FINDING THE LINE

Three huge backhoes work toward clearing the main railroad line of snow at about 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday after Monday afternoon’s 70-degree temperature brought down a 70-foot-deep avalanche near Glacier.

Photo courtesy of Wayne Perry and Mark Schaefer of WP&YR and Temsco Helicopters

Late spring slide cuts loose up WP&YR
Avalanche hits flat cars, line shut for a day

By JEFF BRADY
Dealing with avalanches on the WP&YR is a normal part of opening the line every April, but it’s rare that one will rumble down in late May after the season has started.
Last Monday, May 22, as the final summit train of the day had just started heading back to Skagway, the engineer looked down from the “High Line” across the valley toward Glacier Station and saw that a massive snowslide had come down.
It measured 350 feet wide and was 70 feet high at its deepest point, inspection crews reported later.
The slide occurred at about 6:10 p.m., approximately 22 minutes before that last train was due to pass Glacier, said WP&YR President Gary Danielson, adding that the slide hit a string of flat cars parked on the siding track, just north of the south switch.
“We’re thankful there were no injuries,” Danielson said. “It brought down a lot of trees and debris.”
Danielson said the four flat cars contained materials for the U.S. Forest Service to rebuild the Laughton Glacier Trail this summer.
After spotting the slide, the engine crew stopped the train, called the dispatcher, and a decision was made to back up all the way to Fraser, where motorcoaches were mustered from Skagway to move the 91 cruise passengers back to town.
Amazingly, the visitors got back to their ships close to schedule, and the Vision of the Seas and Zaandam left within an hour of their scheduled departure times.
But the big work was about to begin.
A work train was assembled with every available big backhoe in town. It headed up to the site at about 7 p.m., Danielson said, and the crews worked all night.
Although they were able to get the main line cleared by 10 a.m. on Tuesday, a decision was made to cancel the day’s trains to allow the crew more time to clean up around the entire area, and do more avalanche inspection.
The railroad lost revenue from two roundtrip Fraser trains and seven summit excursions on Tuesday, but was open for business on Wednesday.
“Thanks to the fast action of Ed Hanousek (roadmaster), John Mielke (superintendent), Beth Cline (passenger services), and our working train crews and maintenance of way crews for a job well done,” Danielson said.
Backcountry avalanche warnings had been issued across Alaska as the first warm temperatures of the season melted the heavy late spring snow packs.
“It was our first really warm day,” Danielson said. The temperature Monday crept past 70 degrees F for the first time this year. A smaller slide had come down earlier in the day but had not reached the tracks, crews reported. The railroad will continue to send up track patrols in the early morning and evenings, and train crews are always “on the lookout,” Danielson said.
Ron Marvin of USFS said the cars contained mostly gravel, and the trail project should be able to go ahead as planned.

Lethal chytrid fungus found in Dyea toads
First discovery in Alaska could explain regionwide decline

Last summer, National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey researchers tested nine western toads for the chytrid (kit-rid) fungus in the Dyea area of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and five tested positive for the potentially lethal fungus, according to a press release issued May 16.
Detection of the chytrid fungus in western toads in KGRNHP is the first diagnosis in a toad in Alaska. A dead wood frog infected with the chytrid fungus was discovered on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska in 2002.
Once considered widespread and abundant in Southeast Alaska, western toads are considerably less common today than they were 20 years ago, say many area residents. Retired NPS trail crew leader Jerry Watson recalls that toads were once so thick along the Chilkoot Trail that he and his crew could not avoid stepping on some of the thousands of metamorphing toads that blanketed portions of the trail each summer.
For unknown reasons, western toads (the park’s only amphibian) appear to have undergone sharp population declines not only in Klondike but throughout Southeast Alaska’s coastal rainforests. Well documented amphibian die-offs, malformations, and apparent extinctions worldwide coupled with local knowledge of declining populations prompted KGRNHP to begin studying western toads in 2003. Extensive surveys of potential breeding sites over two summers by park researchers yielded observations of tadpoles at only six of the more than 39 sites visited. In 2005 the park began working with the USGS to link park-level efforts with a major national initiative to monitor trends in amphibian populations and investigate causes of declines.
Amphibian population declines have been attributed to multiple factors working in consort including habitat loss, exotic species, UV-B radiation, contaminants, disease and climate change. Chytridiomycosis, an infectious amphibian disease caused by a chytrid fungus, was first identified in 1998 by an international team of scientists from Australia, the United States and Great Britain. The disease has been implicated in mass amphibian die-offs and species extinctions in pristine areas of Central America and Australia, and is considered a probable cause of precipitous boreal toad (a sub-species of the western toad) declines in Colorado. The chytrid fungus has been responsible for sporadic deaths in some species and 100 percent mortality in others. Recent studies in tropical areas of Australia suggest that the survivors of severe chytrid-driven population crashes may be resistant to the lethal effects of the disease and function as carriers, the release stated.
Chytrid fungus damages the keratin layer of the skin, impairing the toad’s ability to breathe and absorb water. Live toads show few clinical signs of the disease, but some may appear weak or lethargic, exhibit excessive shedding of skin and may be reluctant to flee at the approach of humans. Toads, as opposed to more aquatic amphibians such as salamanders, may be more susceptible to the disease as they have a limited area of skin over which to uptake water (i.e., the abdomen). Chytrid fungus is likely transferred by direct contact between infected animals or through exposure to infected water.

