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Old battle scars revealed in Anchorage trail planning tussle

Bill Sherwonit
Loren Holmes photo

Though I continue to love hiking in the nearby Chugach Mountains, and occasionally still go on longer forays into Alaska's more remote wilderness areas, it's fair to say that in my late 50s and now early 60s I have become something of a dedicated urban walker.

Partly that's because I now live in west Anchorage, farther from our city's "backyard wilderness," Chugach State Park. I've also cut back on my driving, in an effort to be a more Earth-friendly guy. And I now have a canine companion who, like me, has entered her elder years. Especially in winter, it's become much easier for Coya and me to go on walks along the Coastal Trail, rather than to head up into the hills (which we sometimes still do, just not as often). Once the snow is sufficiently gone, we mix our Coastal Trail outings with hikes in Kincaid Park, whose wealth of trails—and abundance of wildlife—I've come to greatly enjoy, even cherish. Now and then we'll circumnavigate Lakes Hood and Spenard, or explore some of my old haunts on the east side of town, for instance Bicentennial Park or the Hillside trail system. Or, more rarely, we'll visit the Connors Bog Dog Park.

The point is, I'm a frequent Anchorage-trail walker (last year Coya and I likely explored local paths more than 200 days, a claim that I could verify from journal entries if pushed on the point). I both appreciate and care about our city's world-class system of trails, which are used by all manner of recreationists, from hikers and dog-walkers like myself to carriage-pushing parents, competitive runners and less-serious joggers, cyclists, rollerbladers, equestrians, mountain bikers and other cyclists, skiers, skijorers, and mushers, orienteering enthusiasts, and others I'm likely missing.

Yet somehow I missed that the municipality has started a new Anchorage Trails Plan. I'm hardly alone in that, it seems. Several of my friends and acquaintances—most of them active, outdoorsy types—also expressed surprise upon recently learning that an updated trails plan is in the works, with a series of open-house gatherings scheduled for late April and early May.

I'm not suggesting that the muni has been keeping this hush-hush. From what I've been able to learn, project staff have done considerable outreach. But until lately they've primarily reached out to more formal groups of trail users, from the Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage to the Chugach Range Riders; the Anchorage Orienteering, Volkssport, and Nordic Ski Clubs; and even the Knik Canoers and Kayakers and Anchorage Snowmobile Club (though members of the latter group presumably aren't zooming down city trails on their machines). More than 30 clubs in all are listed on the municipality's trails plan page.

A quick Google search also suggests that community councils have been contacted and the open house meetings have been posted in local media online "events" calendars.

For all of that, it appears that many active, trail-using residents don't yet know a trail plan is in the works. So, this is my small effort to help spread the word and share a bit of what I've learned so far.

I recently attended one of four Anchorage-area open houses held between April 26 and May 7 (the last one to be in Girdwood), drawn to Spring Hill Elementary School by an "alert" sent out by Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (FAR). It turns out that this new trails-planning process has revived calls for an extension of Anchorage's popular Tony Knowles Coastal Trail (its official name) from Kincaid Park south to Potter Marsh. FAR remains concerned that such an extension could disrupt and otherwise harm refuge wildlife, especially nesting birds: from sandhill cranes to arctic terns and a variety of ducks and songbirds. So FAR's driving force, Barbara Carlson, urged members and friends to show up and express their concerns.

That's where I entered the picture.

Two to three dozen people milled about the schoolroom Tuesday night, including a handful of the muni's trails-plan team. I soon learned that the open-house staff would answer questions and provide some guidance, but not make any formal presentations. That proved frustrating to several of us new to the trail-planning process. We would have liked at least some background and a better idea of the team's goals in hosting these open houses. What had the team learned from its discussions with various user groups? What's the primary intent of this trail-planning process? To be honest the open house seemed a little too informal, too nebulous for me.

