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PROVO BIRDWATCHERS QUESTION PLAN FOR AIRPORT EXPANSION INTO WETLANDS

A plan to create wetlands in south Provo to replace those consumed in the Provo Municipal Airport runway extension project is drawing criticism from local birdwatchers and scientists.

Lengthening the airstrip will affect 60 acres of wildlife habitat and vegetation on the shores of Utah Lake and Provo Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers labeled the acreage as "low-value" wetlands. The area is home to 200 bird species, the endangered June sucker and a wide variety of plants.The Federal Aviation Administration and Provo City plan to extend the airport's primary runway 1,509 feet to the northwest, toward Utah Lake State Park. Safety zones measuring 1,000 feet by 500 feet will be added to both ends of the strip.

The city intends to mitigate the loss of wetlands by protecting, restoring and enhancing 146.6 acres of wetland and upland habitat south of the East Bay Golf Course.

But a Brigham Young University botany and range science professor says land along the lake is valuable habitat.

"I'd submit that it's anything but low-grade marsh," Kimball Harper said Wednesday at a Mount Timpanogos Audubon Society meeting. "We ought to strive in every way we can to ensure that resource is conserved."

Brooks Carter, Army Corps of Engineers regulatory chief in Salt Lake City, said the "low-value" land designation doesn't mean it's not worth saving.

"When we looked at the mitigation, we didn't say this is an area of no importance," he said, adding that Provo Bay will remain intact. "It's not our intent to see that whole bay out there disappear."

The $5 million construction project will take a toll on wildlife habitat. "We will mitigate some, but not 100 percent. We will lose some habitat we don't know how to preserve," Harper said.

Merrill Webb, a Provo High School science teacher, isn't satisfied that the proposed mitigation area south of the golf course will become a good wildlife habitat. The water source is irregular, and there's potential for pollution from nearby industry.

"There are very few birds that use that area anymore," said Webb, who has tracked the birds most of the year. "There's not the numbers and there's not the di-vers-ity."

Carter said the land has the potential to be a fine bird refuge. The mitigation plan calls for it to become an education center. It will include a observation area, walking paths and a parking lot.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which initially opposed the runway extension project, negotiated for $50,000 from the FAA to propagate the endangered June suck-er.

Fish and Wildlife officer Bob Freeman said the money will be used to create a June sucker hatchery, possibly in Springville. Fish eventually be transplanted to the lake. "Maybe the June sucker can make a comeback in Utah Lake," he said.

Lillian Hayes, membership chairwoman of the Mount Timpanogos Audubon Society, wrote the Army Corps of Engineers requesting it rescind the airport's project permit because impact to wetlands will be greater than anticipated.

Carter told the audubon society Wednesday that he's willing to re-evaluate the mitigation plan if it doesn't work. "If we need to redefine that, we'll redefine it," he said.

Provo City plans to open bids Wednesday for the mitigation project. The city still is trying to buy farmland around the airport from a dozen property owners. If an agreement can't be reached, the city likely will condemn the land and buy it using the power of eminent domain.