High-tech gadgets track hikers

Posted: Friday, July 24, 2009

JUNEAU -- The Airport Dike Trail may be a great place for spotting rare migratory birds or dog breeds, but it isn't the trail for getting away from people.

Its popularity was confirmed by a new device semi-hidden on the trail that counted about 315 trailgoers there in a period of about 30 hours of one week. The devices are part of a new project to quantify the popularity of roughly 50 miles of Juneau trails. The information may improve trail management and perhaps secure more funding for them.

Parks and Recreation Director Marc Matsil estimated 100,000 people use Juneau's trails each year. He suspects it's a conservative estimate, but one he and others have used for years.

George Schaaf, executive director of the city-funded Juneau trails nonprofit Trail Mix Inc., said, "We have a feeling about which trails are most popular."

Public agencies and foundations that provide money for trails prefer numbers to feelings, though. Trail building can be costly. The new Auke Lake trail cost about $1.3 million, and the latest phase of downtown's Perseverance Trail rehab took $900,000. Such work is mostly funded by grants, Matsil said.

So Schaaf invested in three trail traffic counters, for about $2,700 total. The city already had four others. The money came from a U.S. Forest Service grant program that redistributes the money that the agency earns from timber sales, Matsil said.

These gadgets employ infrared signaling, such as those found in laser tag or television remote controls. One traffic counter sends an infrared beam of light to a receiving unit up to 100 feet away. When the signal is blocked, the counter adds one and records the date and time. Schaaf said he tried to set it at about "Marmaduke level" -- high enough to catch most children but miss most dogs. They halve the count on out-and-back trails, such as the Dike Trail, to keep counts accurate.

A Web site for Ivan Technologies, a company that produces these counters, says they work in all weather and are "not fooled by light-colored clothing, shiny objects, headlights, flashlight beams or sunlight."

Their locations aren't perfectly secret, but Schaaf took pains to install them out of sight so people wouldn't take them.

He plans to rotate the traffic counters on nine city-managed trails this summer and then get some help from middle-school and high-school students to analyze the counts. He'll keep using the traffic counters through next year to get a whole year's worth of data.

Funding sources often ask about the economic benefit of a proposed project, so Schaaf also is looking to quantify the locals-to-tourists ratio of Juneau's trail users. The counters obviously can't tell the difference, so Schaaf said trail users may also run into pollsters this summer asking them if they live in Juneau.

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