The Haines Highway. (Abbey Collins)

The Haines Borough Planning Commission approved the Alaska Department of Transportation’s plans for phase II of the Haines Highway project on Thursday. The second phase will make improvements between milepost 12 and milepost 23. The decision came amid disagreement over the commission’s responsibility to ensure access to the Chilkat River. 

Alaska Department of Transportation, the borough and the Chilkat River Access Group have held numerous meetings over the past few months about the Haines Highway Project. The discussion has revolved around access to the Chilkat River as highway construction ramps up.

The groups have been trying to figure out how the project can be completed without reducing opportunities for subsistence fishing, recreation and tourism.

State law requires the Haines Borough Planning Commission to review and approve the highway plans submitted by the Department of Transportation, or DOT.

But in a memo, borough staff recommended that the commission not approve the plans.

At the meeting Thursday, public facilities director Brad Ryan defended the borough staff’s recommendation.

“Today we’ve got a bunch of feedback that we’re trying to stop the highway project and stop commerce,” Ryan said. “That’s not true at all. What we’re trying to do is maintain access and get the best project possible out of this phase II.”

According to the memo written by borough planner Holly Smith, the highway project plans did not meet the river access needs of the community.

Smith suggested that the commission approve the plans if DOT agreed to preserve existing pullouts and river access points, and replace access points proposed for removal with new ones.

Several residents showed up to the meeting to urge the commission to approve the highway project plans. Many felt that push back from the commission would put the future of the project at risk.

Tracy Harmon read a letter on behalf of the Haines Chamber of Commerce stating the second phase plans must be approved to secure funding for the project.

Access at 19 mile was of particular concern for rafting companies that begin their excursions on the Tsirku River. Haines Rafting Company owner Andy Hedden stressed how important that access is for keeping his business running.

“If we couldn’t access the river for a summer or two, we wouldn’t just be losing business for those. You lose contracts and relationships. Ships might have to go somewhere else if they can’t generate enough revenue locally,” Hedden said.

Jim Scholl, an environmental analyst with DOT, spoke to the commission by phone. He said that DOT has seriously considered the recommendations from the Chilkat River Access Group.

“I believe we’ve done everything we can do at this stage in the game. To go any farther, we have to work with our partners: DNR, Parks and Haines Borough,” Scholl said.

Scholl spoke with the commission about a number of access points along the river that residents have been particularly concerned about preserving, but he said that DOT couldn’t make any commitments during the meeting.

“We can promise to look at it right now, and we will, but to make a final decision—we can’t make that on the spot,” Scholl said.

Those serving on the planning commission had a difficult time determining their role in approving the highway project. While Donnie Turner said he felt that the commission needed to make its decision solely on compliance with borough code, Sylvia Heinz said she wasn’t sure if state law requires the commission to consider the borough’s priorities.

“I want to know what our authority is. Reading the statue, the statute says that it needs to follow the code and plans. That’s up for debate,” Heinz said.

Ultimately, the commission voted unanimously to approve DOT’s plans for phase II of the highway project. Preserving the historic access points and pullouts was not included as a condition of the final plans.

However, the commission did add a condition that the borough manager continues working with DOT on the unresolved river access points.