Unhappy campers - Legislation takes park creation out of hands of administration

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Legislation introduced last month could severely restrict access and additions to state parks, including some in the works for the Kenai Peninsula.

House Bill 159, introduced by District 28 Rep. Beverly Masek, R-Willow, co-chair of the House Resources Committee, would reduce the size of additions the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources could establish from 640 acres, or one square mile, to 40 acres, or one-sixth square mile.

In Masek's sponsor statement, she compares Gov. Tony Knowles administration to former President Bill Clinton's administration in regards to land acquisition.

"The Clinton administration's unabashed use of executive authority to lock up lands for special interest groups clearly demonstrates how the will of the people, as represented by the legislative branch, may be thwarted by a single individual," she wrote.

"We have a similar problem here in Alaska that allows the managers at the Department of Natural Resources to ignore the constitution and the public process and unilaterally create parks through a mechanism know as an Interagency Land Management Agreement (ILMA). Since the current administration has come to power, the use of this arrangement has escalated and has circumvented the public process."

HB 159 also would prohibit any expansion of existing ILMAs, if it would increase the acreage to more than 40 acres.

"We are unaware of any problems with the 640-acre limit and feel that 40 acres significantly limits the administration's ability to meet the needs for increased recreational access, provide for outdoor recreation facilities like campgrounds, boat launch ramps, trails and trail heads and meet the requirements necessary for Alaskans to safely recreate in areas where use is concentrated," wrote Jim Stratton, director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation in his analysis of HB 159.

However, Masek's chief of staff, Eddie Grasser, said 40 acres is large enough, and the current administration has been abusing ILMAs.

"We researched the amount of land (used in ILMAs), and prior to Knowles, they were 40 acres or less," Grasser said. "Since Tony, they've zoomed up to 600 and 300 acres."

"Essentially, what we're concerned about is whether the constitution and state regulations are being followed, or if some individual wants a park somewhere and just does it," Grasser added. "House Bill 159 would still allow the agency to set up parking areas and roadside campgrounds, but as far as a bona fide park, they cannot create it unless it goes through the Legislature, which is what they are supposed to do."

There are currently 72 ILMAs that Parks manages, 45 of them larger than 40 acres. Stratton wrote that the division is concerned with the ability of the division to manage those 45 ILMAs, its ability to accept gifts of land, and the existence of its trail easement program.

That last program recently created clear and free access from Clam Gulch into the Caribou Hills for snowmachiners across Univer-sity of Alaska land.

"This bill would kill this program," Stratton wrote.

Grasser disagrees.

"We know that Parks is jumping up and down spreading information that they won't be able to create those right of ways, but according to our people, that's fallacious thinking," Grasser said. "Right of ways and easements are not owned by an agency. They often intrude on other people's property. Rights of way are legal instruments, not management agreements."

However, Stratton maintains that the trail easements are still managed by Parks, and if one exceeds 40 acres, Parks would not be allowed under HB 159 to manage it.

A 25-foot-wide trail reaches 40 acres at 12.2 miles.

"Any longer trail, or one that is 'proximately located' to an existing ILMA, would not be eligible for management by Parks under HB 159," Stratton wrote.

The Clam Gulch trail is 25-feet wide and 21.5 miles long, exceeding the 40-acre limit by 8.3 miles. Stratton wrote that he is unsure if HB 159 would negate the agreement that created that easement.

Other trail easements Parks is working on, including the Iron Dog Trail in the Matanuska-Susitna area and the Lunch Creek Trail in Ketchikan, would exceed 40 acres and be abandoned by Parks if HB 159 is passed, Stratton wrote.

But it is not trail easements that are behind Masek's bill. Rather, according to Grasser, it is Hatcher Pass, a popular snowmachining area near Willow.

"(Parks) took a huge chunk of multiple use public land and made it into a Parks administration land," Grasser said. "We're talking several thousand acres."

Parks Chief of Field Operations Pete Panarese said the amount set aside on the east side of Hatcher Pass for telemark skiing was closer to 700 acres. That was done in 1996, before Senate Bill 35 set the limit to 640 acres.

On the Kenai Peninsula, Stratton said HB 159 would not allow Parks to accept a pending gift of 23 acres next to Morgans Landing State Recreation Area, because it is adjacent to the area.

"This bill would disallow our acceptance of this donation as Morgans Landing is already greater than 40 acres," Stratton wrote.

Stratton also wrote that Parks could lose enforcement and fee collecting authority on the 45 ILMAs larger than 40 acres, resulting in the loss of $334,300 revenue.

HB 159 currently is in the House Resources Committee and set for a hearing April 18 at 1 p.m.

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