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Southeast Alaska airport edges closer to reality

Associated Press Updated: August 3, 2014 at 5:15 am

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — In the secluded island village of Angoon in Southeast Alaska, a long-talked-about airport is still in the works. Planning for the Angoon airport -- which in rural Alaska means a single runway and access road -- began a decade ago, and despite community support, transportation planners say it will be many more years before small airplanes can land on the island.

"Will I still be alive by the time it actually goes in?" Sue Bates, co-owner of the Angoon Trading Company, asked jokingly in a recent interview. "Honestly, I think it would be marvelous. But that's just my personal opinion."

The community's opinion on an airstrip has shifted over time. In the late 1970s, residents voted down the project, fearing that an increase in travelers would threaten their subsistence way of living. A second vote in 1998 unveiled overwhelming support for the airstrip, recalled Maxine Thompson, a former Angoon mayor.

Albert Kookesh, a resident of Angoon and a former state senator, said he is hopeful that a runway will bring additional competition between air carriers and drive down freight costs. It costs $1 per pound to ship material on a seaplane into and out of Angoon. It's an unbearable price to pay for those who practice a subsistence lifestyle, he said.

"There are very few jobs here. People have to survive by hunting and fishing, and they do," he said. "I want us to come into the 20th century. I want competition."

Angoon sits on the outskirts of the massive Admiralty Island National Monument, about 55 miles southwest of Juneau. It's the only permanent settlement on the land mass and getting to and from the community requires either a ferry or seaplane -- both frequently troubled by poor weather and dark skies.

In the early 2000s, the slow planning process for an Angoon airstrip began. By 2014, that process continued as a combined work of the state Department of Transportation and the FAA.

In June, DOT highlighted the airport as its top aviation recommendation in the 2014 draft of its Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, identifying Angoon as Alaska's largest community without a land-based airport.

Leslie Grey, FAA project manager, said she expects the federal agency to unveil its six-years-in-the-making environmental impact statement by fall -- the latest, long-standing planning box to check off.

Verne Skagerberg, a DOT transportation planner, said he did not have a date of completion for the airstrip, estimating that small airplanes will fly into Angoon "certainly within the next 20 years," though he added, "I can't say with any precision how long it will take."

A matter of land

DOT and FAA still must agree on where the airplanes will land.

"One of the main issues right now is where is the preferred location," Grey said. "The FAA has said it's inside the city limits and, if you've heard controversy, it's because the state would prefer it outside the city limits."

Outside the city limits lies "monument land," designated under the Antiquities Act of 1978 and managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kent Cummins, a spokesman with the U.S. Forest Service, said that the U.S. president and Congress would have to evaluate and approve the airport's construction on the land.

"The President considers multiple factors, including public interest, compatibility with the purpose for which the Monument was established, and alternatives that reside outside the Monument," Cummins wrote in an email.

A final decision on a location won't be made until the environmental statement is released and public comment received.

Former Angoon Mayor Thompson said that she prefers an airstrip outside of Angoon, expressing frustration that monument land has hemmed in the community's growth.

"We are a national monument because of local efforts," Thompson said. "Preserving our environment because of our subsistence lifestyle is now a double-edged sword. We can't do anything. So progress is hampered because of that designation."

Airport access for Angoon's health clinic would mean the ability to fly after dark, Eric Gettis, director of practice management for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium that runs the clinic, wrote in an email.

The clinic must medevac a patient out of the community once or twice a month. Among the medical conditions the clinic cannot treat are burns, chest pains and childbirth, Gettis wrote.

"A landing strip would be especially beneficial after dark," Gettis wrote. "Sea planes cannot land after dark. In the winter, flights do not leave after 3 p.m."

The airstrip would measure about 3,300 feet, with the potential for extension to 4,000 feet in the future, according to the FAA. Skagerberg said initial price estimates put the airstrip and access road at $50 million.

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