A project to build mountain bike trails in Russian Jack Springs Park this summer has been put on hold, facing opposition from some neighbors who say they were kept in the dark about the project and fear an influx of bikers will hurt wildlife habitat and bring in more crowds.
But other neighbors say they welcome the idea of more activity in the park at the heart of East Anchorage — underscoring a time-worn conflict between keeping spaces wild and making Anchorage's prized parks accessible and safe for a wide range of activities.
Managed by the city of Anchorage but spearheaded by the nonprofit trail advocacy group Alaska Trails, the proposed plan would involve building three miles of single track trail, or narrow wooded trails, in Russian Jack. The plan would include some new trails but would largely improve on an existing network of informal trails created by people and wildlife over time.
The popularity of mountain biking has expanded in Anchorage, and East Anchorage residents are looking for a nearby place to ride, said Steve Cleary, the executive director of Alaska Trails. Cleary is an Airport Heights resident who bikes in Russian Jack with his son.
Cleary said the trails would be open year-round and could also be used by walkers, runners, winter bikers and other park users. The budget is about $50,000, paid through a 2017 state grant.
Cleary said the project will make the trail system, already used by bikers, safer and easier to navigate for more people.
"We think this is a pretty good project that will have an appeal for lots of folks, even if not mountain bikers," Cleary said.
City officials had planned to start construction this summer. But that came as news to members of a nearby community council that borders the park. The Northeast Community Council approved the general idea of a mountain bike trail project in 2015, but officials had yet to come back to present more detailed plans, said Kevin Smestad, the council president. A presentation on the project has now been scheduled for the council's Thursday night meeting.
Marc Grober, an attorney and longtime Russian Jack Park user who lives in the College Park area, said he spends two hours in the park every day. He said he was concerned the project would hurt the wild character of the park.
"If you're using the park not to stage a Criterion road race, but to obtain some respite from the maddening rush of urban life, then you want the park to provide you some rest and relaxation," Grober said. "You don't want to run into 32 people."
Calling the park a single track destination would be "asking for trouble, Grober said, saying that there are other places to install such amenities.
Grober also said the project is the latest instance of city parks officials pushing projects in Russian Jack Springs Park forward over the concerns of neighbors.
Right now, the project is set to be heard by the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Commission on May 10. But the outcry from the Northeast Community Council has led the state to pause the funding for the time being, said Josh Durand, superintendent with the city Parks and Recreation Department.
Durand said he was disappointed the project was contentious and that he would take some responsibility for that. He said the fact that Cleary's group had led the public outreach around the project, instead of the city, may have caused confusion.
People who live south of the park had a different view from Grober. Ed Leach, the president of the Russian Jack Community Council, which has boundaries that cover the park, said his council is in favor of the single track project.
It's a healthy change, Leach said.
"Some of the people in the Northeast that use the park a lot remember Anchorage of 50 years ago, and they want to keep it that way," Leach said.
Leach said the park hasn't always been that wild. In the 1940s and '50s, the park was used to farm produce for inmates at the Anchorage jail, Leach said.
He also said a lot of people in Russian Jack feel more bikers and other people in the park will help defuse criminal activity or other bad behavior.
Grober, however, said better sightlines through the thinning of trees takes away from the feeling of the park as a refuge. He said he would like to see environmental studies on the impact of a new and more heavily-used trail network.
Cleary, the Alaska Trails director, said it has been harder than he expected to get neighbors on board with the project.
"But it's also refreshing how many people care," Cleary said.