What kind of a community do we live in? An answer will come this winter at Tsalteshi Trails.
The trail system, which is located behind Skyview High School, has a chance to continue to stand as a stunning example of what community spirit and volunteer work can accomplish.
The trail system also has a chance to show how a few inconsiderate and reckless people can destroy a community's pride, leaving bitterness and divisiveness in destruction's wake.
Recently, the Tsalteshi Trails Association finished adding four kilometers of trails that, for the first time, will make it possible to access Tsalteshi from Kalifornsky Beach Road.
The problem is the new trails make Tsalteshi more vulnerable to snowmachine vandalism. K-Beach Road is a thoroughfare for snowmachines, which are to a trail system what the spruce bark beetle is to a spruce forest.
I haven't talked to one trail user who isn't stoked about the new trails. I also haven't talked to a user who isn't somewhere between nervous and paranoid about snowmachines using the new trails as an access point to wreak havoc.
If the worries about vandalism materialize, those snowmachiners will not be ruining an afternoon's skiing experience. They will be shredding the fabric of our community.
Tsalteshi Trails started in 1990 when Alan Boraas, an anthropologist at Kenai Peninsula College, and other skiing enthusiasts envisioned a trail system on the forested hills behind Skyview High School.
Boraas and what would soon become the Tsalteshi Trails Association didn't wait for a government to come along and build the trails. The wide network of volunteers began to meticulously plot and cut their way through the forest themselves.
"What it really became was community trails," said Allan Miller, one of the founders of Tsalteshi Trails, in 1998. "If I were to give you a list of volunteers, it would be at least 200 to 300 people long."
Miller said professionally designed and constructed trails are worth about $100,000 per kilometer. That would make the current set of trails at Tsalteshi worth $1.5 million.
And the majority of it came at no cost to taxpayers. The equipment shed and signs came from a $12,000 grant that had to be matched with volunteers' labor. The four kilometers of new trails were helped along by a $10,000 federal grant. All the rest is volunteer labor.
The community has benefited mightily from the time and energy it has invested in building and maintaining Tsalteshi Trails. The trails are a great place to exercise, an attraction that draws dollars into the economy and a facility that skiing and running teams from area schools can use free of charge.
"Without the ski trails, there would be no Arctic Winter Games," Boraas said recently. "The trails are the cornerstone of those games."
Tsalteshi Trails drew prep runners and dollars from around the state when the state cross country meet was held there from 1998 to 2000. The state meet again will be held there from 2004 to 2006.
Tsalteshi also has made it possible for Skyview to host numerous other region, borough and large invitational meets.
Through its first 14 ski seasons, Tsalteshi has been a community success story.
This season, that story hangs in the balance. Tsalteshi could remain an example of what a community should do, or it could become a sad tale of what a community should not do.
My hope is that snowmachine owners, and parents of young snowmachine riders, will take steps to shield Tsalteshi Trails from vandalism.
It's not that hard. Just don't drive snowmachines on the trails and Tsalteshi will remain an example of what this community can be.
If snowmachiners can't stay off the trails, ugliness will ensue. Too many people have worked too long and hard on those trails to see them ruined without a fight. And such a fight, even if it somehow remained civil, would be terrible for this community.
Tsalteshi Trails have always been community trails. Here's hoping that they remain the trails of the right kind of community.
This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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