Recreational users and area landowners have given their blessing to a plan to reroute the all-terrain vehicle trail to Caribou Lake south of the Caribou Hills to higher ground.
Though it will take several years and possibly several hundred thousand dollars, not to mention hours of volunteer labor, the work is essential -- and groundbreaking in Alaska, said project manager Lindsay Winkler of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District.
"We're trying to establish a legal trail out there so we have it forever," she said.
At a meeting last Thursday hosted by the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, Snomad snowmachine club president Spud Dillon spelled out the problem and why resolution is needed -- in spite of potential costs.
"We're trying to avoid destruction of those swamps and wetlands. It misses the point to say it costs too much," he told the group.
The existing trail has developed haphazardly over the years, in part because state agencies that sold land in the Caribou Lake area never specified legal access to the land. Almost the entire route from Eagle Lake Road at the end of East End Road east of Homer to the lake is state-owned, where it's legal to drive an ATV anywhere except through streams.
A handful of people use the trail on a regular basis to reach homes around Caribou Lake, but like elsewhere in Alaska, an increasing number of recreationists and hunters have started driving the trail on four- to eight-wheeled vehicles.
As trail use has grown, environmental degradation is a growing problem, according to users as well as land managers and biologists. Streams have been crossed illegally and wetlands are being crisscrossed by trails, creating a muddy network.
"It's being degraded to the point that it will be unusable in five years," said Mike Eastham, a longtime Snomad and now a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Trails Commission.
He and other trail users feared that unless they did something to protect the environment, they might lose their access rights. The Snomads took up the cause several years ago, and have received grants to harden the trails. Without legal easements, however, they and landowners in the area could not legally put in boardwalks and other trail improvements.
In the last year, however, a coalition has formed that brings together hunters and other recreationists with Caribou Lake land developers and homeowners, as well as Cook Inlet Keeper and several state and federal agencies. The Homer Soil and Water Conservation District is acting as facilitator.
The group's goal is to apply in October for a $30,000 state Transportation and Recreational Access Alaska, or TRAAK, grant. But first, Winkler said, the trail route must be refined and mapped and easements must be obtained from the Department of Natural Resources.
Then the trail route can be physically flagged and an inventory taken of the necessary improvements, such as bridges and hardening materials for soft sections.
The plan is to move the trail to high ground wherever possible. Where wetlands and streams must be crossed, the group plans to build a 6-foot-wide hardened path. Materials will be expensive -- as much as $11 a lineal foot for plastic grid, perhaps just a few dollars a foot to use site-cut spruce trees and boards.
Total cost won't be known until the route is established and the trail-hardening materials are selected, Winkler said, but it could easily take several hundred thousand dollars. Grants will be required, she said, and volunteers will be needed to install the materials.
And that's just for Phase I. A second phase will be identified that loops the trail back to the west and connects with Eagle Lake Road.
Trail supporters refuse to be cowed by the enormity of the job. Winkler, like Snomad president Dillon, said the cost is beside the point. "We just want to make sure something is done as soon as possible."
Joel Gay is a reporter for the Homer News.
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