Chugach State Park has been ‘loved to death.’ A ballot proposition aims to address longstanding problems.

Chugach State Park keeps getting more popular. Already the most-visited park in Alaska — yes, more than Denali, by a lot — visits have increased by 50% between 2019 and 2022, approaching 1.5 million annually.

But the expanding interest in the trails and wilderness crisscrossing the Chugach Range is exacerbating longstanding problems with access points into the park. A new ballot proposal going before Anchorage voters in the weeks ahead of the April 4 election aims to solve the issue by creating a new taxing authority to pay for future improvements.

Supporters of the measure say it is decades overdue. Overburdened roads heading into the mountains are degrading and inadequate for the volume of traffic they serve. Fleets of vehicles descend on tiny residential enclaves on nice hiking days, sometimes failing to take away trash afterward. Trailheads with small or non-existent parking lots routinely see disorderly gantlets of Subarus and pickup trucks haphazardly crammed on narrow-shouldered roads, as any backcountry skier or blueberry-picker familiar with the Upper Canyon Road heading toward the Rabbit Lake Trail can attest.

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The crux of the problem is this: Many of the routes into the park fall within the patchwork of road service areas sprinkled across the Hillside, where residents living beyond the main boundary for essential services in the Anchorage Bowl tax themselves to pay for things like grading, snowplowing and upgrade improvements. But those road service areas are tiny, with minuscule budgets that can’t handle paying for all the work it would take to expand roads, build parking lots and accommodate the demands on popular trailheads.

“It’s not just unfair to assume that these road service areas will use the limited resources that they have, it’s just not realistic, either, because these are some big projects and the impact is great on the neighborhoods,” said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, who represents the South Anchorage district most affected by the Chugach access issue.

“There’s no parking, and it raises public safety issues and traffic issues for the residents,” she added. “We need to have a different way of addressing these issues.”


She and fellow District 6 member Randy Sulte introduced the ballot measure. If approved, it would create the Chugach State Park Access Service Area, or CASA, a new entity that would have the ability to bond for money to handle infrastructure supporting Chugach visitors.

There is no automatic cost incurred from creating the new service area, the boundaries of which are essentially a giant squiggly loop around the Anchorage Bowl, from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson down to McHugh Creek and encompassing the Hillside. But it creates a mechanism for asking residents if they want to tax themselves a little bit more to pay for upgrades to a public resource that’s used and beloved by many.

The proposed CASA boundaries do not include neighborhoods in Eagle River or Girdwood, which have their own service areas to pay for parks and roads. As a result, voters in those parts of the municipality will not see the proposal on their ballots on the April 4 election.

“A kind of no-person’s land”

Though the access issue has been around basically since Chugach State Park was established in 1970, the COVID-19 pandemic gave the problem a real kick in the pants.

“Chugach State Park is the most visited public lands in the state of Alaska,” Ricky Gease, Division Director for State Parks, during an Assembly work session in January on the new service area proposal.

The state looks at cellphone location data to track visits to parks and where those visitors are from. Compared to 2019, before the pandemic upended recreational norms and flushed people into outdoor activities, by 2021 “overall use in the state for public lands has gone up by 50%,” Gease said.

That is straining a system that was in poor shape to begin with.

“We have issues at any access point within the municipality, basically,” Gease said. “Any place people can access the park, we have parking issues,” Gease said.

“For a very long time the Chugach State Park … has been loved to death,” said Bill Falsey, the former municipal manager who now serves as counsel to the Assembly and drafted the new service area ballot proposal.

Falsey described the fiduciary morass involved with the park access roads as “a kind of no-person’s land,” with residents of small road service areas financially responsible for infrastructure used primarily by outsiders.

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“A lot of the impacts to the roads that we’re concerned about are caused by the people who live in the main Anchorage Bowl on their way to the park,” Falsey said. “But there are also big projects that are unfinished and undone because those road service areas can’t pass the hat broadly enough to pay for them, where this service area may come in and say ‘we’ll do a bigger upgrade.’ ”

“It’s already overloading the infrastructure and access roads,” said Chris Beck, a retired consultant and self-described “enthusiastic citizen advocate” who spoke to Assembly members about the service area proposal. “The issue is not whether it’s gonna grow or not, it’s how we manage that growth.”

Beck and others frame the new service area as an economic imperative: In order to improve quality of life in Anchorage and retain residents at a time of outmigration, easy access to outdoor recreation resources is a must.

“In particular, young adults are leaving,” Beck said. “Outdoor recreation can be an antidote to those problems.”

A “baby step”

If Proposition 6 passes in April and the Chugach State Park Access Service Area is created, nothing happens — at least not yet.

The ballot measure states, “The service area would not levy taxes upon approval of this proposition; taxes may only be levied if voters subsequently approve a proposition that authorizes levying and spending generally or for a particular project.”


That means in future years, voters would decide whether to bond for specific park upgrades, the same way they do now for school, road and capital bond measures each municipal election.

“This ordinance does not generate any revenue at all. The only thing this does is allow us to pursue future revenue sources and fix problems. This is like the baby step, we have to do this before we can do anything else,” said Joe Connolly, chairman of the Glen Alps Road Service Area Board of Supervisors.

As a mechanism for bonding, the new service area would also help secure matching funds from public and private entities, according to backers. If, say, the federal government or a private foundation had money for infrastructure improvements but needed to see funds committed to a project first, then the CASA could be the vehicle for that.

Connolly’s home is one of about two dozen just past the Glen Alps Trailhead, the launching point for the hiking trail up Flattop, which remains Alaska’s most visited mountain peak. Connolly got ahold of a 15-year-old municipal traffic study that found 98% of the vehicle traffic on the road to Glen Alps was visitors to the park. Just 2% of the traffic was residents going to and from their homes. And that was back before the road was paved and the parking lot expanded by a rare capital appropriation from the Legislature.

“On average it was 1,800 vehicles a day,” he said. “We have a lot more people using it now than ever before.”

Connolly says that except for a few highly visible outliers, the vast majority of his Hillside neighbors want people to visit the area and make use of the Chugach State Park.

“What they say is ‘I would like to see this managed better,’” Connolly said.

He views the proposal as a “unified joint effort where everybody in the city helps contribute to this funding through a bond.”

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.