Snowmachines taking toll on area

Riders pose threat to flats

Posted: Friday, November 30, 2001

The problem, as Bill Berkhahn sees it, is that there's just enough snow on the Kenai River flats to ride snowmachines, but not enough to protect the vegetation under the snow from damage the snowmachines may cause.

Berkhahn is the district ranger for the Kenai River Special Management Area. He admits to occasionally turning a blind eye when there's plenty of snow to protect the lush saltwater marsh that supports migratory birds, caribou and moose, but the fact is, snowmachine riding is not allowed on KRSMA land.

"Even though that's true, we are hard-pressed to enforce it due to lack of staff and means of getting out there and do enforcing," he said. "In a normal snow year, there's not a high concern about it, but the area around Birch Island is just getting hammered this year."

Berkhahn's areas of concern are both sides of Bridge Access Road and both sides of the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge to a couple of miles up river.

"We've had some neighbors in the area complain, about the snowmachines," Berkhahn said. "It's been good input from the public, as it's brought our attention down there."

He said there is little chance the Division of Parks will be able to patrol the area.

"And there's not much we can do unless we are there the same time they are and they come when we wave them over," he said.

"What we're looking to do is educate people not to drive on it. It's hard to chase people down and do an in-field education effort."

He said KRSMA's mission is protecting the wildlife and natural habitat in the special management area. While he doubts the snowmachiners will destroy the habitat, they could damage it.

"By allowing these snowmachines to drive over the vegetation, they're breaking off branches and crushing lichen and grasses," he said. "Will (the vegetation) return? Sure, but if we allow snowmachine use now, it could get worse next year and worse the year after."

Berkhahn said it's his impression that snowmachine ridership is up, adding to the problem.

"As a ranger, I'm not against snowmachine use at all. If I were a kid, I'd probably be down there, too. It's a nice place to ride, and it's probably neighborhood kids who might not even know what our concerns are," he said.

"We've looked the other way if there's adequate snow cover, but not this year."

The same lack of snow problem is present in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, but there's not as much problem with snowmachiners.

"People have been pretty cooperative," said Supervisory Park Ranger Bill Kent. "Our folks are out there, but it's a question of being in the right place at the right time."

The refuge, by law, cannot be opened to snowmachine use until Dec. 1, and only if there is enough snow to protect the vegetation.

Kent said too little snow could kill or stunt the growth of plants.

"It damages them and it could tear up the soil, not to mention tearing up your track," he said.

In the Chugach National Forest, 2 1/2 feet of snow has melted down to a foot or so due to recent rains, and Forest Service rangers have issued a number of tickets to snowmachiners in areas such as Turnagain Pass.

"I think we've issued about 10 or so the last two weekends," said Doug Stockdale, public affairs officer. "We're reluctant to do that, though. Our first choice is to educate the public. But if the public goes into areas where there is no motorized use at all, we have to do it."

Like the refuge, the forest typically opens on Dec. 1 of each year for snowmachine use, if there is enough snow.

"Unless we get lots of snow by Saturday, it doesn't look like we'll open," Stockdale said. "It's really not suitable to ride on right now."

He said damage to vegetation and habitat during last winter cost the Forest Service $18,000 in repairs last summer. He said when there is little snow, snowmachines create ruts, which, in turn, can cause erosion.

Due to the prevailing conditions, Stockdale added there is potential for avalanches in Turnagain Pass. New snow on the icy crust is ideal for avalanches, he said. Six snowmachiners died in one avalanche there in March 1999.

"We ask that people be mindful of the conditions and be prepared. It is their responsibility when they go into the backcountry," he said.

He cautioned winter outdoor enthusiasts to not only be aware of what they are doing when in avalanche country, but what others are doing, especially those higher up on the hill than them.

More information on conditions in the Chugach National Forest can be found on its World Wide Web site, at chugach.

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