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Nearly 1,000 acres next to Palmer Hay Flats protected by land purchase

Zaz Hollander
A donation from the Great Land Trust has added nearly 1,000 acres of protected wetlands to the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge near Wasilla.
Carl Johnson
A donation from the Great Land Trust has added nearly 1,000 acres of protected wetlands to the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge near Wasilla.
Carl Johnson

WASILLA -- A donation from the Great Land Trust has added nearly 1,000 acres of public land to the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge, a popular recreation destination along Knik Arm.

The private nonprofit fundraised $1.5 million over three years and bought 917 acres next to the 45-square-mile refuge near Wasilla.

In December, the Trust transferred the parcel to the state to manage as part of the refuge.

Plans for the new parcel call for a short loop and a four-mile trail plus new access points into the 28,000-acre refuge for users, among them residents of the booming subdivisions near Machetanz Elementary School.

Developer Rex Turner sold the land to the Trust for about $1 million, according to the group's executive director, Phil Shephard.

Turner was out of the country and didn't return a call for comment Thursday.

The property transfer was greeted with relief by Alaskans for Palmer Hay Flats, the nonprofit created to combat dumping and vandalism in the refuge, but now focused on conservation and education.

"We're delighted," said Terri Reynolds-Rogers, the group's executive director. "This is a property that's been of a lot of concern to us for a lot of years because we were afraid that it was going to be sold off for residential development."

The refuge, with views over to Pioneer Peak and the Chugach Mountains, draws a wide range of users from skiers, anglers and bird-dog trainers, to hunters, trappers and snowmachiners. Grasslands, forests, and marshy channels that rise and fall with the tide are home to waterfowl, migratory shore birds, moose and salmon.

The Trust, a private nonprofit that buys private land for conservation around Southcentral Alaska, looked at 100,000 privately-owned parcels across the Mat-Su, Shephard said. "This parcel ranked number one."

He credited its location next to the refuge, ample wetlands and salmon habitat.

Until now, state ownership along the refuge's northern side gave way to private land that blocked entry to an already hard-to-access place that's swampy in summer and surrounded by water on one side.

"This was a very high priority parcel for us," said refuge manager Joe Meehan, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "We, over the years, referred to this parcel and a couple other small ones adjacent to it as the 'donut hole.' If you looked at a map of the Palmer Hay Flats Refuge there was a big hole in the middle of it."

The new parcel will add two places where the public can enter the refuge from Nelson Road, which runs along a bluff that skirts the flats where the refuge is located.

One access is open to the public now. Another one, less than a mile away and across from the school, still needs more work; the area is part of subdivision construction right now.

Dan Roche and his Golden retriever, Jake, got ready for a walk at the new access on Thursday.

Roche previously got permission to cut across the property courtesy of an agreement with Turner, he said.

Until now, the retired heavy equipment operator met little company in the dense birch forest leading to the refuge. He joked about the hoards soon to descend now that it's in public hands.

"We left Eagle River in 1984 because they put in a stoplight," Roche said. "Progress has been chasing us for years. It's not a bad thing."

The new parcel will be managed by Fish and Game as if it were part of the refuge, but it won't be unless the Legislature formally approves a boundary change, Meehan said.

Everything that's allowed on the refuge will be allowed there: hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, snowmachines, skiing.

"Whereas before it was private property, and if the property owner wanted, he could have prohibited people from doing anything on that land," Meehan said.

The Trust can access funding sources that aren't available to municipal or state governments, Shephard said. Other projects in the region include the 60-acre Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area, operated as a park by the Municipality of Anchorage.

The $1.5 million spent on the Wasilla parcel for land acquisition and hiking trails came from numerous sources including more than $850,000 from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national coastal wetland grant program, he said. Other funds came from funds paid to the state by duck hunters, The Bullitt Foundation, Pacific Coast Joint Venture, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and numerous individual donors.

The group still needs to buy another 58 acres to build the trail. That phase of the project is being held up by questions about where the Trunk Road extension project will tie into Nelson Road, Shephard said.

It will take two seasons to build the trail that's expected to include bridges and short boardwalks, he said.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com