Group forms to protest backcountry closures

Posted: Wednesday, November 29, 2000

KENAI (AP) -- Snowmachiners on the Kenai Peninsula are incorporating into a nonprofit organization to oppose new restrictions on backcountry access.

Sterling snowmachiner Dennis Merkes said he had had enough after the last U.S. Forest Service meeting on the proposed Chugach National Forest management plan.

''In a nutshell, we're slowly but steadily losing our rights to access public land,'' he said.

He and others are forming the Kenai Peninsula Public Land Users Group.

''I printed a hundred membership applications a week ago, and I don't have any left. They're all signed and filled out,'' said Merkes, who will serve as the group's president.

The Forest Service has been working for several years to revise the 1984 management plan for Chugach National Forest, which spans 5.5 million acres from Cooper Landing to Seward, Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta.

Snowmachiners have opposed the proposal to ban snowmachines on the Lost Lake Trail near Seward after March 31, to expand the 1,000-acre area now closed to snowmachines at Manitoba Mountain in Turnagain Pass, and other restrictions.

The Forest Service will take public comments on the proposed Chugach plan until Dec. 14.

The new group is planning public workshops in Soldotna to help people understand the plan and write comments to the Forest Service.

''Anything taken from the snowmachines by default is given to the skiers,'' Merkes said. ''It's pitting two groups against each other. We're all users. No group should have precedence over another.''

Merkes said he opposes uses that tear up the land, but no agency should ban off-road vehicles simply because some people do not like them. He said he has been to several meetings on the Chugach plan and has heard nothing from skiers about a conflict with snowmachiners.

Chugach National Forest spokesman Doug Stockdale said opening access is a valid idea the Forest Service can explore. But just because no skiers cited conflicts during recent meetings does not mean the conflicts do not exist, he said. More than 200 snowmachiners attended the Soldotna meeting.

''In Soldotna, we had one lady who snowmachines and also skis. She was intimidated. She didn't even want to go out to her car,'' he said.

The Forest Service hears from all sides, he said.

''It's more than skiers. It's more than quiet rights. It's people who have an interest in access,'' he said.

Stockdale said the Forest Service will do its best to accommodate all users in the final plan managers expect to release this spring.

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