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Why the FAA is Paying for New Hiking Trails In Juneau

By | August 7, 2014

The Southeast Alaska Land Trust plans to donate about 128 acres of land to the City and Borough of Juneau this fall for preservation and natural recreation. The deal is technically an airport project—most of the money the land trust used to get the land in the first place traces back to the Federal Aviation Administration.

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The land is in the Mendenhall Valley, bounded by residential subdivisions to the north, city-owned land that hugs the Mendenhall River to the east, public land to the south and Montana Creek to the west.

“It’s mostly really rich wetlands, and they would just be left alone,” says Greg Chaney, Juneau’s lands and resources manager.

The trust’s donation will be contingent on the preservation of the land as open space and for natural recreation. The plan is for new hiking trails, and possibly an overnight campsite and community garden.

“Basically, the west bank of the Mendenhall River will be an entire network of city trails….For a community of our size, it’s an incredible trail network. And this is the capstone, I mean, this has been years in the making,” Chaney says.

The reason this is connected to the FAA has to do with years of runway safety improvements at Juneau’s airport, which wrapped up in December. Basically, the FAA required more flat land around the runway, which meant filling in the surrounding wetlands.

Frank Rue, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Land Trust, explains what happened next.

“The Army Corps of Engineers required that they mitigate those wetlands’ impacts. And they chose to do it through the in-lieu fee program,” he says.

The FAA paid for more than 90 percent of the roughly $85 million runway safety work. Then, the airport paid the land trust $5 million to deal with its wetlands debt. Rue says approximately 86 acres of wetlands were lost, which translated into an obligation to preserve 227 acres of wetlands.

Federal law discourages destroying wetlands because they’re ecologically prized for their ability to naturally filter man-made pollution, provide flood relief and support unique ecosystems.

The land deal in the Mendenhall Valley will knock out about half of the mitigation debt. The details aren’t set, but it’s consistent with the city’s long-term land use plans for the area, which includes improving a rough trail that follows Montana Creek. The Juneau Assembly must finalize the transfer.

The Juneau Assessor’s database lists the property’s value at $20,000.

“That because for the city’s purposes, it’s a conservation lot,” Rue says. “They don’t value it as a lot that’s available for development.”

Rue won’t disclose how much the trust paid for the parcel–just that it was a much higher market rate before development was off-limits.

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