Nonprofit, with Anchorage city support, aims to create 300-acre conservation park near Potter Marsh

For years, South Anchorage residents have used informal trails that run through the undeveloped area — land also critical to Potter Marsh’s thriving wildlife habitat.

In the foothills just above where the freshwater ponds and sedges of Anchorage’s iconic Potter Marsh meet the base of the Chugach Mountains, the prospect of a new 300-acre park is likely to soon become reality.

Local nonprofit Great Land Trust is in the process of purchasing 200 acres of undeveloped land in South Anchorage from Alaska telecommunications company GCI and expects to close on the property in 2025. The Anchorage municipality’s Heritage Land Bank has plans to dedicate another 100 acres of adjoining land.

If all goes according to plan, the area will become the Potter Marsh Watershed Park.

“It has this great conservation impact. But I think it also has this wonderful community impact,” said Ellen Kazary, executive director of Great Land Trust.

The project area is bordered by Golden View Drive to the east and Old Seward Highway to the west.

About 3 1/2 miles of informal “trespass” trails already snake through the property, Kazary said. For decades, residents of the area have frequented the trails for recreational activities like dog walking, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing, according to Kazary and Dave Mitchell, conservation director with the Land Trust.

“The terrain is just fantastic. You get amazing views of the Anchorage Wildlife Refuge and Cook Inlet. I mean, it’s just breathtaking up there,” Kazary said. “... So it just really is conducive to becoming a park and a place people want to visit. It has this nice balance of great conservation, wonderful habitat and human use.”

Many neighbors are excited to see it formalized for public use, Mitchell said.

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“It’s going to be be a real jewel in our neighborhood here and Rabbit Creek Community Council area,” said Anne Rappoport, co-chair of the council.

During a November meeting, the council voted in favor of a resolution supporting the project, its latest step in over two decades of advocating for the conservation of Potter Marsh’s watershed, she said.

Potter Marsh Watershed Park has long been a “bucket list” project for Great Land Trust, which was founded to conserve and steward lands and waters in Southcentral Alaska, Kazary said.

Several mountain streams flow down through the property, feeding Potter Marsh’s south end with more than 75% of its freshwater, Mitchell said, while Rabbit Creek on the northern end of the marsh flows through the area to Cook Inlet quickly.

So, “all of the standing water that people ice skate on and that’s habitat for migratory birds comes from the south end, and a lot of that is from the property we are protecting,” Mitchell said. “The hydrology of Potter Marsh is really controlled by this property. And that’s why we’re calling it the Potter Marsh Watershed project.”

Potter Marsh is critical habitat for at least 130 species of migratory and nesting birds, including arctic terns, sandhill cranes and red-necked grebes. Pairs of mated trumpeter swans can often be seen from windows of passing cars on the highway and lure photographers and birders to the area each fall.

Where Rabbit Creek flows under the boardwalk at the northern end of the marsh, spawning salmon swim from May to August. Numerous mammals also use the habitat, including muskrats, beavers, moose and bears.

“Back at the start of some of this process, the fellow managing the area said, ‘Cut off that source of water, Potter Marsh would become a cesspool,’” Kazary said. “And that was pretty motivating for us — to think of this great habitat here, so dependent on the adjacent land, and being able to just do something to make sure that’s not the future of Potter Marsh.”

On top of its water supply, the land is “Anchorage’s last remaining open space providing important movement corridors for wildlife from sea level to the tundra,” Rappoport and Rabbit Creek council co-chair John Riley said in a letter of support for the project.

When Great Land Trust acquires the parcels, it will put in place additional conservation protections to ensure the area remains protected forever, Mitchell said.

The land trust has so far raised $2.6 million to make the purchase, the bulk of which is coming from National Coastal Wetlands federal grants via the state and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a Community Forest Program grant from the U.S. Forest Service.

GCI is giving the land trust a significant discount on the purchase price. Still, fundraising efforts are continuing. The land trust must raise another $1.4 million for project needs, for a total of about $4 million all together, Mitchell said.

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The Municipality of Anchorage would own and run the park. But first, it must go through a public process at the city level. The Assembly would need to green-light the Heritage Lank Bank’s dedication of 100 acres and also accept the new property from the land trust and its park designation, Mitchell said.

Then it would go through the city’s park master planning process, which includes public participation.

The Great Land Trust has worked with the city on several other similar conservation projects, including the Fish Creek Estuary and Campbell Creek Estuary.

But because parking areas and trail access are already nearby, the city won’t need to immediately add much park infrastructure for the public to start using the Potter Marsh Watershed Park, Mitchell said.

The longtime Moen Homestead Trail runs through the property, its east end beginning just across Golden View Drive from Moen Park, which has a small parking area that would help with access to the new park. The parking area at Potter Marsh’s south end would also provide access.

A gas line from Cook Inlet also cuts through the area, with a wide path residents often walk or ski, Rappoport said.

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More trails would be added, and Mitchell said he hopes to see a trail with viewpoints along the bluff above the marsh.

“One of the things I learned was that it’s the only igneous type of bedrock, igneous outcrop, exposed cliff in Anchorage,” Mitchell said. (Igneous rock is formed when magma, or molten rock, cools and solidifies.) “So that’s kind of unique. But that also creates this really nice viewpoint,” he said.

It may also be possible to connect a trail from the park to the Turnagain Arm Trail, he said.

Past attempts to develop the land for various purposes haven’t succeeded and have largely faced opposition from the neighborhood, Rappoport said.

Because of the nature of the land — steep slopes, wetland and igneous bedrock — using it for housing hasn’t penciled out for developers, Mitchell said.

On Wednesday afternoon, area resident Laura Atwood was checking her mailbox just across from Moen Park, in a pullout where the Moen trail begins.

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Atwood, who is the executive director of the nearby Bird Treatment and Learning Center, recognized Kazary and Mitchell standing near the trailhead.

Atwood had written a letter of support, and imagines someday partnering with the city parks department to do education programs there, she said.

“Our mission is caring and advocating for Alaska’s wild birds. So anything we can do to support preservation of habitat and encourage more people, whether it’s residents or tourists, to get involved with our wildlife, avian and mammals and others is, is something that we think is really important,” Atwood said.

And for Rabbit Creek residents, “it’ll be really nice if this happens, to be able to take our dogs down here. It’ll be wonderful,” she told them.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

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