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These nice guys’ conflict over trails shows how Anchorage is changing

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 22
  • Published May 22

Lee Bolling and Rick Sinnott are two of the nicest, most public-spirited guys I know. Seeing them in fundamental disagreement shows the depth of our city's conflict about the purpose of the city's open space.

Sinnott spent his career protecting Anchorage wildlife. Now retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, he's still at it, as a writer and scientist, and as a skeptic of building more trails in our wooded parks.

Bolling, a newly minted engineer, hasn't had his career yet. But he already has led the transformation of Anchorage into a mountain biking city, raising money and recruiting volunteers to build singletrack trails that snake through the parks.

The trails built by Singletrack Advocates, the group of which Bolling is president, have put more people in close proximity to moose and bears. Is that good or bad?

This summer, more singletrack will be built in Far North Bicentennial Park. Bolling's group raised $220,000 for the work. Bowing to wildlife concerns, they cut the project from 6-8 miles to 4.5 miles to avoid an area where brown bears congregate during salmon runs.

Young workers also will improve trails for mountain bikers in Russian Jack Springs Park this summer, over the objections of some community council members who wanted to keep the park more natural.

Each project raises a fight, but none has been stopped. The culture of the city is changing. This conflict is a sign of change.

Ed Kessler of Ptarmigan Ptrails begins to smooth out a singletrack trail with a mini bulldozer in August 2016, on the north side of Mirror Lake. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

In the 1960s, Anchorage's trail conflicts pitted cross-country skiers against snowmachiners. The skiers won and snowmachines were outlawed within the city.

Looking at the recreational facilities built in those days, you can see why. Leaders had an urban vision of Anchorage.

That generation built tennis courts, ball fields and paved trails. Russian Jack was a golf course and downhill skiing area. For nature, you went out of town.

I don't see many people playing on city tennis courts anymore. Recreation advocates are talking about turning them into skate and bike parks.

As a devoted cross-country skier, I hate to admit our sport is going the same way. Warmer winters have converted many skiers to fat-tire bikers.

Ski racing boosters widened some trails to allow two skate-technique athletes to pass, turning those trails into roads. The bikers like narrow paths, which have a more natural feel.

Mountain bikers and mountain runners experience nature in a new way. It's not just for weekends anymore. Bolling, who has two young sons at home, uses the trails for exercise and an hourlong natural experience after work and before his evening family time.

With his riding, his career, his volunteer work and his kids, he's too busy to do much else.

Riding singletrack is worth it. Rides are fun, athletic and challenging. The trails swoop through the woods like roller-coaster tracks. Going fast takes skill and can be dangerous.

One danger — but not the biggest one — is wildlife. On the singletrack in Kincaid last fall, I came around a corner and encountered a black bear at close quarters. As I tried to back slowly away, I could hear a cyclist coming the other direction toward me, hemming in the bear.

I yelled, "Bear! Bear!"

The oncoming cyclist yelled back, "What?"

Nothing bad happened, as far as I know, but that is the kind of encounter Sinnott is worried about.

During moose calving season, going on now and for another four weeks or more, biking Kincaid's singletrack is particularly hazardous, as female moose fiercely defend their young. Bolling said warning signs are up, but it's up to riders to make their own decisions.

Sinnott fears that means death for wildlife. He doesn't want people getting hurt, partly because that often leads to calls to kill animals.

Wildlife were here first. As recreation in the city becomes more active and uses more of our wooded parks more intensively, we are leaving very little room for wild animals to be wild.

But parking lots and subdivisions hurt wildlife more. They obliterate habitat completely.

Maybe putting more cyclists in the woods ultimately helps protect nature. I imagine muddy mountain bikers develop more concern about conservation than tennis players do.

Sinnott disagrees. His says bikers and runners are just using the outdoors as a gym. He described a friend who runs and fast-hikes in the Chugach Mountains and doesn't know the names of plants beyond dandelions.

"In general, I think those folks are much less likely to be environmentalists than the walkers," Sinnott said.

"I would disagree with him," Bolling said. "It's a way to have fun, and live a healthy life, and enjoy nature. We don't live in a city to do city stuff. We live in Anchorage to get into the outdoors."

I've had this discussion with Sinnott before. I've known him many years and he has taught me a lot about wildlife.

A decade ago, we were on opposite sides when I worked as a consultant for Mayor Mark Begich, who was trying to extend the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail south along  the coast.

State and federal officials killed the project through the environmental process. Sinnott was in the middle of that, saying cyclists on the paved trail would disturb sandhill cranes, snow geese and tundra swans in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.

Perhaps they would. But today people hunt in the refuge, the city's partially treated sewage is pumped out into its waters, and Cook Inlet oil production threatens it with spills. Bikers and runners using and caring about the refuge would protect more than harm it.

Besides, we live in a city. I'm excited that our culture has shifted to integrate our natural parks into the lives of city residents.

The volunteer energy of Bolling and his friends is the best we have to offer.

Their trails should avoid key wildlife points — and they're doing that — but if mountain bikers are hurt by moose or bears, that's the cost of being outdoor Alaskans. I'm sure far more will be hurt falling off their bikes.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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