McCarthy Divided: Some want motorized access; others foot traffic

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The first time the bollards were torn out of the footbridge into McCarthy, the state waited until spring to replace them. The steel-and-concrete posts had been installed to keep vehicles off the bridge. Summer was the time everyone worried about, when the tourists arrived.

The second time the bollards were torn out, highway workers called the troopers. After the third time, state workers filled a 10-inch steel pipe with a steel I-beam and concrete, welded it to a 3-foot-square plate, and buried the plate five feet deep in the ground.

Six weeks ago, the bollard-busters, as they are known locally, used a torch and bulldozer to clear away that latest obstruction to motorized access.

This week, when the state Department of Transportation begins a series of public meetings on parking and related end-of-the-road matters concerning the old ghost town of McCarthy, the fate of the 4-year-old footbridge is going to be at the top of everyone's agenda.

The bridge sits at the end of a 58-mile gravel road leading to the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the nation's largest park. On a cobble floodplain of the Kennicott River, summer visitors pay $5 a day to park their cars at an old homestead. Shuttle buses wait on the far shore. To cross the river, visitors walk.

The footbridge at the end of the road is a symbol.

Many McCarthy residents say the footbridge, restricting motor vehicles, maintains the yesteryear ambiance of their remote community. A large majority of residents and visitors urged the state in the mid-1990's to build the footbridge -- actually two footbridges, over twin river channels -- replacing an aging hand-powered tram. They did not want a full-sized bridge, fearing their town would be overrun by buses and motorhomes.

''Everywhere you go to conferences in Alaska, people use that bridge as an example of not overdeveloping a place,'' said Kelly Bay, who runs a flightseeing service for walk-in visitors. ''The people who do come here to visit think it's great, because they're looking for something different.''

But some McCarthy-area residents see the foot-only bridge as an absurd restriction imposed by an eco-elite, limiting their constitutional rights and ability to haul freight across the river -- and choking off development of a prime Alaska tourist attraction.

''They have isolated a portion of the U.S. for their own enjoyment and want to keep it that way,'' said Ken Smith, a longtime summer resident, of the townspeople who sought the footbridge.

A handful of footbridge antagonists have made it their mission to keep the 6-foot-wide bridge open to four-wheelers and snowmachines by repeatedly tearing out concrete-and-steel bollards erected to block vehicles. Replacing them has cost more than $20,000, said George Levasseur, the state's district manager of maintenance and operations.

Most residents say they know who's involved, but no arrests have been made.

''The troopers are in the loop on this,'' Levasseur said. ''Unfortunately, the community is very polarized.''

Indeed, the McCarthy Area Council, or MAC, which took the lead in getting the footbridge built, now finds itself joined by a mirror-image group, Coalition for Access to McCarthy, or CAM.

The two groups combined to pose questions for the upcoming meetings. The finished list of 122 queries reads like an ode to rural Alaskan cantankerousness, where questions about public process and vandalism are interspersed with questions such as:

''When a bridge is present that will accept a modern conveyance, am I required to walk to a public airport to redress government under the first amendment? (carrying my luggage and big cases).''

The McCarthy area has several dozen year-round residents and more than a hundred in summer.

Advocates of vehicle access to McCarthy say they should be able to haul freight and drive to the post office by the airstrip, which lies a mile beyond the bridge, said Rick Kenyon, editor of the local bimonthly Wrangell St. Elias News.

But Rich Kirkwood, owner of the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, the area's high-end tourist accommodation, said he manages freight by planning ahead and using a portable bridge during low-water periods. He supports the footbridge, saying it protects the feeling of quiet isolation his customers come to enjoy.

Some who want to drive in have proposed blocking a new bridge or road with a gate locked to everyone except residents, Kenyon said. But their opponents argue that option was rejected five years ago by state lawyers, who said it would be an improper use of public funds.

The round of meetings, which were to begin Wednesday in McCarthy, are primarily about options for developing the parking area at the end of the road.

The $900,000 project is part of a long-range plan for the whole ''scenic corridor'' through the park. The current consensus plan calls for an improved road that will nevertheless be narrower and slower than most state highways.

Critics say the existing private parking by the river is chaotic and has encouraged an entrepreneurial fervor that could quickly get out of hand.

''The big question is whether McCarthy is going to be a very attractive portal for visitors, or a combination of Wasilla and Glitter Gulch,'' said Ben Shaine, a founder of an environmental studies center in McCarthy, referring to the unflattering name for commercial development outside Denali National Park.

But others say the private landowner helps manage parking at no public expense. A host of other complications must be sorted out, including whether to move parking off the river's floodplain.

Differences over the state's parking options are almost as pronounced as disputes over the footbridge. On one point, however, public comments have been uncharacteristically unanimous, said state transportation project manager Janet Brown.

''Everyone agrees they want better bathrooms,'' she said.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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