It has all the makings of a typical Alaska brouhaha over natural resources -- who gets what when.
In this case, the sought-after resource is trails within the Chugach National Forest.
Those wanting the resource are winter recreationists -- skiers and snowmachiners, primarily.
And a Forest Service proposal that would close a popular snowmachine area is at the heart of what could be a bitter
battle, not unlike some of the fights over Cook Inlet fish.
It's not too late, however, for the different users to take the fuel out of any fight by coming up with their own solution as to how best to divide what they all want.
Precedence for resolving the conflict exists in the Caribou Hills, a popular recreation area for snowmachiners, skiers, dog mushers and skijorers.
The guiding principle that resolved disputes in that area: If you don't allow one group a priority over another, they learn to work it out, says Doug Blossom, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers Snowmachine Club. In the Caribou Hills, trails were widened, blind corners eliminated and users admonished to smile at each other.
As much as is safely possible, that kind of practical wisdom should be applied liberally in making decisions over who gets to use what trails in the Chugach and when they get to use them. Closing trails to specific user groups will pit groups against one another -- unless all the different user groups working together agree to such closures.
It's easy to see why there are conflicts between snowmachiners and skiers. Their preferred modes of recreation are as different as night and day, as different as personality "A" types are from "B" types, as different as, well, noise and silence and fast and slow. You get the picture.
Still, for all their differences, snowmachiners and skiers share a lot of common ground: Their love for Alaska's wild places is as enormous as those wild places themselves.
It's that shared passion that has the power to bring these diverse users together to come up with a plan for peaceful coexistence -- and recreation -- in the Chugach.
Applicable advice comes from Robert Fulgham's classic essay, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten": "Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people."
To put that advice into the context of the current uproar over possible closures of some areas to snowmachiners:
n The Chugach National Forest encompasses almost 1 million acres. That should be enough land for everyone, regardless of their favorite form of winter recreation, to share. Both skiers and snowmachiners, however, may have to learn one of the primary lessons all playgrounds teach: They're not always going to get their way -- or the "fresh" powder they both covet.
n Fair play in this instance requires a recognition by all involved that neither snowmachiners or skiers are going to go away. Both groups have the right to use this public land. Each side deserves to be treated with respect on and off the trail. On the trail, safety and courtesy should govern everyone's behavior.
n In public forums, verbal blows are no more acceptable than punches on the kindergarten playground. Name calling and trying to put all snowmachiners or all skiers into little boxes that say "menacing speed freaks," on one hand, or "radical environmentalists who want to lock public lands up," on the other, serve no one well. Extremists on either side of this discussion should not be allowed to determine the final solution.
Fortunately, there are reasonable people on both sides who understand the value of this conflict being worked out. Some kind of collaborative effort from the different users likely would result in a far better plan for trail use than what the Forest Service has proposed. And most everyone likely would find the plan more palatable if it came from the users instead of Forest Service policy-makers.
Time is getting short. The deadline for written comments is Dec. 14. The good news is there will be no changes made this winter season.
One of the user groups needs to take the initiative and bring all those who enjoy this immense playground together to formulate their own plan for sharing trails within the Chugach National Forest, as was done in Caribou Hills. Perhaps the Forest Service would be willing to forego a recommendation on the most contentious areas in its final management plan until an agreement could be reached by the different user groups.
Until the snow flies in earnest, skiers and snowmachiners could make good use of their recreation time by working together on a solution that fits both their styles.
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Comments on the proposed revisions for the Land and Resource Management Plan for the Chugach National Forest can be sent to: Forest Plan Revisions, Chugach National Forest, 3301 C St., Suite 300, Anchorage, AK 99503 or faxed to 907-271-3992.
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