Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Trunk Road clearing generates ire ... and free firewood

Anyone who drives Trunk Road can see the state's progress on the second phase of a $35 million project to widen and straighten that narrow, twisting route. 

A swath of birch, spruce and cottonwood disappeared virtually overnight within the past few weeks as tree-munching machines cleared the Trunk Road right-of-way ahead of the summer road construction season.

Drivers can also see numerous homes formerly screened by forest until a few weeks ago.

"They've ruined my land. They've ruined my house," said Trunk Road resident Linus Mathis IV. "I'm all for improvements, but I'm not for them doing it at my expense."

Mathis has some serious complaints about the project that he's still pursuing and we won't get into here. But on a basic level, he's upset with the extent of the right-of-way logging. His two young children don't have a forest buffer between the yard and the road any more, he says.

Those types of issues with the extent of clearing were addressed in an earlier right-of-way acquisition phase, said John Waisanen, project engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. 

Tree-clearing during the first phase of the Trunk Road realignment project also drew criticism, transportation officials say.

"Clearing is frequently a phase of a project that engenders the most negative public response," said Transportation spokesman Rick Feller. "When phase one of Trunk Road was done, there was a large hue and cry about the level of clearing. That turned out OK as well."

But the recent clearing resonates with people for positive reasons, too.

Scores of intrepid locals brought out chainsaws to load pickups with free firewood. One weekend, it was like a long, narrow tailgate party out there as woodcutters pulled over every few feet, some with dogs or children in tow ... wearing ear protection and staying at a safe distance, of course. Get it while you can -- those nice fat birch logs seemed all but gone by this week.

Karen Harris runs a bed and breakfast along the section of Trunk Road that opened last year. 

Harris said her big-picture response to the project is "I love it."

Her reaction upon seeing all the trees coming down a few years ago, though, was more like, "OH NO!"

Harris said the state didn't do anything wrong in her case, but she didn't take the time to walk her property with project managers, and ended up surprised at the extent of the clearing.

These days, she said, she's happy to have unobstructed views to the Chugach Mountains.

"It was a huge blessing in my life and for my business. There were a couple shockers and I think it's the kind of thing where bureaucrats think they're being very communicative and showing their little diagrams. For us who have never been through something like that, there are unanticipated questions."

The state will hold a construction kickoff meeting on from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. May 1 at Mat-Su College. For more information about the Trunk Road project, go to

In the interest of early warning, road work on Palmer-Fishhook Road this summer that will close the road for several days at a time during June and July. To make up for some wetland destruction as part of the Trunk Road project, the state's construction permit requires the old culverts get replaced along Carnegie Creek and Wasilla Creek - a popular local swimming hole with a rope swing over the water that was lost to tree clearing this month.

The closures are scheduled to take place June 18-20 at Carnegie Creek and June 25-July 1 at Wasilla Creek. A lengthy detour will route drivers down Seldon Road to Wasilla-Fishhook.

-- Zaz Hollander

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