State wants public's ideas on trails

Posted: Wednesday, April 28, 2004

For years, a loose network of trails in the Deep Creek and Anchor River watersheds have provided access to remote parts of the lower Kenai Peninsula and the Caribou Hills.

However, increasing trail use is posing a danger to valuable wetlands and streams. According to the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, that's because many trails developed along "the path of least resistance through riparian zones, along stream courses and across adjacent wetlands" as users attempted to avoid denser vegetation elsewhere.

Comprehensive aerial surveys by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2000 helped develop a database of hundreds of stream crossings. Now, the parks division is working to identify a network of legally established trails and is seeking public comments in a trail-planning effort through a series of open houses.

The first will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the assembly chambers at the Borough Building in Soldotna. Officials with the parks division's Design and Construction Section will be on hand. The next day, they will be in Ninilchik for an open house from 4 to 8 p.m. in the Community Hall Building at the Ninilchik Fair Grounds. On May 12, it will be Homer's turn, from 5 to 9 p.m. in the Homer High School commons.

The trail planning project will identify commonly used routes for hunters, cabin owners and other recreational users who have minimal impacts to wetlands, muskeg and riparian environments, according to information provided on the parks division's Web site.

Much of the trail system won't be changed, but some trails could be closed as a result of the project, while others may require hardening or relocation to minimize damage to wetlands, the division said.

It is not the intent to limit access, but to protect fish and wildlife habitat. Indeed, improving the trails might actually increase trail use, the division said.

The project will identify existing trails crossing private and public property, but repair projects will focus on public land. The division said that trails on existing easements are OK, but alternative routes would be sought for trails crossing private property.

The project is a joint effort of the parks division and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which will work together to solicit public comments, evaluate river and wetlands crossings and prioritize projects. It is being funded by a $100,000 grant through the Coastal Impact Assistance Program.

Applications to other grant programs may be made to secure more funding. Other possible sources include the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the Five-Star Restoration Challenge Grants and the Environmental Protection Agency's Wetlands Program, the division said.

Fieldwork for the project is to begin in July and a final report and list of proposed projects is to be available by February 2005.

Parks division project manager Chuck Casper said the design group is primarily concerned with water crossings. The need for a detailed survey became apparent in 1999, when Fish and Game biologists, who were engaged in another project at the time, began noting the increasing number of trails and stream crossings in the remote areas. Casper said Fish and Game identified some 350 such crossings. Some, he said, are reduced to mud holes in warm weather.

"That makes it hard for fry and juvenile fish to live," he said. "No one wants to see the fish hurt."

Eventually, the crossings will be ranked and possible repair projects identified. That information could be used by user groups to seek grants for crossing projects under the umbrella of the Department of Fish and Game, according to Bill Evans, currently the landscape supervisor for the Division of Parks.

Evans is expected to take over as project manager from Casper, who said Tuesday he will soon be leaving the division for a job outside government.

Work on crossings could include bridges, matting, or logs -- basically measures to help protect the integrity of the streams.

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