Park Service updates Denali backcountry plan

Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The National Park Service is putting the finishing touches on a new backcountry management plan for Denali National Park and Preserve.

Park Service officials say Denali's current backcountry management plan was written in 1986 and is outdated.

Some of the changes in the new plan include a registration and permit system for snowmachiners, a cap on the number of mountaineers that can scale Mount McKinley and restrictions on where air taxi operators can land and fly.

Officials say the plan will prevent conflicts as use of the park's backcountry increases.

''We're trying to get ahead and manage uses before we get any problems,'' said Mike Tranel, a park service planner. ''We're not kicking people out of the places where they're going. We're trying to disperse the use.''

The park service has been developing the plan for the past two years and is holding a final round of public meetings to take comment on the plan. Meetings were scheduled in Healy Wednesday, Fairbanks on Thursday and Cantwell on Monday. The comment period ends May 30.

The plan contains five alternatives with varying ranges of restrictions. Park superintendent Paul Anderson anticipates a ''mix and match'' of the alternatives to come up with a comprehensive plan that users will tolerate.

The biggest issues addressed in the plan revolve around snowmachine use, air traffic and mountain climbing.

All snowmachiners in the park would be required to register their machines and get a permit to ride in the park under the alternative favored by the park service. Currently, the park service has no way to keep track of how many snowmachiners ride in the park.

''If we're going to make good management decisions we have to figure out what the use is,'' Tranel told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

While watchdogs haven't exactly embraced the plan, there hasn't been a rush to oppose it. Most groups recognize that increased backcountry use demands some kind of management.

There are a few parts of the plan that make her ''nervous'' but Sandra White, manager at Talkeetna Air Taxi, said the park service has been ''very reasonable.''

One thing White opposes is closing areas to airplanes if nobody is using the area.

''I respect the right to have quiet zones in the park, but if no one is there enjoying the quiet, I don't see why there's a reason we can't fly over,'' she said.

Access is the biggest issue for snowmachiners. The park service closed the original 2 million acres of the park to snowmachining almost five years ago, prompting a legal battle with the Alaska State Snowmobiling Association.

Snowmachining in the 4 million acres of land that was added to the park as a result of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conversation Act in 1980 remains open to snowmachine use, but the core of the park remains closed to motorized use.

''We haven't accepted the fact the old park is closed and we won't accept the fact the old park is closed,'' said Kevin Hite, president of the ASSA.

But wilderness advocates say the park service has opened areas to motorized use that haven't been considered as potential wilderness yet.

''By failing to address the inventoried wilderness in the 4 million acres of park additions, we think it's premature to authorize snowmachining in those areas,'' said Eleanor Huffines, regional director for The Wilderness Society in Alaska. ''They're authorizing a detrimental use that will preclude the future designation of those areas as wilderness.''

The park service is also proposing a cap of 1,500 for the number of climbers allowed on Mount McKinley during a season. The record for climbers in one season is 1,305 in 2001.

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