Snowmachine use essential in the Refuge

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2011

Mr. Johnston's Dec. 31 Refuge Notebook was interesting but ignored crucial facts regarding snowmobile use in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (KNWR). Sections 1110 and 811 of ANILCA permit use of snowmachines in all federal Conservation System Units (CSUs), including Wilderness Areas.

These provisions were part of the enormous compromise made for Alaska to account for the significant land withdrawals by the federal government in 1980. Pre-ANILCA regulations authorized recreational uses such as snowmaching that would not interfere with the primary purposes for which refuges or ranges were established. Alaska is vast, yet the federal government controls the majority of the land. Unless mechanized access is allowed, these lands will rarely be accessible to the public.

Section 1110 in ANILCA provides added protection from federal agencies trying to arbitrarily impose prohibitions. The agencies must show the use to be "specifically and tangibly detrimental" before prohibiting it and any restrictions are subject to reasonable regulation. Furthermore, the prohibition shall not require demonstration of pre-existing use and the Secretary of the Interior shall limit any exclusion to the smallest area practicable or the shortest period of time, or both.

Many Kenai Peninsula residents have enjoyed snowmaching on the refuge for years. They are concerned with the subjective manner in which most KNWR studies, draft plans and environmental assessments are conducted. For example, the 1971 regulation resulting in the snowmobile restrictions to which Mr. Johnston refers, originated from an environmental impact statement (EIS). The conclusion of the EIS pretty much equated snowmachiners to vandals pillaging the Refuge. The State of Alaska has cautioned the Refuge from referencing this document since it was so poorly done, inflammatory and nowhere near the standards present in today's National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.

ANICLA supersedes previous restrictions such as the 1971 regulations and essentially amended the 1964 Wilderness Act. ANILCA guarantees uses such as snowmaching, a long established activity in the KNWR. Prohibiting or restricting snowmachine use would inevitably affect other traditional activities such as ice fishing, scenic viewing and trapping. The result would change the intended purposes of the refuge set forth by Congress in the congressional record where snowmobiling was cited specifically as a purpose.

The current study by the refuge regarding snowmachine use and its effects on habitat and moose is of questionable value. The results cannot be conclusive because there are too many other factors not considered, such as predation, food availability and snow depth.

The new refuge manager, Andy Loranger, has demonstrated to be a fair and pragmatic leader. These leadership qualities will be imperative in managing our public lands in the manner outlined by Congress in ANILCA and the congressional intent documented by the legislative history.

Elaina Spraker, Soldotna

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