Eleven acres south of the Friday Harbor Airport runway, including wetland areas and walking trails, will be clearcut and replaced with a different species of tree this winter.
“If we don’t remove the trees, we would lose our instrument approach, meaning commercial airlines like San Juan Air, Kenmore, and Island Air’s medevac would be essentially closed down,” said Todd Nicholson, executive director of the Port of Friday Harbor, which operates the airport.
The mature, mostly Douglas Firs are considered an obstruction by the Federal Aviation Administration and need to either be topped or cut. After studying the forest, port staff decided topping the trees was not a good option because it would create an unsafe forest by creating dead snags and unhealthy trees.
Nicolson also said it didn’t make sense financially, as the FAA will pay to cut the trees only once and if the port topped the trees, they would have to be topped again on the port’s dime a few years later.
The port has hired a contractor to do the clearcutting, which should start at the end of January or beginning of February. No machinery will be operated within the wetlands. Slow growing Western Hemlocks will be planted in the Douglas Firs’ place to recreate a forest that will not become an obstruction in years to come. Since the wetland will be essentially undamaged, the environmental impact statement for the project does not include anything about stormwater runoff into Griffin Bay nor does it require any wetland mitigation.
“This isn’t something we want to do,” Nicholson said. “It’s something we have to do. If we don’t, the FAA will turn off our instrument approach and they don’t have to give us any notice.”
The instrument approach enables local commercial companies to operate, and without it, the terminal would only be operational for private charters and plane owners. Commercial flights out of Friday Harbor would be on seaplanes only.
Although it is an FAA requirement, there is no recourse through the FAA. Nicholson said individuals who are concerned about projects such as this and wish to present other alternatives need to talk with members of the port commission. The port attempted to reach out to the public and held several meetings but not many people have attended.
“I think public notices just get lost,” said Nicholson, who voiced concern that the public is not fully aware of the project.
In one last-ditch effort, the port will hold an informational session at its next regular meeting, currently scheduled for 4 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 10 at the Spring Street Landing building, at 10 Front Street, suite 105, below Downriggers. The location may change, so check the port’s website.
“We really want people to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it,” Nicholson said.
For more information and to sign up for port meeting alerts, visit www.portfridayharbor.org.