One of Alaska's most needlessly stubborn land-use conflicts is over whether snowmobiling should be permitted in the old part of Denali National Park and Preserve. It shouldn't.
The National Park Service and snowmobile groups have been locked in legal and political battles over whether to ban snowmobiling in the 2 million acres of land within the original park boundaries. It's already allowed in the remaining 4 million acres of the park and preserve.
Last week two snowmobile groups withdrew their lawsuit in the midst of efforts to resolve the matter politically, through Congress or the Interior Department. Pulling the battle out of court is probably a good step, but what's really needed is a little broader perspective.
To those not enmeshed in the battle, the merits of the issue don't seem all that difficult: With the blessings of immense amounts of space and distance, Alaska can afford both grand territory for snowmobiling and quiet sanctuary in the park. Virtually nowhere else in America does this luxury exist -- if we can find the spirit of compromise to preserve it.
Drive the Parks Highway on any winter afternoon and you'll find literally dozens of turnouts and parking spots where snowmobilers can light out for the great beyond. For most of the 375 miles between Anchorage and Fairbanks, there is room to roam along the highway.
If that doesn't satisfy riders, they can turn off the main highway at Willow, or Trapper Creek, or Cantwell, and take side roads to even greater access. Or they can roam off the Glenn Highway, the Richardson Highway, the Seward Highway, up the Susitna River Valley, out the trail toward Skwentna, or ... you get the picture. There's lots of room in Alaska -- even for noisy machines that cover a lot of ground in a hurry. Snowmobiling can and should be one of the delights of winter in Alaska.
Far less territory is reserved for peace and quiet, for undisturbed protection of what God gave us. That's one of the reasons why we have national parks, and why the Park Service -- and, we'll bet, lots more folks who aren't involved in the battle -- want to keep the peace in the last 2 million acres at Denali.
Looming behind the Denali decision is a similar dispute about all 54 million acres of national parks in Alaska. Every case doubtless has its own complications of history, traditional use, policy and planning. But with so much space available in Alaska there's room enough for everyone. To lose sight of that would be to surrender to the extremists -- and to deny the reality and true opportunity of this grand place.
So as the battle moves out of court, thankfully, let's build a simple compromise: Keep snowmobile access widely available elsewhere, and keep alive the quiet sanctuary at the core of the park. We could all be proud of a community with the heart and poise to serve both values at once, rather than being held hostage to the absolutists who fear that giving up some space means giving up all of it.
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