In Eagle River, a trail traces the South Fork valley from the edges of suburbia to the mouth of a mountain wilderness studded with milky, glacier-fed lakes.
For hikers and berry-pickers, the South Fork Trail has long been a beloved access point to Chugach State Park. On summer weekends, the parking lot is full.
So last summer, when visitors found an excavator churning earth and uprooting vegetation on the first few miles of trail as part of a "realignment project" by the state parks department, the response from users was immediate, and not happy.
"People said, 'Holy mackerel, they built a road out there,' " Blaine Smith, trails planner for Chugach State Park said.
The result was a gash across the landscape that even park officials agreed looked more like a crude logging road than a hiking trail.
Handwritten protests were taped to a bulletin board at the trail head and the South Fork Community Council wrote a biting letter to several state agencies outlining its members' discontent.
"The new trail does permanent damage . . . by creating a permanent visible scar on the landscape," the letter said.
This summer, the park will spend another $80,000 to $100,000 in federal grant money and general operating funds to fix the trail with human crews working by hand. Park officials insist that the re-vegetation work, which will narrow the trail from about 70 to 40 inches wide and make it look less like a road, was part of the plan all along.
As state and federal parks budgets are squeezed, park officials say, more motorized trail work is likely to occur.
"It is probably a harbinger of the future," said Smith, who heads Chugach State Park's trails division. "Yes, it made a big thing we're going to have to rehab," he said. "That's bad. But it was quicker and cheaper."
The idea, Smith said, was to save the trail from erosion and water damage by realigning it.
The $150,000 spent last summer for trail improvements originally came from a legislative appropriation, according to the South Fork Community Council. The community thought, according to a letter to the Department of Parks and Outdoor Recreation last October, the money was to be used to fix muddy spots on the trail.
What they saw at the end of the summer went well beyond that.
"Some trust was lost," said Lora Reinbold, a South Fork valley resident who is running for a state House office and who has long been involved with trails issues. "We weren't given enough information."
Some were angry that the old trail, which seemed mostly fine to them, was abandoned.
"The fact that an expensive new trail was constructed near to and parallel to the satisfactory and desirable existing trail seems incomprehensible," the letter said.
The park is trying to make things right, Reinbold said.
At a South Fork Community Council meeting held at Eagle River High School earlier this month attended by about 25 people, Smith acknowledged that things hadn't gone as planned.
"We've taken the first steps and we've fallen over," he told the group. "We are in our infancy with this."
The way the trail looked at the end of last summer wasn't the way it was intended to, said Tom Harrison, superintendent of Chugach State Park.
But the park always knew it would go back and spend more money to fix up the trail's appearance this summer, he said. That is still cheaper than doing the whole thing by hand.
But some, like Adrienne Lindholm, a National Park Service employee, former Chugach State Park advisory board member and longtime neighbor of the trail, say the damage is done.
The old trail was a narrow dirt path winding through trees and tundra. The new trail is flat, wide, straight and will be covered in gravel.
"They are not going to recreate the sense of place and that type of experience that existed," she said.
Part of the frustration is over "sustainable design" -- a set of principles the park is trying to apply to all of its trail construction and rehabilitation projects. The basic idea is to work with water conditions rather than fight them, Harrison said.
And there's another, more controversial component of such trail changes: ease of access and use often means more users, more damage, more litter and more parking problems. That's not always popular with long-time users, Harrison said.
On a basic level, Smith said, people don't like to see change, especially in beloved wild places, but it's coming.
"Our state park is not the way it used to be, and it's not the way it's going to be," he said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News