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With bear attacks, is popular Anchorage trail overdue for overhaul?

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published March 18, 2013

The Alaska Legislature is considering at least two grant request packages for maintaining and enhancing Anchorage-area parks and trails. The requests were submitted by two organizations who know local parks, local park users, and their needs. Anchorage loves its parks and trails. Tucked into a small corner of a large state, the city harbors about 40 percent of the state's population and has more than its share of visitors. Parks and trails enhance the urban quality of life, and local demand for parks has never been more pressing.

And yet the myriad forces that erect cities are not always amenable to preserving land for parks. A similar principle applies to funding parks once they are established. There are often other pressing demands.

The impetus for creating and funding parks and trails usually comes from far-sighted citizens, like Sharon Cissna and Lanie Fleischer. But public amenities often cost public dollars. In the final analysis, these amenities depend on elected officials championing them.

Rover’s Run

The Anchorage Park Foundation (APF), a nonprofit that mobilizes public support and financial resources for Anchorage parks and trails, has submitted a "fix-it" list for several dozen municipal parks, trails, and ball fields. The foundation's requests for public funding are often sweetened with money from the Rasmuson Foundation or other private organizations. One of the largest municipal parks is Far North Bicentennial Park, where $500,000 is needed for trail repairs and maintenance, including $75,000 for rerouting a section of Rover's Run.

Rover's Run, also known as Mellen's Way, is a narrow dirt track in Far North Bicentennial Park. The trail winds through a heavily wooded riparian area, staying about 10 to 200 yards from the South Fork of Campbell Creek. Jake Schlapfer recalled building the trail in 1990 in cooperation with the Alaska Skijoring Association. They followed an existing game trail and initially maintained the trail by dragging an old tire down it. "We did not envision at the time that mountain biking would be such a huge component," Schlapfer said. Because skijoring is a winter sport, little or no thought was given to past or present summer trail users, including bears.

Rover's Run is a classic illustration of the "if you build it, they will come" paradigm. Attracting little use in some parts of the year -- particularly muddy seasons -- it has become wildly popular in summer and winter. Many of the trails in the Anchorage area seem to have a unique mix of users, kind of like a fingerprint. In summer most of the people using Rover's Run are runners and mountain bikers. In winter, cross-country skiers and fat-tire bikers predominate. In other words, most of its users are moving relatively fast.

Biking with bears

Once it leaves the mountains and begins its traverse of Bicentennial Park, Campbell Creek becomes the most productive salmon-spawning stream in the Anchorage Bowl. Salmon are a critical food for brown bears. Brown bears make their way to Bicentennial Park from as far away as the Knik River and Bird Creek from June to October when the salmon are anticipated and relatively easy to catch.

Bears and people can coexist in most situations. However, the unspoken agreement may be revoked any time one or the other feels threatened. As the number of bicyclists and runners using Rover's Run climbed during the last two decades, many bears adjusted and continued to use the area. More humans, on what was essentially a widened game trail, meant more close calls. Faster activities increased the likelihood of a mauling because bears were being surprised at close quarters. It's never a good idea to surprise a brown bear, a species famous for attacking people in defense of cubs.

This rule of thumb became bloody obvious in 2008. A young woman participating in a 24-hour bike race was attacked and badly injured in the darkest hours of the night by a brown bear in June. Nobody saw the bear, but some DNA was collected. About six weeks later a runner breezed past signs warning of the previous mauling and turned down Rover's Run. Within minutes she startled two cubs and was badly injured by a different brown bear sow. That bear was later shot by authorities. Then-mayor Mark Begich wisely closed the trail after the first mauling, opened it in October when bears had left the area, then re-closed it the following summer and fall. No maulings occurred during this period.

Newly elected Mayor Dan Sullivan, who is philosophically opposed to letting the bears call the shots, refused to close the trail in summer 2010. Within days another bicyclist was mauled at the same location. Anchorage has had a smattering of bear attacks in the past three decades, but nowhere else in the municipality, or in Alaska for that matter, has experienced three serious bear attacks in a two-year period.

Rover’s Run redux

Anyone proposing to build a recreational trail near a salmon-spawning stream, especially one that might be heavily used by fast-moving runners and bikers -- anyone knowing in advance that brown bears gather along that creek every summer and fall -- should have their head examined. But 25 years ago these facts were not as well known, so the original trail builders are not at fault. However, now that we know these things, we should react appropriately.

The runner-up for bear maulings is the Albert Loop Trail, near the Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park. However, after three maulings in four years, the park superintendent began closing the trail for several months every summer and fall. It's been 15 years since the last bear attack there.

