The atmosphere bordered on hostile Saturday when more than 200 snowmachiners packed the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chambers to fight a federal proposal to limit use of a popular trail.
The main bone of contention is the Lost Lake Trail near Seward, which would be closed to snowmachines after March 31 under proposed revisions to the management plan for Chugach National Forest. Snowmachiners still could reach Lost Lake from Snug Harbor Road.
"Many of you might not agree, but a lot of skiers don't want to be where snowmachines are. Some people say safety, some people say aesthetics. Other people say it's difficulty skiing on icy trails," Mike Kania, Seward District ranger, told an overflow crowd studded with checkered-flag coats.
Friday's meeting was the last of several the U.S. Forest Service convened to discuss the Chugach plan. Written comments from the Lower 48 states have focused on proposed wilderness areas for the Copper River Delta, said Gary Lehnhausen, project leader for Chugach National Forest. But debate at meetings from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula has focused on proposed restrictions on snowmachines. The Soldotna crowd was the biggest in three years of meetings, he said.
Skiers were scarce at the meeting, but, Kania said, they like many of the same areas snowmachiners do.
"They like that high country. They want to see those areas like Lost Lake," he said. "That was the proposal that came forth, was that we take the east quarter of the Lost Lake area, the trail from Primrose down to Seward for the month of April. That is probably the most contentious part of the plan."
But the plan is only a draft, he said.
"It's very much open to changes," he said.
Ninilchik's Doug Blossom, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers Snowmachine Club, said there used to be similar conflicts in the Caribou Hills.
"We made the trails wider and straighter, and we preached to all the users to smile at each other and use it in unison. Now, I think that's the answer to this, not closing trails."
With wider trails, skiers and snowmachiners have room to pass, he said. Skiers could use the trails to reach the areas they like, and snowmachiners, who run farther into the backcountry, could pass through.
Bill Lawrence of Soldotna said he wants the same peace and quiet skiers do, but he is not in shape to ski.
"To say that I can't go there because my mode of transportation is different is to discriminate against me," he said.
National forests are public land, he said, and the Forest Service cannot discard the needs of the many for the needs of a few. Sure, snowmachines make noise, he said, but in four years of frequent visits to Lost Lake, he has never seen a skier. Nor is he bothered by other snowmachines.
"There's so much open space up there ... that if I want to enjoy peace and quiet in my spot, I go to a place where I can get it," he said.
Snowmachiners, skiers, snowboarders and mushers need to find a solution that works for everyone and discriminates against no one, he said.
Michael Bernard of Soldotna said the solution is to open more areas to riding, not shut areas down. Red Smith of Cooper Landing suggested several routes that could be opened.
"There's any number of places we could build trails and not compete with these other people," he said.
Snowmachiners said they are courteous to skiers, but the reverse is not always true.
"The skiers are always throwing fits, flipping us off," said John Carsner Jr.
Elaina Spraker said peace and tranquility are not the issue: There are plenty of quiet places to ski.
"There's an alternative motive. It's extreme environmentalism." she said.
John Carsner Sr. said skiers cannot even reach the backcountry without snowmachiners to break trails, he said. Once the snowmachines are gone, there will be only pristine, untracked snow.
"They are trying to close these areas off," he said. "If the skiers really have a problem, where are they?"
Soldotna's Brent Overman said the trails could be widened, or skiers and snowmachines could take opposite sides of a valley. But both should have access to the same areas, he said.
"From their point of view, there is no give. They're out to take every little piece of land," he said. "Everybody came here on the defensive. Everybody is afraid more rights will be taken away from them, because that's been the pattern for the last eight years."
Forest Service spokesman Doug Stockdale said he talked to one female skier at the Soldotna meeting. She said she has a ski rack on her car, and was afraid to go back to the parking lot. Other skiers also may have been too intimidated to speak, he said.
Lehnhausen said skiers spoke during meetings in Anchorage, Girdwood, Seward and Moose Pass. To say there is no conflict would be inaccurate. The Forest Service will not close half the Chugach to snowmachines to accommodate a handful of skiers, he said.
"But their needs are valid, too," he said. "We would like to meet both needs. Maybe we have the wrong balance."
Afterward, Robert Ruffner, who skis but does not snowmachine, said he attended the meeting because so many of his snowmachining friends like the Lost Lake area.
"I don't think it's the best area to close to snowmachines," he said. "It's taking one of their best areas from them. I do think there need to be areas designated for skiers that are closer to the main population areas -- Kenai, Soldotna and Seward."
Most snowmachiners heard of the the Lost Lake Trail proposal only recently, he said. Now, the Forest Service should bring all sides together.
"I think there is room for creative solutions, but people have to think about it," Ruffner said. "The Cabin Hoppers have done an excellent job working with skiers. I've had more positive interactions than negative interactions with snowmachiners.
"It's just like the people here said they were having trouble with skiers. There's a few bad apples in every group."
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