Scenic road work under way

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006


  A young brown bear forages on the bank of the Kenai River alongside the Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing last fall in an area that has earned designation as a State Scenic Byway. Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

A young brown bear forages on the bank of the Kenai River alongside the Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing last fall in an area that has earned designation as a State Scenic Byway.

Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

Portions of the Sterling Highway have earned designation as an Alaska Scenic Byway, and groups of residents along the route are working to complete plans needed to apply for a national designation, a status that could open doors to a variety of federal enhancement grants.

Thursday in Homer, a small group of residents came together to work on the lower Sterling Highway’s corridor plan, a kind of road map for long-term planning for areas along the highway route, which stretches from Stariski Creek to the tip of the Homer Spit. That plan would outline priorities for improving the attractiveness of the area not only to tourists, but to residents, as well.

Among the ideas floated at the Homer workshop were adding more turnouts along the route, more restrooms, RV dump stations, informational kiosks, modifications to dangerous sections of the road, more parking and better access to state parks, and interpretive signage, such as at the popular pullout atop Baycrest Hill at the gateway to Homer.

Other ideas included finding ways to help visitors make the connection between the civilization that is Homer and the wilderness experience available only a short distance outside the populated areas.

Results of a recent survey distributed at the meeting showed potential goals for the byway would include increasing traveler awareness, making the byway relevant for citizens and businesses, ensuring an understanding that a byway designation is about recognition, not regulation, and finding a way to project the region’s uniqueness, even in a state gifted by incredible beauty nearly everywhere.

The whole idea of a corridor is to “expand beyond the pavement” the experience available to travelers, said Chris Mertl, a workshop facilitator with the Corridor Partnership Plan development project, along with John Whiteman and Nancy Casey.

“We know people will go up the Anchor River, and go out onto Kachemak Bay to fish,” he said. “So it’s really about the experience of the highway and the corridor around it.”

Bill Marley, a long-time Homer resident, said hydro-seeding wildflowers along the highway route would do much to beautify the traveling experience.

Another long-time resident, Diane Borgman, asked if the byway program could include promoting not only Homer’s natural beauty, but also its artist community.

Both those ideas would benefit from the program, Mertl said.

Thursday’s workshop was freeform and designed to elicit any and all ideas. A similar meeting took place in Cooper Landing on Wednesday, where residents there discussed the same kind of improvements that might be applied to the upper Sterling Highway scenic byway that begins at the “Y” with the Seward Highway and extends to Skilak Lake Road. Thursday night, the consultants met with residents of the Anchor Point area.

The Seward Highway already is designated an “All-American Road,” the highest ranking in the National Scenic Byway program, a designation supporters along the Sterling Highway hope one day to achieve. First, they must make the step from State Scenic Byway to National Scenic Byway, however.

Achieving national recognition as a National Scenic Byway will involve convincing bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., that the corridor has attractive assets beyond the pretty face of spectacular vistas. Virtually all applications for scenic byway designations arriving from around the country — and competing with those from Alaska — promote natural beauty, Whiteman said. The corridor plan should therefore focus on more than the scenery, and include things that would “blow their socks off.”

“It’s not just the grant money (available through the scenic byway program),” said Anne Marie Holen, special projects coordinator for the city of Homer. “It’s also the publicity and marketing that’s taken care of at the national level,” including the scenic byway program’s Web site.

Assuming a nomination period opens next year, Holen said, a package seeking national scenic byway status would be submitted in January of 2007.

National Scenic Byways are recognized by the U.S. Department of Transportation for their archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities. All-American Roads or considered among the most scenic.

According to information available at the Web site, the program began in 1991, and since then it has provided nearly $300 million to 1,665 byway projects in 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

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