Trees are nature’s buffer from wind and blowing snow, so when Fort Greely clear-cut a large swath of trees near the Richardson Highway, locals knew trouble lay ahead.
Drivers heading to Fort Greely on Tuesday morning were in battle with Mother Nature for road rights. Drifts, some nearly two feet high, spanned the Richardson Highway between Allen Army Airfield and the main gate, while blowing snowing greatly reduced visibility. It wasn’t long before comments appeared on Facebook pages warning drivers about the hazardous drive and wondering when Fort Greely was going to take action.
“Be careful driving to Greely,” read one Facebook post. “Nasty drifts and blowing snow.”
“We knew this was going to happen when they cleared those trees,” was the general theme of replies to the post.
A rash of accidents on the Delta-to-Fairbanks portion of the Richardson Highway last week led to pleas on Facebook from state officials for motorists not to drive that section of road unless absolutely necessary.
Local drivers understand the issues with that stretch of road being near the Tanana River, but they feel the drifting and blowing conditions near Fort Greely were preventable. And if the federal government feels otherwise, sentiment is that they need to do something about the situation.
Dennis Bishop, Alaska Department of Transportation superintendent for the Tok District, admitted he foresaw the problem, especially when he noticed trees left standing in cleared areas of the right-of-way.
“Robert Hanson, Delta’s DOT foreman, was asked to come to a meeting last summer where he was told about the clearing,” said Bishop. “He warned them it would create hazardous road conditions, but they effectively told him it was his problem. And when I saw the trees in the right-of-way, I knew the problem would be magnified.”
Bishop said he was told trees remaining standing were to mark the power lines until they could work with Golden Valley Electric Association to mark the lines with orange balls attached to lines.
“The problem is the few trees are capturing the snow, magnifying the drifting problem,” explained Bishop. “Lots of trees are great – they block the wind and snow. Just a few – not so great, as they catch what is blowing up behind them.”
According to Fort Greely, “The tree and vegetation removal was mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Army in order to meet stringent requirements on what is allowed within the first 3,000 feet of a runway. To comply with these requirements, the vegetation in and around the airfield was cleared. The sole purpose of the tree/vegetation removal is for the safety of aircraft, its personnel, and the safety of the public with specific regard to in-flight obstacles.”
While the federal government is working with GVEA on marking the power lines, the Delta DOT&PF road clearing crew continues to devote inordinate amounts of time maintaining the small stretch of road. Bishop said snow fences are not an option, as FAA and military rules stipulate nothing can be in the flight line. But even with the trees removed, blowing snow will still create a visibility problem, and some drifting will still be expected.
The section of the road is scheduled for reconstruction in 2015, and Bishop said the state is taking all that into consideration.
“They will be working on ditching to help catch the blowing snow,” said Bishop. “We do have a new airport manager on Allen Army Airfield willing to work with us, so hopefully we can alleviate some of the problem.”
In the meantime, Fort Greely cautions motorists that “like many other areas in Alaska and on the Richardson Highway, travelers should be prepared for extreme driving conditions and drive with utmost caution.”