Schandelmeier column: Is plowing Denali Park road in winter a good idea?

October 25, 2012 

Is Denali Park for sale? I think not, but it has come to my attention that there is a proposal being discussed that would have the park road plowed as far as Mile 12 during the winter.

This was requested by a Fairbanks tourism group and "other government entities.'' Seems a private enterprise wants to bring some winter tourists into the park to see what they can see.

I remember a few years back, maybe it was 2005 or 2006, when there was a controversy over whether snowmobiles would be allowed to use the park road in winter. I know the discussion went around and around, but in the end, it was no to motorized traffic.

Denali Park has a back-country management plan signed in 2006. This not only put a quash on snowmobile use. It also stated: "Denali will retain its unique status that offers an undeveloped Alaskan wilderness park experience distinct from the wilderness and park experience in other states."

Hmm.

The plan goes on to say the park service will seek to provide recreational activities compatible with these values and leave the more common commercial services to the areas outside the park.

I can remember back to the early 1970s when we could drive into Mt. McKinley Park. The decision to stop private traffic and replace personal vehicles with bus traffic was quite unpopular. I was opposed to it.

Forty years later, I would say that decision was excellent and forward-thinking. It has kept the wilderness character of our park intact to a large degree.

This summer the park service discussed allowing fewer buses to keep the vehicle spacing to at least 10 minutes. Whether that's a good idea isn't really the point, but rather that there is an awareness by the park service of the need to protect the relative solitude of Denali while still allowing for maximum use.

The proposal to keep the first few miles of the road open surfaced early last year and there was a public scoping/comment period. The park service is now preparing an environmental assessment that is about a month away from public comment.

The EA will likely discuss three options: keeping the road open for a designated period, plowing all winter, or leaving things as they are now.

Hopefully costs will also be addressed. After all, it is our park, so you and I will pay for the plow truck.

Denali gets 10 bucks a head for park users, but I'm don't know how many people are going to drive 130 miles to drive on a dozen miles of park road. Bring your sleeping bag, peanut butter, and Pilot bread, because there are no services in the park.

Denali National Park is definitely under-utilized during our long winters. Spring sees a few dog teams and an occasional back-country skier. The reason is not just the relative remoteness, but the fact that there are no services.

Winter recreationalists need to bring their own shelter and carry their own food. Maybe instead of plowing a bit of park road, might it be more beneficial to find a concessionaire who might be interested in transporting a few tents and some food caches into the park? There are already bear-proof food cache containers at various locations along the park road where supplies could be left.

Whatever is decided regarding winter use of Denali National Park, the process should include heavy input from Alaskans. The tourism crowd is at the park for four short months, but the rest of us have the opportunity to experience Denali the entire year.

When the EA comes out and opens for comment, be aware and make your voice heard. Find it on the web at parkplanning.nps.gov or call Paula Homan at 907-683-6223.


John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson and commercial fishes in Bristol Bay. He is a two-time champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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