After signing in, we attendees were encouraged to study a series of large maps that showed Anchorage's existing trail systems, each one focused on a specific part of the municipality; and we were invited to write on the maps with marking pens, if we wanted to bring attention to a particular trail or issue.

We were also asked to read, and comment upon, eight "issue statements," written on large sheets of yellow paper that were posted on a wall. After studying the maps awhile (and making what I hoped were a few relevant and worthy comments), I turned my attention to the wall. At the top of each sheet, a statement was posed, along with the question: agree or disagree?

I asked why these particular eight statements were up for comment. A planning team member explained that each issue had been raised more than once and by more than one user group in the muni's initial outreach, and different perspectives had been given. So now the team wanted to see where the larger community of Anchorage trail users stood on each of these issues.

Everyone agreed with this statement: "Many of our trails, especially the paved trails, need upgrades and maintenance." That's a no-brainer, if you spend any time on local trails.

There was also overwhelming agreement that "Some trails should be closed during breakup to protect them while they are wet and vulnerable to damage." I added that this is especially true for bikes and horses. No doubt the questions of which trails and which modes of travel will generate considerably more disagreement as the plan moves forward.

A large majority of the open-house attendees also agreed that "Some trails should be dedicated to a single user group, as currently exists with mushing and ski trails" and that "The municipality should enforce our leash laws on trails and in parks (except for off-leash dog parks)," though several comments on the latter suggested that better education is preferable to enforcement and that enforcement, if it occurs, should be limited to "high-use areas." Based on the number of people who let their dogs at least occasionally run off leash on local trails (yes, I'm among them), my guess is that the issue of leash-law enforcement will generate lots of debate.

Moving on. By a 3-to-1 ratio, open-house attendees disagreed that "The Coastal Trail should be widened." As several people commented, the existing trail needs to be better maintained, not widened. Which leads me to note that the section of trail that was re-asphalted last summer (near the waste-water treatment plant) already shows some wide cracks. What's with that?

Three statements drew a nearly even split of yeas and nays:

"We need more multi-use trails, especially in winter, to spread out the trail use—our trails are getting too crowded."

"A uniformed officer(s) (police or park ranger) should patrol our parks and trails." On this one, several people pointed to the volunteer trail-watch program, though I haven't heard much about that effort of late.

And finally, "Connect Kincaid Park to Potter Marsh with a trail."

Here's where the long and hotly debated Coastal Trail extension appears to be resurrected. Proponents pleaded for the extension, while opponents cited residential concerns and worries about the possible impacts on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. So it appears that Barbara Carlson's alert did succeed in drawing FAR members and other wildlife advocates to speak on behalf of the refuge and its inhabitants. As to what part this particular debate will play in the larger trail-planning effort, who can tell? Right now, the trail-plan team emphasizes, it is simply gathering information. And opinions.

To those issue statements I would add at least one more: Anchorage trails should NOT be built along, or near, salmon streams known to attract bears; and any such existing trails should be seasonally closed and/or rerouted. Need I mention Rover's Run?

While at the open house, I was told that all the comments and feedback gained from these gatherings and earlier outreach discussions will be shared with the public. Exactly how and when and where remains unclear, but I'd advise periodically checking the municipality's trails plan web page. I should also add that the timeline given to me seems an ambitious one: to have a new trail plan in place sometime next year.

For those who'd like to learn more, or submit comments, I would point to the website link above and also give these contact names and information:

Erika McConnell, AMATS/Transportation Planning Section, 343-7917 or mcconnelleb@muni.org; Lori Schanche, Municipal Non-Motorized Transportation Coordinator, 343-8368 or schanchele@muni.org; or Holly Spoth-Torres, Parks and Recreation Department, 343-4585 or spoth-torreshj@muni.org.

If you care about local trails and want to have a say about how they're managed, now's the time to get involved.

Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications (both traditional and online) and is the author of 13 books, most recently Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness and Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness, the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He can frequently be found exploring Anchorage's trails with his faithful walking companion, Coya.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.