OPINION: North to Alaska: The case for a long trail in the wild north

Long trails can have significant economic benefits, ranging from increased lodging, food and recreation spending to reduced transportation and health care expenses as folks adopt healthy lifestyles. Studies tell us that the demand generated by these trails creates employment opportunities in hospitality and tourism-related industries. Trails can also increase property values, supporting the local tax base. This being said, it is essential to implement sound tourism practices to address potential negative externalities, such as overuse, impacts on cultural heritage and the displacement of local communities. Addressing local concerns and adopting socially and environmentally responsible tourism policies are essential to the success of long trails. The proposed long trail from Seward to Fairbanks brings significant economic benefits to the local communities. However, preserving these resources for future generations becomes essential, given Alaska’s unique natural beauty, culture and heritage.

Outdoor recreational activities in the U.S. substantially contribute to the economy, amounting to about $564 billion in 2022 (2.2% of U.S. GDP) and showing continued growth potential. According to the Alaska Tourism Industry Association, Alaska’s yearly direct average tourist spending is approximately $3.9 billion, resulting in a total economic impact of around $5.6 billion (an implied multiplier of about 1.44). Encouragingly, one estimate based on the Alaska Visitors Statistics Program suggests that extending only half of Alaska visitors’ stays by just one additional day could increase total spending by about $137 million. For the sake of simplicity, let us round this number down to $100 million and assume that this is purely because folks come to Alaska and stay an additional day because of this trail.

It is claimed that the Alaska Long Trail project is almost 25% complete. Even if it were not, the trail construction costs would be about $212.5 million to $325 million in today’s dollars. This is a reasonable estimate, assuming construction costs range from $150,000 to $300,000 per mile with additional cabin construction expenses, a 50% project cost overrun, and another $100 million to accommodate annual maintenance in perpetuity. Let’s use the upper range, the $325 million figure. On the demand side, if we believe in the $100 million suggested by the above assumption, the project’s net present value would be around $2.175 billion (assuming a discount rate of 0.04). This estimate is a simplified net present value calculation, assuming that expenses and annual tourist spending are constant in perpetuity and only half the visiting tourists stay in Alaska one additional day. Let us also take the above implied multiplier of 1.44. The total impact could be as high as about $3 billion. Moreover, if the long trail can boost demand beyond the “half-the-tourists-just-one-additional-day” assumption, we would see a much more significant economic impact than suggested by the above calculations. In other words, the extent to which demand amplifies and economic effects multiply will ultimately determine its upper impact.

At the end of the day, this investment aligns nicely with Alaska’s economic potential and natural heritage and addresses some of the state’s fiscal challenges by diversifying revenue streams. It can engage local communities, educate them, and leave an enduring legacy for future generations. However, we must ensure consultation with many affected parties, including Alaska’s first people. The proposed trail crosses the lands of Chugach Alaska Corporation, Cook Inlet Region Inc., Ahtna Inc., and Doyon Ltd., all Indigenous organizations formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, in addition to the lands of many Alaska Native village corporations and various Alaska Native Tribes. Their input would be invaluable to the development process.

Of course, a 500-mile Alaska Long Trail will likely be realized sometime in the future. Benton MacKaye’s vision took about two decades to become an article on the Appalachian Trail. After nearly four decades, his vision finally became a reality, and the Appalachian Trail, connecting Georgia to Maine, was fully completed in 1937. Given Alaska’s fiscal difficulties and competing demands on its budgetary resources, it may not be possible for the state to allocate the magnitude of money this investment needs at once, even though the state has contributed some $5.6 million in the last couple of years. The Alaska Long Trail will require collaboration and commitment from all stakeholders, as it is a costly investment. However, as we hear, people from all walks of life are already volunteering to make this happen.

Would it not be incredible if the Alaska Long Trail was finally open for business nearly a century after the Appalachian Trail? Would we not be happy to see if an investment returned some $2 billion (let us forget any multiplier effects)? Some of us may or may not see the day Alaska finally completes its Long Trail, but as Mr. MacKaye once said, the trail is “larger than any single personality!”

Gӧkhan Karahan, R. Clayton Trotter and Sharon Lind are professors in the College of Business and Public Policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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