Nanwalek-Port Graham airport plan moving forward — slowly

With the release last month of an environmental assessment, planning has moved forward for a new airstrip to serve the lower Cook Inlet villages of Nanwalek and Port Graham — the main transportation connection between them and Homer and the road system. 

The two Alaska Native villages now have separate airstrips, but because of safety concerns, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities proposes building one new airstrip between the two communities on English Bay south of Seldovia.

“We’re starting to embrace it more,” said Chief John Kvasnikoff of the Nanwalek Village Council about the proposed shared airport. 

He said the new airport would be helpful for medical flights and delivering goods critical to the village. Kvasnikoff said he had a close call with a plane crash to Nanwalek years ago.

Today, DOT&PF officials hold a community meeting to discuss and take public comment on the environmental assessment from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at the Port Graham Community Center. A similar meeting was held Wednesday in Nanwalek.

The environmental assessment is needed to move into the next stage of the airport design and construction — acquiring land and right of way, said Morgan Merritt, project manager in the aviation design section of DOT&PF. Once right of way is acquired and funding obtained, construction could start, possibly in 2017 or 2018.

The project involves purchasing right of way from about seven or eight Native allotments in the area. Chugachmiut, the nonprofit corporation of the Chugach Corp., has been designated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the group to represent Native allotment holders in negotiating with the state over rights of way. The state will be cautious and considerate in negotiations, said Rick Feller, a DOT&PF spokesperson.

“Our knowledge and experience tells us that in these acquisitions, the procedure involved in perfecting the acquisition takes more time,” he said.

Merritt said it could be two or three years before right of way is negotiated and purchased. Although allotments were issued to single individuals, because some original allotment holders have died, those allotments involve large groups of family members. Under state and federal law, fair market value must be paid. 

“I hope they get the best deal instead of them having it being ‘take it or leave it,’” Kvasnikoff said.

This summer, crews will do more survey and testing of the site to determine the exact road and runway location. Merritt said planners want to make sure they have sufficient right of way identified as they go into negotiations.

The proposed Nanwalek-Port Graham Airport is estimated to cost $40 million, including construction of a new 3.5-mile gravel road, a 3,900-foot-by-120-foot runway, an airplane parking apron and a shed for maintenance equipment. It will be about a mile from Port Graham and 2.5 miles from Nanwalek. The runway roughly parallels a ridge north of the English Bay River valley. Merritt said engineers chose a site as close to Nanwalek as possible. Earlier, the state had considered six other sites closer to the village.

“The terrain and wind pattern has made it almost impossible to find a useful site under FAA standards on the Nanwalek side,” Merritt said.

“It’s in a good spot,” Kvasnikoff said. “It would be nice if it’s a little bit closer to us. We wouldn’t have to travel so far.”

The 3,900-foot runway would be an Airport Reference Code-I airport that could handle airplanes with an approach speed of less than 91 knots and wingspans up to 40 feet. 

Homer Air and Smokey Bay Air, two Homer-based air taxi operators, serve Nanwalek and Port Graham. This winter, the Spartan 151 jack-up rig was anchored in Port Graham, bringing more business to Smokey Bay Air, said Andy Smircich, director of operations. Smokey Bay flies one scheduled flight a day on the Homer-Seldovia-Nanwalek-Port Graham route, but often five flights a day. He said Smokey Bay welcomed the new airport.

“If they built it, it would definitely be good,” he said. “It would be nice to have a long, open airstrip with no obstacles at either end.”

Merritt said that it’s not uncommon for village airstrips to be a few miles from settled areas. For safety reasons, DOTP&F needs airstrips to be away from buildings, sewer lagoons and landfills, which can attract flocking birds. 

The Port Graham Village Council has gone on record as supporting the project, Merritt said. The state is looking for support from the Nanwalek Village Council.

“We’re hoping they will do so with this environmental document,” he said.

Village support will be helpful in getting funding, Merritt said.

The environmental assessment looks at issues like fish, wildlife and plants, cultural resources, hydrology and geology, socio-economic conditions and air quality. 

Kvasnikoff said he didn’t see any major environmental issues on the Nanwalek side, although he thought there might be some issues with the Port Graham watershed.

“From what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t look to be any kind of environmental hazards yet,” he said. “You could find out later.”

Merritt said the purpose of the community meetings and a call for comments is to get more information about the environmental assessment. The state welcomes more information, he said.

“Things that for some reason we may not be aware of,” he said. “Just anything that’s relevant we’d want to hear from them about it.”

The driving force in building a new airport is safety. 

“The project’s intent is to determine the best way to provide safe, efficient and reliable service to the villages,” Feller said.

The Nanwalek airstrip in particular has had several crashes, including a July 2003 crash that killed a Smokey Bay Air pilot after his Cessna 206 plane went into the water after an aborted landing. The Nanwalek airstrip is along the coast, with a hill at one end that requires a turn to Cook Inlet on takeoff. The airstrip also can wash out from storms. Merritt said an ongoing concern with the Nanwalek airstrip is a local supply of gravel to repair the airstrip.

The Nanwalek and Port Graham airstrips will remain open until the new strip is built. If a new runway isn’t built, the old strips will remain open. 

“There is no plan at this time to close either of those facilities, other than the preferred alternative to build a new one and close the old ones,” Merritt said.

Kvasnikoff said he while some Nanwalek residents oppose the shared airport, most people are OK with it and support the project. He said the village appreciates being included in discussions and not being left out.

“We’re trying to look ahead for many years,” Kvasnikoff said. “I want something to be there for our kids and their kids that will benefit both the villages.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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