Jump onboard Scenic Byway bandwagon

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006

Face it — we live in a tourism hot spot. As the local visitor industry loves to point out, the Kenai Peninsula has it all — wildlife, history, recreation, world-class fishing and, of course, scenery.

Some may groan when the annual procession of land yachts starts making its way down the highway but the surge of summer tourists is as unavoidable as the return of salmon to the Kenai and other peninsula rivers.

Or so we hope, on both accounts.

The tourism industry helps diversify the peninsula’s economy. Tourists may slow traffic and hook some monsters locals would love to have, but they also keep stores in business, chip in to municipal sales taxes and in general give the peninsula’s summer economy a shot in the arm.

At best tourism benefits the economy and shows off the peninsula’s assets to a worldwide audience. At worst it’s a mere annoyance to locals, so why not make the most of it?

Cooper Landing, Anchor Point and Homer are trying to do so by capitalizing on the highway that brings visitors and their dollars to town. Portions of the Sterling Highway that pass through these communities already are designated as Alaska Scenic Byways. Now these communities are trying for National Scenic Byway status, which would open the door to federal grants and tourism marketing on a national level.

Planning meetings were held recently where residents worked to create corridor plans needed to apply for National Scenic Byway status. The plans serve as a blueprint for future development of these sections of the highway and the surrounding areas. Suggestions included building more restrooms and pullouts, adding signs and interpretive information to mark historic and other sites of interest, trail improvements and trailhead marking and expanding parking at popular attractions.

Not only would these improvements make a visitor’s road trip more comfortable and enjoyable, but locals would benefit, as well. Who hasn’t wished for a restroom outside of Cooper Landing during a drive back from Anchorage? Not anyone who got coffee in Girdwood or is traveling with small children.

These improvements could be funded with federal dollars if National Scenic Byway status is granted. Money available through the program can be used for just about anything that isn’t the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ responsibility. Cooper Landing couldn’t get funds to fix potholes on Skilak Lake Road, for instance, but it could put in boardwalks and bird identification signs at Tern Lake.

Central Kenai Peninsula communities will miss out on the enhancement grants and national marketing their neighbors could receive. In 2004 an effort was launched to designate the Sterling Highway from Cooper Landing to Homer a State Scenic Byway so the entire stretch of road would be covered.

The central peninsula wasn’t having it, though. The argument that gained the most traction was that Scenic Byway status would bring regulation along with recognition. Enough residents took up that rally cry that the borough assembly voted against the measure — even though the argument is flawed.

First of all, the highway already is regulated. Can you drive as fast as you want? No. Can you chuck a soda bottle out your window without fear of a fine? No. Can you build a house or erect a sign or do whatever you want without permission directly alongside the road? No.

Opponents seemed to fear that if Scenic Byway status were granted suddenly a state or federal agency would swoop in and regulate the highway corridor more than current laws, right of way stipulations and other regulations already do. Opponents were sketchy on specific examples of these menacing regulations, however.

That’s because there are none. According to Nancy Casey, local coordinator of the Sterling State Byway Planning Project, Scenic Byway status does not necessarily bring regulations with it. Communities can choose to enact regulations as part of their byway designation, but they also can — and most frequently do — choose not to.

“Here so far nobody has even suggested it,” Casey said. “We never encourage it. It’s not even something on the radar.”

During an assembly discussion on the matter in September 2004, assembly member Ron Long of Seward noted that he hasn’t seen any ill effects from the Seward Highway’s National Scenic Byway status — only benefits.

The other argument made by opponents is that Scenic Byway status would bring more tourists, and there’s enough or too many as it is.

Well, too bad. Increasing numbers of tourists already are showing up without Scenic Byway status. If high gas prices aren’t stopping them from coming, locals’ grumpiness won’t, either. If someone is that opposed to tourism, they’re going to have to move somewhere without amazing scenery and world-class fishing.

It’s time to jump onboard, central peninsula. The scenery isn’t going to get less beautiful anytime soon, and local marketing agencies aren’t likely to stop advertising the peninsula as the place to see this summer.

If the bandwagon of National Scenic Byway status comes, opponents might as well hop on — or it’ll run them over on its way to Homer.

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