Not far from Anchorage is a place that is rich in wildlife, with an abundance of public lands perfect for quiet recreation and family outings. Yet few venture there because of its reputation as a lawless place dominated by young men with guns.
Each spring and fall thousands of swans descend on the lakes, marshes and sloughs that lie at the heart of the Knik River Public Use Area, justifying the designation as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. The Jim Creek complex hosts one of the latest runs of salmon in Southcentral Alaska, with fish spawning on the spring-fed shores of Mud and Jim lakes into November and attracting hundreds of bald eagles. The cliffs to the north of Jim Creek rise 6,000 feet to ridges that support nesting golden eagles and large herds of Dall sheep.
Four major lakes are connected by a network of creeks and sloughs to form a recreational playground that offers some of the finest canoeing and ice skating in Alaska. Easy trails lead to spectacular vistas and harder scrambles lead to the highest summits above. All of this is less than 15 minutes from downtown Palmer and accessible in most seasons by a standard family SUV.
What keeps most people away from this public treasure is young men with guns. The Department of Natural Resources has designated a shooting range at the base of the cliffs near Mud Lake. These cliffs act as a natural amplifier with the sound of gunfire echoing off this wall, audible for miles around. The access road to Jim Lake passes within fifty feet of the shooting range, forcing families to run a gauntlet to pass young men armed with guns and alcohol. The shooting range is littered with spent shells, beer bottles, and millions of lead bullets in the surrounding trees and soil.
Of course the shooting is not confined to the designated target range as evidenced by the bullet-ridden signs and broken beer bottle targets everywhere. I have encountered young men with guns shooting spawning salmon, I have found wildlife maimed and killed by young men with guns, and I have had bullets whiz past me fired by young men with guns.
Over the past few years the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Friends of Palmer Hay Flats have done a commendable job of closing and cleaning up two other "Rambo ranges" at Cottonwood Creek and Reflections Lake. Part of the effort involved removing lead-contaminated soil from a shooting range much like the one now sanctioned by the state at Jim Creek. These places used to be like Jim Creek, given over to the lawlessness of young men with guns. But now these are family-friendly spots that on any given days draw crowds to admire the quiet scenery and amazing wildlife.
Things are getting better at Jim Creek, thanks to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, the Alaska State Troopers and a growing number of people who refuse to be intimidated by young men with guns.
The next step is for the state to close the Mud Lake shooting range. There is no good reason to give over our public areas to what amounts to land abuse. There are plenty of shooting ranges in Southcentral Alaska that are safe, clean and well-managed. Closing the shooting range would make visitors feel safe and welcome, eliminate a major source of environmental degradation and give this spectacular area the respect it deserves.
These are our public lands and we want them back.
Brad Meiklejohn has been exploring Alaska's wilderness, including Jim Creek, for the last 20 years.
By BRAD MEIKLEJOHN