To drive the Richardson Highway near Copper Center on a sunny day is to know one of the great scenic vistas in the United States -- and one of the great locations anywhere for a new tourist hotel and associated development. Mount Sanford, Mount Wrangell and Mount Drum, to name three of the most prominent peaks, stand as awesome proof of the power of landscape.
That gives an exquisite -- and important -- dilemma for those who would capitalize on or live with Alaska's beauty. To put it bluntly: Done right, roadside development is an asset, providing jobs and access while preserving an area's beauty. Done wrong, it is a blight. The dilemma is staying on the right side of the line without unduly limiting development choices.
An 85-bed, $10 million Princess lodge is scheduled to open next May in the shadows of the Wrangell Mountains and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. A series of small-scale and generally unobtrusive roadhouses and residences front the highway south of Glennallen and overlook the grand peaks of the Wrangells. Communities like Copper Center and Kenny Lake support small-scale farming and an outback lifestyle that draws partly from roadside tourism and partly from get-away-from-it-all joys in one of the world's loveliest locations.
And to protect all that we need tools -- zoning or other planning controls that guide and refine growth along the highway corridor. For now the Ahtna Regional Corp. is doing what it can as owner of 1.7 million acres in the area to exert some leverage on development. ''We don't want to have a Glitter Gulch here,'' said Ahtna project manager Tad Kehl. ''We want to take a conservative approach to how we develop our land vis-a-vis tourism.''
That is surely the right impulse, and it draws from painful experience outside another exquisite attraction, Denali National Park and Preserve.
Outside the entrance to Denali a haphazard and unappealing collection of roadside hotels, shops and roadhouses mushroomed after the Parks Highway opened in the early 1970s. Few of them are unattractive on their own; it is the sprawl and scale that offend sensibilities. No one intended to uglify this section of a beautiful highway, but no one had the power to prevent it.
Alaskans are forever saying that here, at least, we have the chance to get it right when we develop our matchless beauty. Then, too often, we look around afterward, as at Denali, to realize we got it wrong once again. Copper Center is another prime opportunity, and the residents of the region are the first line of defense -- not only for themselves, but also for anyone, anywhere, who may get the opportunity to visit the region.
Good intentions aren't enough. We also need planning tools, a sense of perspective and the discipline to make them stick. Ahtna Corp., in this case, is setting a good example. In the long run, however, that won't be enough. We need brains and public commitment to match the stature of Mount Sanford, Mount Wrangell and Mount Drum.
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