/02.

Personal Communications (13.3)

1. Baker, Annette. Finance Department Alaska Airlines, PO Box 68900, Seattle, WA 98168.

2. Carstensen, Richard. Discovery Southeast, PO Box 21867, Juneau, AK 99802, 907-463-1500.

3. Craig, Laurie. Mendenhall Refuge Citizen Advisory Group, PO Box 33306, Juneau, AK 99802, 907-789-2768.

4. Dierking, Carl. National Weather Service. 8500 Mendenhall Loop Rd., Juneau, AK 99802, 907-789-6800.

5. Heese, Allan. Juneau International Airport, Airport Manager. 1873 Shell Simmons Dr., Juneau, AK 99801, 907-789-7821

6. Long, Wallace. Federal Aviation Administration, 3032 Vintage Park Blvd. Suite 106, Juneau AK 99801 907-790-7374.

7. Stone, Terry, City and Borough of Juneau Department of Civil Engineering, 155 South Seward, Juneau, AK 99801, 907-586-0800.

Figure 1.

Fig. 1, flight approach to JIA

Figure 2.

Fig. 2, number of foggy days at JIA

Figure 3.

Fig. 3, proposed relocation of JIA

Figure 4.

Fig. 4, JIA airport

Figure 5.

Fig. 5, graph of birds in the area

Figure 6. Birds seen within 50 meter radius during ten-minute point counts at two sites on airport property (Carstensen, pers.comm)

Fig. 6, graph of birds in the area

Figure 7. Salt marsh communities on terrain influenced by rapid glacial rebound.

Fig. 7, salt marsh diagram

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