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Could a 'trans-Alaska trail' parallel the pipeline? A state lawmaker hopes so

Imagine a trail that traverses Alaska, from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic, from the temperate marine climate of Southcentral Alaska to the barren tundra of Alaska's North Slope. Across three mountain ranges and hundreds of rivers. A trail that would be the first to traverse Alaska north to south in both summer and winter.

Supporters say that an 800-mile trail capable of passing through those locales in any season already exists. But it's a trail that happens to parallel the trans-Alaska pipeline.

That's the idea proposed by Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka. After 17-months of consideration, Kreiss-Tomkins was in Valdez Saturday, formally unveiling a plan to make the pipeline right-of-way into a multiuse, multiseason trail.

He hopes that one day the trail will be similar in scope to trails in the Lower 48 like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail -- trails that showcase large swaths of America and are major tourism attractions.

Now he and others are working to develop a 66-mile section of the trail starting in Valdez to the Little Tonsina River -- just short of Pump Station 12 -- as a "pilot segment" to test the concept's viability.

Kreiss-Tomkins is moving forward on considering the feasibility of the project. He said there's no timeline on when that pilot portion of the project would be open. Right now he's working to address concerns of such a project; concerns he recognizes are many and considerable.

"This is a bite-sized approach to exploring the complexities involved," he said. "There are so many we'll have to work through."

'Significant concerns'

Those concerns range from everything from how to manage human waste to where people could pitch a tent. But the biggest concerns come from Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., operator of the 800-mile pipeline that stretches from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

In a letter sent to Kreiss-Tomkins in February, Alyeska President Tom Barrett wrote there are "significant concerns" about safety to the public and pipeline if a trail were to open.

People already have the ability to use the pipeline right-of-way. They can apply through Alyeska for a letter of non-objection or a right-of-way use guideline. That includes limited recreational use, according to Barrett's letter. He wrote that those points of access balance the public's use of the right-of-way for non-pipeline-related travel with Alyeska's need for operations and security. About 10,000 use guidelines have been issued since 2002, with about 550 applied for or renewed each year.

"As long as (the trans-Alaska pipeline) is an operating system, we believe that inviting public use of the right-of-way beyond these programs would be ill-advised," Barrett wrote.

Increased travel would require additional security, Alyeska corporate communications director Michelle Egan wrote to Kreiss-Tomkins in December 2014 outlining the company's concerns. The pipeline was famously shot in 2001, spilling thousands of gallons of oil in the process.

Kreiss-Tomkins understands all of those concerns, but he countered that maybe having more people on the trail could have positive aspects.

"Maybe more eyes and ears might have the potential to report safety and service issues," he said.

Then there are questions of what would happen if someone is injured near the pipeline. Egan wrote that pipeline employees and contractors are often the only available resources in an emergency. They occasionally respond to accidents along the Dalton Highway or in other remote areas, like an Atigun Pass plane crash in 2014 near Pump Station 4.

But that's not a primary responsibility, she wrote, and such incidents can put workers in harm's way and remove them from their pipeline responsibilities.

"The liability issues are considerable," Egan wrote.

Land ownership of the pipeline is also complex. Most of the pipeline traverses state and federal land, but about 80 miles of the pipeline falls on privately held land. Those wanting to use the right-of-way in those sections must get permission from landowners, including Alaska Native corporations, before doing so.

Valdez support

The meeting in Valdez drew about 40 people Saturday, according to Lee Hart, executive director of Levitation 49, a nonprofit group dedicated to expanding outdoor recreation and tourism in Valdez. She said that was a good number for the 4,000 person community -- especially on a clear, sunny weekend where most people could be out "playing in (Thompson) Pass."

Hart said many people in Valdez support the idea. If it comes to fruition, she said, Valdez could reap business benefits other trailhead communities enjoy, similar to places like Skagway and the Chilkoot Trail. That could bring retail businesses, tourism and international publicity.

"This is like a dream possibility dropped right in our lap," she said.

Valdez Mayor Larry Weaver said he's "on the fence" when it comes to supporting the proposal. Like many in Valdez, he already uses the corridor for recreation after getting permission from Alyeska and landowners. He sees a benefit in opening it up, but he also understands Alyeska's lack of desire for the trail becoming a "free-for-all."

"(Alyeska) has concerns on that," he said. "As far as other people go, they see it as something quite interesting."

Fairbanks writer Ned Rozell found the hike he took in along the pipeline in 1997 so interesting he wrote a book about it. The book, "Walking My Dog, Jane," recounts Rozell's trip along the pipeline with his dog over the course of a summer.

Rozell thinks Kreiss-Tomkins' plan is a good idea. He said the trail itself is fairly user-friendly, with only a few steep sections. While there are many river crossings, the unfordable rivers are generally close to highway bridges. But he too wonders about Alyeska's security concerns. He said it took him several months to get the permits necessary to do the trip even in the pre-9/11 era.

He noted the pipeline isn't designed to be a permanent structure. When the pipeline is decommissioned he said the trail could be a great summer trail showcasing Alaska.

"(Kreiss-Tomkins) is putting the pieces in place for Alaska to have something like other states have," Rozell said. "And it's a good idea. If this suddenly came to a halt -- meaning the pipeline's viability -- he's got a plan in place."

The pipeline likely won't shut down for decades. But Kreiss-Tomkins thinks in the meantime it's worth moving forward on a trail plan.

"There's lots of potential for harmonious coexistence."

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