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Chugach Park Fund aims to care for Anchorage’s wild backyard

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 29, 2017
  • Published October 29, 2017

Flattop Mountain in Chugach State Park attracted many visitors on the evening of summer solstice, Thursday, June 20, 2013. (Marc Lester/ADN archive 2013)

Big. Wild. Life.

That branding slogan for Alaska's largest city would be meaningless without Chugach State Park.

Anchorage is not large as cities go. It's the surrounding countryside that is undeniably big and wild. And Anchorage's quality of life wouldn't be the same without its half-million-acre state park, which serves as a playground, moose and bear factory, spiritual retreat, source of wonder, and scenic skyline for over 40 percent of the state's population and countless visitors.

It didn't have to be that way. In his Alaska classic, "Coming Into the Country," John McPhee called Anchorage "an American spore," adding, "A large cookie cutter brought down on El Paso could lift something like Anchorage into the air."

The park was newly minted in 1975 when McPhee visited Alaska, and the city hadn't annexed the park and neighboring communities just yet. So perhaps McPhee can be forgiven his oversight. Nevertheless, I wonder if he took the time to follow any of the trails leading into the city's sprawling backyard.

Nowadays Chugach State Park comprises over one-third of the municipality's land area. It's a city-bounded wilderness park like nowhere else, a wild and precious companion to Alaska's largest city.

Parks and trails are often asked to stand at the back of the line when it comes to state funding. Money for trail maintenance and upgrades is particularly difficult to obtain when state revenues are falling. Recognizing a need and opportunity in these difficult times, in 2016 the Chugach State Park Citizen Advisory Board created the Chugach Park Fund, which is managed by the Alaska Community Foundation.

The Chugach State Park Citizen Advisory Board was created four decades ago to advise the park's superintendent. The board's 15 members have a wide diversity of outdoor backgrounds and interests, including hiking, skiing, biking, horse riding and mountaineering.

Access in the park is facilitated by trails. The most popular trails — e.g., Crow Pass, Flattop, Mount Baldy, Eklutna Lake — are heavily used and often require maintenance or, better yet, rerouting to make them more sustainable. The term "loved to death" comes to mind.

Trails — good trails, regularly maintained, with appropriate interpretive signage — aren't free. The board recognized this in creating the Chugach Park Fund.

The Chugach Park Fund's goal is to build and maintain trails and trail-related amenities. The fund won't be used to pay state salaries or routine operating costs. Instead, the board will work with the Alaska Division of Parks to identify and design specific, high-priority trail projects using professional services when necessary, but also coordinate with other organizations to foster a more active volunteer program.

Because state funding is tight for parks, Alaskans are figuring out multiple ways to contribute to Chugach State Park. A volunteer program coordinated by Alaska Trails has been instrumental in helping maintain and repair existing trails. Other volunteers, coordinated by the Invasive Plant Program of the Anchorage Park Foundation and the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, are helping to pull invasive weeds.

One of the fund's immediate goals is to rebuild several sections of the South Rim Trail, a popular segment in the network of Hillside trails. Another identified goal is to adopt, where feasible and appropriate, the navigational and safety standards for signs being developed for trails in Anchorage's municipal parks.

While the near-term focus is on specific, relatively small projects, ultimately, with community support, the board hopes to create an endowed fund to better serve long-term trail development and maintenance in the park.

McPhee wasn't very fair to Anchorage; however, he recognized Anchorage "has the greatest out-of-town any town has ever had." Much of that "out-of-town" is now Chugach State Park.

Chugach State Park trails need help from the people who love them the most. The Chugach Park Fund will provide the necessary funding to ensure our world-class park remains a world-class experience.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com, Tax-deductible donations to the Chugach Park Fund will be gratefully accepted by the Alaska Community Fund (https://alaskacf.org/blog/funds/chugach-park-fund/).

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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