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.
Now, he and several others are incorporating the nonprofit Kenai Peninsula Public Land Users Group to oppose new restrictions on backcountry access.
"I printed 100 membership applications a week ago, and I don't have any left. They're all signed and filled out," he said. "It costs $20 to join. We're trying to keep enough money to advertise and print fliers, and if it comes down to a lawsuit or an injunction, that takes serious money. We're looking at all our options. We, as a group, are going to do anything we can to keep from losing more access to our public land."
Merkes is the new group's president. Doug Vance is vice president, Gary Pawluk is secretary, and Christine Crouse is treasurer.
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, reserving the trail after that for nonmotorized users, such as skiers and snowshoers. Snowmachiners still could access Lost Lake by a pioneer trail from Snug Harbor Road.
The Forest Service also proposes expanding the 1,000-acre area now closed to snowmachines at Manitoba Mountain in Turnagain Pass. The new closed area would reach down the east side of the Seward Highway from Manitoba Mountain to Summit Lake. It proposes banning snowmachines from the Seattle Creek area in eastern Turnagain Arm, part of the Quartz Creek drainage by the Sterling Highway junction, an area by Primrose at the southeast end of Kenai Lake, and an area by Tiehack Mountain six miles north of Seward. The Twentymile River area near Portage would be closed to snowmachines every second year.
The Resurrection Pass Trail would remain closed to snowmachines before Dec. 1 and after Feb. 15. Snowmachines would be allowed on the Primrose Trail only from Dec. 1 to March 31, and on the Swan Lake Winter Route and Trout Lake Trail only from Dec. 1 to Feb. 15.
The Forest Service will take public comments on the proposed Chugach plan until Dec. 14. Kenai Peninsula Public Land Users Group plans public workshops at Soldotna Middle School on Friday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. to help people understand the plan and to help them write comments to the Forest Service.
"I've been accessing the backcountry for 40 years. They're slowly locking it up," Merkes said, citing closures on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. "I used to be able to snowmachine down Skilak Loop. I used to be able to ride my four-wheeler down Mystery Creek Road. They've shut access to that. Now, the only thing you can take there is a highway access vehicle."
Now, snowmachiners are feeling the pinch, he said.
"Anything taken from the snowmachines by default is given to the skiers," he 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 the supposed conflict with snowmachiners.
"I like the idea of having a separate area that cross-country skiers can use. If you're going to take your family in the backcountry, you don't want someone high-marking above you," he said. But arbitrarily closing an area is wrong, he said.
"That's what they keep asking, 'What will you give up?' I'm trying to say we're not willing to give up anything more," he said. "I want to see how we can work together to get more access, better access. How can we clean up the trails and take out the blind spots so that skiers and responsible snowmachiners can use them together?"
Backcountry users should sit down locally and find a solution backed by all, he said. The new group's flier advocates bringing fliers, skiers, mushers, berry pickers, boaters, hunters, gold panners -- all backcountry users -- together to protect responsible uses of public land. It advocates working with local, state and federal agencies to increase access and to add and improve facilities such as roads, campsites, trails and parking.
Chugach National Forest spokesman Doug Stockdale said opening access is a valid idea the Forest Service can explore, and he said he welcomed efforts to find solutions. But just because no skiers cited conflicts during the recent Forest Service meeting in Soldotna 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.
Snowmachiners may not mind skiers, he said, but skiers may find snowmachines noisy or dangerous. They may fear to take their families where snowmachines are speeding by. The Forest Service recognizes that each side has valid interests, he said. It will do its best to accommodate them all in the final plan managers expect to release this spring.
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