Continued Alaska state parks neglect is shameful

Once upon a time — and not so long ago — people of all sorts regularly walked the Byers Lake Loop Trail in Denali State Park, from families with young children to senior citizens visiting from outside Alaska. My mother was a great example of the latter. In the summer of 1992, at age 70, Mom joined me on a hike along the forest trail that encircles Byers Lake, nearly five miles in all.

My mom was hardly an outdoorswoman, and by the start of her eighth decade, she suffered from a variety of ailments. It’s true she went on daily walks in her adopted home of Virginia, but usually stayed on paved streets and walked for only an hour or so. Yet moving slowly, with rest stops now and then, she did the entire lake loop, something that brought her joy and satisfaction.

Nowadays, my mom at 70 would not be able to complete even half that loop, because Alaska State Parks officials have allowed a large section of the trail to deteriorate badly.

Byers Lake happens to be one of my favorite places, one that I’ve visited almost every year since the mid-1990s. The way state park managers have in recent years neglected its lake loop is, in a word, shameful.

For starters, the bridge that crosses the lake’s outlet is severely damaged and potentially unsafe. For that reason, park managers have put up signs that warn visitors “Do not attempt to cross.” But since 2019, when the bridge first began to fall apart, there’s been no attempt to make repairs.

Left alone, it won’t be long before the bridge collapses. This, too, is appalling and a personal disappointment, because hiking to — and across — the bridge has been among my favorite rituals whenever I stay at any of the Byers Lake public-use cabins.

On a June visit to Byers Lake, I slowly and carefully worked my way across the bridge — something I don’t recommend — and confirmed it’s in worse shape than when I visited last year.

I did so in part to check on the trail’s condition beyond the bridge. And what I found was disgusting but not surprising. Even last summer, the section of trail between the outlet bridge and the lake’s “remote” walk- or boat-in campground was in bad shape. During my recent visit, it was nearly impassable — and considerably more hazardous.

Shrubby plants have taken over long stretches of that unmaintained section of trail and in several places, the path was nearly impossible to see.

Making matters worse is that numerous beetle-killed trees have fallen across the trail, requiring detours. The dead, fallen trees present a special danger, because their broken, brittle and jagged limbs can easily pierce the skin.

A young, old or casual hiker would be at substantial risk of injury in trying to walk this section of trail —which, being part of a loop, can be reached without having to negotiate the broken outlet bridge.

And then there’s the ongoing and worsening trail erosion, particularly along a section that crosses a steep forested hillside. More and more of the path is sloughing away and crumbling downhill, which makes footing tricky and yes, potentially dangerous.

I’ve been told by recreational guides who work in the area that park managers have decided to continue maintaining sections of the loop trail that connect the entrance area and drive-in campground to the Kesugi Ridge Trail, which is enormously popular with hikers, backpackers and hill runners, while neglecting the “back side” of the loop. The evidence I found during my walkabout strongly suggests this is true.

Part of the Byers Lake Loop Trail is a cleared and well-maintained forest path, at least by state park standards, with a large, durable and well-constructed suspension bridge that crosses Byers Creek above the lake — that bridge built in recent years when an older one failed — and the regular removal of fallen spruce trees from the trail. I found no downed trees blocking that section of the loop during my recent visit.

What seems particularly sad and shameful about what’s happened here is that Byers Lake was, for many years, the heart of Denali State Park’s recreational appeal, with its campgrounds, public-use cabins (among the most popular in Alaska), boating opportunities, and yes, its loop trail and connection to Kesugi Ridge.

I suppose that park managers can rationalize the deterioration of the Byers Lake Loop Trail, given that Alaska’s state parks have long been underfunded and understaffed, an even greater shame than what’s happened at Byers Lake.

Park officials can also rightfully note that Denali State Park’s most popular recreational area now lies a dozen miles to the south of Byers Lake at the K’esugi Ken Campground Complex, which benefits from a partnership with the National Park Service and therefore receives much greater funding.

The question I continue to ask: Should Byers Lake be sacrificed and neglected because of K’esugi Ken’s success? The reason the latter has become so popular is simply that resources — both money and personnel — have been poured into K’esugi Ken. Why can’t some funding be found to at least properly maintain Byers Lake’s facilities?

Our elected state leaders are spending many millions of dollars to promote and enhance Alaska’s tourism industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. I would argue that Alaska’s state parks are a prime visitor attraction — or could be, if properly funded, maintained and staffed. Several of our state parks are magnificent wild places of world-class quality, including Denali State Park. Why not take some of the millions the state is spending on tourism and direct it to Alaska’s long-neglected state parks system?

What’s happening at Byers Lake is both symptomatic and symbolic of a long-running and unacceptable disgrace, the disrespect and lack of care shown to our state parks system, which could be and should be a world-class attraction, but has for too long been overlooked and ignored.

It’s long past time that we Alaskans and our elected and appointed officials give our state parks the respect and attention they deserve. One great place to start would be the neglected and damaged Byers Lake Loop Trail.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler’s Guide to Alaska’s State Parks.” He also writes a City Wilds column for the Anchorage Press.

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