JUNEAU — Backers of a proposed 500-mile hiking trail from Seward to Fairbanks are waiting eagerly as the Alaska Legislature works in special session on Alaska’s state budget for the coming year.
Included in the budget is $13.2 million earmark for the first pieces of their project, which would stitch together a series of trails into the Alaska Long Trail, something akin to the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.
The entire project would take years to construct and millions more to complete. But the idea has gained bipartisan political support and is being endorsed by economic development and tourism organizations throughout the Railbelt that say the trail could become a mecca for hikers and adventurers, encouraging them to stay longer in Alaska and spend money.
“This is a really important first step in the vision of an Alaska Long Trail. That takes it from an idea to a reality,” former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles said.
Knowles championed the 11-mile Coastal Trail in Anchorage that bears his name, and he’s now endorsing the Long Trail.
As broadly planned — an exact route hasn’t yet been set — the trail would follow a scenic route relatively close to the Parks Highway from Fairbanks to Talkeetna, then swing east through the Talkeetna Mountains, south to Hatcher Pass and Chugach State Park, then follow the Iditarod Trail south from Girdwood to Seward. An alternate course could send hikers along a coastal route through the Anchorage Bowl.
The money set aside in the budget would go to a variety of projects, some related to the Long Trail directly and others, only tangentially. In many cases, it would unlock additional federal funding or money from private investors.
One example of both: $800,000 for a new trail that would connect the Coastal Trail to the Ship Creek Trail at North C Street in Anchorage without the need to walk along West Second Avenue. That project will cost about $8 million, but most of the money would come from the federal government.
Ricky Gease, director of Alaska State Parks, said many of the projects listed in the earmark are “shovel ready.” They have been permitted, have gone through a public comment process and now need only to go out to bid.
Asked how long it would take to create a hikeable trail from Seward to Fairbanks, he said, “That just depends on future funding and commitment to it.”
Some of the biggest problems are bridges, which can be much more expensive per mile than ordinary trail. The earmark in this year’s budget funds one of the longest along the route, a pedestrian bridge over the Nenana River outside Denali National Park and Preserve.
Chris Beck is one of the lead planners of the trail project and said the idea came from a variety of sources, including a drive for a “trans-Alaska trail” and a statewide trails planning program finalized last year.
Beck said backers realized that rather than trying to tackle an entire trail running from the North Slope to the southern coast, it would be better to start with one piece. That piece, the stretch between Fairbanks and Seward, already has 200 miles of north-south trails that could be stitched together.
“In the neighborhood of a third of the trail exists as an established route, but the remainder is going to take work to become established routes,” he said.
Another advantage is that the vast majority of the Seward-Fairbanks route is on public lands owned by local governments, the state or the federal government, Beck said.
In a series of legislative meetings in March, local government officials and tourism experts endorsed the project. Julie Saupe, president and CEO of Visit Anchorage, said travelers are trending younger and are seeking experiences.
“A long trail project fits perfectly into a tourism growth strategy,” she said.
In a typical year, if Alaska tourists were encouraged to stay in the state just one more day, it could mean more than $100 million in additional visitor spending, testified Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.
Republicans, Democrats and independents are supporting it. Gov. Mike Dunleavy included funding for pieces in legislation earlier this year.
“In addition to the usual projects like roads and roof replacements, Gov. Dunleavy wanted to include something transformational that can become part of what Alaska is famous for,” said Jeff Turner, a spokesman for the governor.
“The Alaska Long Trail promises to be a world-class hiking adventure that will draw Alaskans and outdoor enthusiasts from across the globe. It will import new economic activity to Alaska and become a powerful marketing tool for the state’s tourism efforts,” Turner said.
The legislation didn’t advance, but the trail idea stayed. State Sens. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, co-sponsored an amendment to add an earmark to the state budget. That earmark passed the Senate unanimously and is now part of ongoing budget negotiations.
Beck said it could take a decade or more for the Long Trail to become walkable from end to end without venturing onto roads, but the Appalachian Trail took several decades, he said.
Knowles acknowledged the usefulness for tourism but said the trail is also a way for Alaskans to connect to the wild parts of the state that they enjoy.
“There’s a lot more steps to be taken — but the most important one is always your first step,” he said. “And so once once we get this, it will really, really get the project going.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described mountains east of Talkeetna as the Alaska Range. Those are the Talkeetna Mountains.