Nate Chelgren of the U.S. Geological Survey swabs a juvenile toad in Dyea last summer. National Park Service

The origin of the fungus is uncertain but evidence suggests it originated in Africa and was transported worldwide through the international trade in African clawed frogs beginning in the 1930s. Retrospective studies of archived specimens have enabled scientists to establish a timeline for the introduction and spread of chytrid in some areas.
A non-destructive Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique was used to test for chytrid fungus in western toads in KGRNHP. After the skin of the abdomen and/or foot webbing of each toad was swabbed 25 times with a sterile cotton swab, the toad was released unharmed. The samples were then sealed and sent to the USGS lab and analyzed for the presence of chytrid DNA. To prevent the spread of chytrid and other potential disease risks for western toads, the NPS and USGS follow strict disease prevention protocols in the field which include disinfecting all footwear and equipment before and between pond visits.
To help stop the spread of the chytrid fungus, these same precautions should be taken by anyone visiting amphibian breeding ponds in the wild and the handling of toads should be avoided whenever possible, said project coordinator Meg Hahr.
“We are using a variety of techniques to monitor western toad populations in the park, including annual breeding habitat assessments, capture-recapture techniques and chytrid fungus tests,” said Hahr. “Over time, we will estimate the size of the adult breeding population, document timing and success of reproduction, and investigate toad movements and habitat use within the park.”
The park, following the recent state land swap, now owns some of the “pollywog ponds” between the Dyea campground and the trailhead. Ropes and signs keeping people out of the ponds were erected the past two summers at the urging of the Dyea Community Advisory Board, and those signs will continue to be maintained by NPS. An old road into the area is being allowed to become overgrown, said Chief Ranger Reed McCluskey.
Information about western toad movements between seasonally important habitats can be important to park managers in their efforts to maintain suitable habitat for healthy populations. This long-term study will improve understanding of the importance of environmental factors such as water levels, temperature, vegetation and water chemistry on western toads. Through a partnership with the Canadian Government, the park is hoping to learn more about trans-pacific transport of air pollutants such as mercury that have been implicated in the disappearance of amphibians in other protected areas including Acadia National Park.
This summer, the NPS and USGS will continue testing western toads for the chytrid fungus in order to better understand the distribution of the pathogen, the infection rate within populations, and the role of the disease in toad population dynamics.
Could the decline have been caused by increased visitation to the park and trail, or is this just a natural or regional phenomena?
“That is a really good question,” Hahr replied, “but given the lack of long-term monitoring and research on western toads in the park/Skagway, we would be hypothesizing if we were to try and answer that question. Many factors have been implicated in amphibian declines worldwide - habitat loss, disease, invasive species, climate change, etc. It may not be one factor but several working together that is causing these declines. There is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence from communities throughout Southeast Alaska (Haines, Juneau, etc.) to suggest there has been a regional decline of western toads in the past 15 years or so.”
Hahr and her partner, Sidney Shaw, the former local mental health counselor, recently moved to Seward after four years in Skagway. They were sad to leave, she said, but she could not pass up an opportunity to become the chief ecologist at Kenai Fjords National Park. Shaw is now working as a counselor in Seward at Seaview Community Services.
Hahr will remain involved in the toad project until her replacement is found, she said. Seasonal biological technician Kevin Payne, who has been here the past three summers, will coordinate the field work.

