FAIRBANKS (AP) -- After hearing from the public, Alaska State Parks will go ahead with a plan to use a Hydro-Ax to clear parts of the Chena Hot Springs Winter Trail to increase visibility and improve safety on blind corners and some narrow sections of trail.
About two-dozen concerned trail users showed up at a meeting at the Department of Natural Resources recently to offer opinions about the project. After hearing what they had to say, ranger Darryl Hunt said the state is still hoping to do the trail clearing sometime in late March or early April.
The state received a $20,000 recreational trail grant to do the work and awarded a contract for the project but it was postponed in December when several mushers from Two Rivers voiced opposition to using a Hydro-Ax for the job, as well as clearing the trail to a 20-foot width.
After hearing comments from users, Hunt said the trail likely won't be cleared to 20 feet as originally was proposed. State parks will be spot clearing in many spots, he said.
''The public was afraid we were going to put a super highway in there and we're not,'' Hunt said after the meeting. ''Our main concern is blind corners. There's a lot of places you can't see anything.
''We want to open up visibility; we're not looking at clearing a 50-foot runway down the middle of the park,'' he said. ''There are some areas that will be cleared only on one side. There are some areas where it's fine and we won't do anything.''
That's what trail users at the meeting, most of whom were dog mushers, wanted to hear. Several people were worried that widening the trail would make it more dangerous, rather than safer.
''If you start widening the trail and taking out blind corners, snowmachines are going to go faster and faster,'' musher Val Mackler told park officials.
There have been no injuries to mushers or snowmachiners as a result of the trail conditions, Mackler said.
Musher Mike Green from the Two Rivers Dog Mushers' Association echoed Mackler's comments.
''You're talking safety,'' he said. ''As soon as you start widening out is when it's going to get dangerous.''
Green said more mushers use trails in the park than anyone else.
''You have to remember this is a heavy dog mushing area,'' he said. ''I'd like to see it maintained as a dog mushing area.''
Snowmachines aren't a problem in the park now because the nature of the trail keeps them slowed.
''It's the only place I've ridden where I don't get passed at 60 mph,'' said Tony Torti, who rides his mountain bike on the trails. ''Most people I run into are trappers or recreational snowmachiners.''
Most users like the character of the trail as it is.
''To me, there's nothing more beautiful than going down a narrow trail,'' Torti said. ''That's a typical trail in Alaska.''
Dog musher Aliy Zirkle, who has spent the past five years training for the Yukon Quest and Iditarod sled dog races on the park trails, said the Chena Hot Springs Winter Trail is her favorite training ground.
''You wind around through the trees, go around curves, up and down bumps,'' Zirkle said. ''It's nice to go out there and feel like you're in the wilderness.''
State parks director Jim Stratton flew in from Anchorage for the meeting after receiving several e-mails and phone calls about the clearing project.
After the meeting, Stratton said state parks intends to maintain the character of the trail because that's what people seem to want.
''That's what draws people out there,'' Stratton said.
There is no speed limit for snowmachines in the park and having one probably wouldn't do much because it would be hard to enforce.
Several people in the audience also questioned the use of a Hydro-Ax to do the clearing.
''It's a good, quick way to do it but it leaves those pungee sticks,'' Green said, referring to the shredded tops of trees that have been cut. ''If you get a dog team in there, those sticks are going to do some damage.''
Contractor Tom Brice of Brice Inc., who was awarded the bid for the project, said he will cut only trees and brush that the state tells him to cut and he would cut trees and brush at ground level.
''I'm going to do the job to the exact specifications the state gives me,'' he said. ''If I see a ribbon I'm going to clear to that ribbon. If I don't see any flagging I'm going to pull my blades up and not cut anything.''
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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