Inevitably, if nothing's done, more people will be mauled on Rover's Run. If the mayor won't close the trail seasonally, when bears are there, perhaps the next best solution is to reroute it.

The Anchorage Park Foundation's grant request would fulfill an agreement made by the municipality in its "Far North Bicentennial Park Trail Improvements Plan," completed in 2011. A section of Rover's Run a little less than a mile long would be rerouted about 200 feet farther from the creek, out of the riparian area. The relocated section would connect to the Black Bear Trail at its intersection with the Moose Meadow Trail. The entire length of the old trail, approximately two miles, would be returned to its natural state. The trails plan calls the rerouted portion of Rover's Run an extension of the Black Bear Trail, which it is, logically speaking. So Rover's Run should cease to exist.

Signs at both ends of the decommissioned trail would strongly advise people to use the new route. There will be some runners and bicyclists who take a chance and use the old route anyway; they shouldn't expect much sympathy from city officials or the rest of us when a bear drags them off the trail and roughs them up.

Another Anchorage Park Foundation grant request would install bear-resistant trash receptacles in Anchorage parks. Anchorage is slowly lurching towards being more bear-aware. Yet, it remains difficult to convince residents to keep bears out of their personal garbage when government agencies and businesses aren't modeling good behavior.

Chugach State Park ditched their open trash containers a couple of decades ago. The previous Anchorage School District superintendent, Carol Comeau, replaced hundreds of uncovered trash cans on school grounds with bear-resistant containers. One of the most glaring holdouts among public agencies is the trashy bear buffets in many municipal parks. Although the city has provided bear-resistant trash cans in a few parks, it's way past time to fix the problem. Obviously, the expense has been a major stumbling block. But the Alaska Legislature can easily remedy this problem, eliminating hundreds of bear bait stations in city parks.

Sustainable trails cost less to maintain

The other grant request is from the Chugach State Park Citizens Advisory Board, a 15-member group appointed by the director of state parks. I'm a member of the advisory board, so keep that in mind as you consider the following argument for funding sustainable trails in the park.

The professionals who design trails have learned a lot in the past several decades. One of the clearest lessons is that publicly maintained trails must be sustainable. Trails designed and built so that they don't erode or facilitate shortcuts, which contribute to trail erosion, are much less expensive to maintain. Chugach State Park has 280 miles of backcountry trails to maintain, and sustainability wasn't normally at the top of the priority list decades ago when they were built. In fact, many of the trails follow old wagon roads or jeep tracks.

State park planners and trail maintenance crews are attempting to rectify poor trail designs and routes, but progress has been agonizingly slow due to lack of funding. The park's advisory board has submitted a request for $415,000 to help reduce trail erosion and maintenance costs, increase public safety, and stem conflicts with private property owners near park access points.

If that sounds like a lot of money, first consider the trails that need rehabilitation: Mt. Baldy and Mile High trails in Eagle River, portions of the South Fork Trail, Crow Pass Trail, and trails near Flattop and Canyon Road on Anchorage's Hillside. These are among the most popular and heavily used trails in the park and all need rerouting, clearing, or footbridges. About three-fourths of the grant would be spent on these trails.

In addition, new trails are needed to support the high demand for recreation in the park. Funding the grant request would allow preliminary designs for trails into Ram Valley, to the summit of Mount Baldy, to Meadow Creek from Mile High Road, and to the summit of Flattop from Canyon Road. Currently these areas are accessed through private property, which is unacceptable, and the unofficial footpaths are not sustainable. They often ascend directly up steep slopes, contain significant fall hazards in wet conditions, and are prone to erosion. Preliminary designs would be based on field surveys that identify trail alignments and grades that will support low maintenance, gradually ascending, and relatively dry paths completely on public property.

Motorized users will benefit if the legislature approves the request. Several years ago the park removed homemade bridges used by four-wheelers and snowmachines in the Bird Creek watershed for safety reasons. A preliminary design would establish better locations for bridges.

Talcum powder for tender spots

Anchorage sits astride an urban-wild interface. When bears come into the city and people venture into the nearby wilderness, chafing can occur. You bicyclists know exactly what I'm talking about.

Unsightly, unpleasant, and unsafe parks and trails are like a rash. The rash isn't going to kill us, but it could lead to more serious complications if ignored. Rerouting Rover's Run and removing bear attractants in city parks are akin to applying talcum powder to the irritated areas on one thigh. Increasing trail safety and lowering maintenance costs for backcountry trails reduces inflammation on the other side.

Everyone riding the urban-wild interface is more comfortable when talcum powder is applied from time to time.

These grant requests deserve serious consideration by the Alaska Legislature. To the best of my knowledge, no legislator has yet expressed a desire to sponsor any of the projects.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com

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