Wetlands Plan Update Causes Concern

Some community members are concerned about proposed changes to the Anchorage Municipal Wetlands Management Plan. They say it weakens protections for vital areas. The plan’s update has been in the works for nearly four years. It’s the first revision since 1996.

Anchorage’s Wetlands Management Plan was first developed in 1982, during the city’s development boom. Senior Planner Thebe  Tobish says back then, it could take up to two years to get a permit from the Corps of Engineers to develop any thing in wetlands areas.

“It was unworkable for Anchorage at that time of our boom. So we created this wetlands plan that provided a hierarchy of designations of wetlands from low value to high value in an effort to facilitate permit development, but also in an effort to facilitate protection of the more important areas for the community.”

And it’s the protection element that has some community members worried. Community councils from Airport Heights, Rogers Park and the University Area sent resolutions to the Anchorage Assembly earlier this week objecting to some of the wording changes in the draft of the updated plan. Now the draft plan reads in some parts that the wetlands will be protected to “the maximum extent possible” instead of just protected, as it said in the 1996 version. Paul Stang and others say the new language endangers key class A wetlands, like Goose and Mosquito Lakes.

“And what are we doing?” Stang asked the Assembly during this week’s meeting. “We’re watering down for convenience. ‘Oh for this project here, we need this little bit of acreage.’ And so on. Don’t do it. It’s going down the wrong road.”

Airport Heights resident Carolyn Ramsey says losing more wetlands will hurt everyone. “The wetlands are Mother Nature’s sponge. And if you take that away, it’s going to flow into the creeks faster, which is going to cause more flooding. Which ultimately costs every single person in Anchorage money because our tax dollars have to go to clean up the mess and to mitigate future funding when Mother Nature did it for free.”

But senior planner Tobish says the language changes in the management plan don’t really affect the level of protection of some wetlands. He says the wording was requested by the Corps of Engineers to reflect the reality of the permitting process.

“On the face value, people think an ‘A’ wetlands should never be disturbed. That it should be preserved. And while that’s the thrust of the designation, the reality is that certain projects in ‘A’ wetlands will get permitted by the Corps,” he explains. “Especially if they’re proven to have a significant public purpose and a public need.”

Tobish says that’s what happened when Elmore was punched through from Tudor to Abbott. It crossed dozens of acres of class A wetlands, but the Corps still approved it because of the community’s need.

Tobish says the primary changes to the wetlands management plan were upgrades to the maps; they designated new wetlands and stream areas and removed places that had been filled in.

The plan will be discussed during a work session before the Assembly decides if they will approve the changes during their July 8 meeting.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne