Snowmachine groups offer to drop Denali lawsuit

Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2001

KODIAK (AP) -- Snowmachiners want to drop a lawsuit that sought to ensure access to Denali National Park, according to two groups that filed the suit.

Instead, the groups will ask Congress to pass a bill that would keep about a quarter of Denali's old park area open to snowmachines.

The Alaska State Snowmobile Association and the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association said they want to drop the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage ''without prejudice,'' meaning that they could refile it if they want.

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton commended the associations for offering to drop the suit, but did not endorse the snowmachiners' proposed legislation.

Steve Martin, superintendent of Denali National Park and Preserve, said the groups will probably have to work with Congress to get their proposal considered.

The proposed bill would close about 75 percent of the original Denali park to snowmachine use. That means the southeastern corner of the old park, south of the Alaska Range crest and east of Mount McKinley, would be reopened to snowmachiners.

Kevin Hite, president of the Alaska State Snowmobile Association, said he understands that the Bush administration supports the proposal.

All of the ''old park'' area in Denali was designated as wilderness by Congress when it expanded the park with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. When the park service formally closed all of that wilderness to snowmachining several years ago, the Alaska group filed suit.

The snowmachiners said ANILCA established their right to ride in the old park while pursuing ''traditional'' activities. The court ruled for the snowmachiners, saying the park service hadn't defined the traditional activities protected by ANILCA and thus couldn't ban methods of engaging in such uses.

The park service then defined traditional uses as travel between villages and homes, hunting, and berry picking, but not recreation. Since those activities hadn't occurred in the old park in winter, the park service ended up closing most of the old park to snowmachines again.

The association sued again, this time with the assistance of the manufacturers, saying the park service's definition of traditional activities was wrong.

When the Bush administration took control, they were able to start talking about a settlement, Hite said.

Chip Dennerlein, Alaska regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he didn't view the snowmachiners' proposal as a ''settlement.''

''This is simply Bill Horn dropping his lawsuit because he cannot win in the court of public opinion and he cannot win in court,'' he said.

Over 90 percent of Alaskans supported closing the old park to recreational snowmachining, Dennerlein said.

''What they're really after is to get a decision that for the first time ever allows snowmachining in wilderness designated by Congress inside a national park,'' he said.

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