Public supports improvements on Dyea Flats, not a closure

By JEFF BRADY
Recent suggestions at meetings and in the media that the Dyea Flats might have to be closed to vehicle traffic drew a big crowd for the May 18 City Council meeting.
No one wanted a closure, but there were plenty of suggestions for how to improve conditions on the flats, from graveling the good roads to having better signage to keep vehicles from tearing up the flats.
John McDermott, chairman of the Dyea Community Advisory Board, said the flats were “in terrible shape” after campers went “mud-bogging” over the long Easter weekend last month. Campers also cut trees near the city campground, which is unregulated. McDermott said signage and a kiosk at the entrance to the flats are desperately needed.
Several in the audience then stepped up to the mike and said the suggestion of a closure ran counter to the city’s original purpose for acquiring the flats from the state several years ago.
“I don’t see how you can close it off for the recreational use it was meant to be,” said Luke Whitehead.
Long-time beachcomber Barb Kalen and bike tour operator Thom Ely said the flats are meant for all users. “It’s where I learned how to drive,” added Ken Mayo.
Robert Murphy, who owns property adjacent to the flats for his tour operation, said the flats always look terrible in April. “This happens every spring,” he said, but the late winter and big tides kept the grass from growing at its usual pace.
“We’ve used the flats for 100 years…” he added. “This is not trashed. In two weeks, when the grass grows up, you won’t see (the tire tracks).”
Mayor Tim Bourcy opened discussion at the Council table with an apology. “I’m the guy who stirred the pot on this,” he said, when he told the Council that the city is obligated to the state from a 1996 agreement to protect historic resources on the flats.
“I took the radical approach (of suggesting a closure) to raise awareness,” he said, knowing it would be hotly contested, but adding that it was important that the community “meet the obligation we made to the state.” Bourcy assured the audience that everyone at the table “was of a like mind – we want access to recreate.”
But the agreement with the state says all improvements must go before the Office of History and Preservation. City Manager Bob Ward said the city believes it can gravel existing roads, but putting in a new parking lot might require more scrutiny. He was able to find about $30,000 in “an already bruised” existing budget for gravel and some signage.
Councilmember Lisa Cassidy said road improvements and signage are needed to direct people. Members voted unanimously to spend the money this spring, and the Dyea Community Advisory Board took a field trip on the flats this Thursday to mark which roads need gravel and which should be closed, based on a 1996 map.

$3.371 million city budget presented

A $3.371 million operating budget for FY 2007 was introduced at a special meeting of the Skagway City Council on May 11.
Due to a decrease in equipment purchases, the proposed budget is slightly lower than the $3.614 million budgeted for the current fiscal year, reported City Manager Bob Ward. However, a slight increase in the mill rate has been proposed for all service areas. Service Area 1 would see an increase from 8.54 to 8.91 mills.
The underfunded PERS/TRS obligations that all cities are dealing with, plus increased fuel costs, are having an impact. The Legislature provided some relief before it adjourned, but the governor could still veto some provisions like the community dividend if he doesn’t get his oil tax bill passed in the special session.
Mayor Tim Bourcy reiterated that he wanted to see a “hold the line” budget, and said that if Council puts more money in, then he will find areas to take money out.
First reading passed unanimously, but the budget picture could change over the next few weeks. Council and departments began fine-tuning their budgets in work sessions last week, and they will continue through June 6. Second and third readings of the budget will be held later in June.
The only public input came from former Councilmember Colette Hisman, who questioned an increase to $95,000 for the Skagway Development Council, when it was supposed to be self-sufficient by now.
For the third straight year, it looks as though Council will help fund the clinic through sales tax proceeds. At its May 18 regular meeting, Council passed first reading of an ordinance that allows sales tax proceeds to be used for medical service delivery for another year, in addition to general obligation bonds and school funding.
The proposed city contribution to the clinic is $475,223, compared with $281,130 for the current year.
“Expenses are not up too much in this (clinic) budget, but we have been overly optimistic regarding service charges revenue,” Ward reported. “Not only do we not have the volume we anticipated, but we still are having some issues with collecting the money we do bill.”
Mayor Bourcy warned that “one of these days we are going to pay the piper with this ordinance,” but Councilmember Dave Hunz defended the use of sales tax proceeds for city expenses on impacts from the tourist industry, the main source of the revenue. “That is how we are paying for it, by buying down the mill rate,” Hunz said.
The clinic budget will be discussed in detail at a Health, Education and Welfare Committee work session on June 6.
The sales tax budget also sets aside $1.5 million toward a match for building a new clinic, but not much else. Several trail and park projects have already been removed.
An increase in the school budget also is drawing some scrutiny. Mayor Bourcy had asked the school board to trim its budget by $58,000. The City Council and School Board met in a joint work session May 24 as this issue was getting ready to go to press. – JB

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

SOAP & SPRAY DOWN

Members of the Skagway Volunteer Fire Department scrub the editor’s truck during the annual car wash and barbecue last weekend. Final rinse was provided by pumper trucks on either side of 5th Ave. Jeff Brady

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