State considers checkpoints, restrictions on Dalton Highway traffic in response to attacks

Posted: Tuesday, October 09, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State officials are considering restricting traffic on the Dalton Highway to protect the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and North Slope oil facilities from terrorist attacks.

The options range from closing the road to the public to putting up checkpoints along the highway, said Del Smith, deputy commissioner of public safety.

''No final decision has been made,'' Smith said. ''We have to look at the legalities.''

Smith is among those serving on Gov. Tony Knowles Disaster Policy Cabinet, a group of state officials evaluating the security of the state's transportation, energy and communications facilities. The group is scheduled to submit its recommendations by Oct. 27.

Officials with Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the 800-mile pipeline, favor some type of traffic restriction on the highway, also known as the haul road.

''We've suggested to the state that one way to help secure the pipeline and the North Slope oil fields would be to provide some degree of control. It's up to the state to determine what that might be,'' said Bill Howitt, Alyeska's senior vice president in Fairbanks.

The need for additional protection for the pipeline was driven home last week when a man fired a .338-caliber bullet into the line, causing a 285,600-gallon oil spill. The suspect, Daniel Carson Lewis, is being held on $1.5 million bail.

The 414-mile-long Dalton Highway was built in 1974 to serve the North Slope oil industry. It runs parallel to the pipeline, crossing the Yukon River, climbing over the Brooks Range and passing through the broad flat plain of the North Slope. It has been used mainly by commercial rigs carrying supplies to Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

Prior to 1994, traffic on the road was restricted during most of the year to vehicles supplying the oil fields and permits were required to drive beyond Mile 270. But in 1994, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the highway should be opened to the public. The court said the road was intended as a public highway, based on a federal right-of-way obtained in 1974.

Though the road was opened to the public, the number of travelers adventurous enough to tackle the rutted, gravel road has remained relatively small.

An average of 246 vehicles per day used the haul road last year. That's up slightly from the average daily vehicle traffic of 214 vehicles in 1992, according to figures provided by the traffic data and forecasting section of the Alaska Department of Transportation.

But those who use the road regularly say tourists account for a greater proportion of the vehicles that head up the highway.

''What I've noticed from personal observation over the last several years is there's been a significant increase in general tourist traffic -- everything from RV's to motorcycles to bicycles to Gremlins. There are vehicles that have no business being on that road from the standpoint of the safety of the occupants,'' Howitt said.

The road has a reputation for being rough and travelers can expect flat tires and clouds of dust, kicked up by tractor trailers, that can instantly reduce visibility to a few feet.

Though the highway offers spectacular scenery and close-up views of caribou, bears and other wildlife, travelers will find virtually no amenities. There are no gas stations or commercial services of any kind between the truck stop at Coldfoot and Deadhorse, 244 miles to the north.

The use of firearms within five miles of either side of the pipeline is prohibited, making the road popular with bowhunters in search of moose, caribou, grizzly bears, grouse and ptarmigan.

''Bowhunters really appreciate the opportunity to hunt in a place where firearms aren't allowed,'' said Cathie Harms, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.

It's difficult to say whether traffic restrictions on the Dalton Highway would have made a difference in this latest case of pipeline vandalism. Lewis lived a few miles from the line and Alaska State Troopers say he used an all-terrain vehicle to reach a pipeline access road. It's not known if he traveled on the highway.

''It's hard to say how he got there,'' Howitt said.

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