Refuge, Chugach off limits to motors

No snow thwarts openings

Posted: Friday, December 01, 2000

Can't find the ultimate gift for the edgy snowmachiner on your Christmas list? These days, try the gift of patience.

Today marks the authorized opening of snowmachining on both Chugach National Forest lands as well as the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, but managers say minimal snow depth -- or none at all -- will keep trails off limits until further notice.

Chugach managers issued an amended order Thursday afternoon closing the forest to snowmachine use. Refuge Manager Robin West said the snow will come -- in time.

"I don't know when we'll get it -- it comes when it comes," West said. "It's not uncommon for a lack of snow to keep us from opening the refuge on December 1st."

West said refuge managers have tracked Dec. 1 openings for 25 years, adding only eight contained enough snow to qualify. And for two of those years, 1980 and '85, a lack of snow kept the refuge closed for the entire season.

West said adequate snow depth of feet, not inches, is needed to cover vegetation and terrain on the more traveled routes.

"We get in the air when we get a good snowfall and fly the riparian zones to get an idea of compaction and cover," West said. "Right now, there is snow in the higher elevations, but you have to get to it. We need a cold snap and a couple of good snowfalls to get us where we want to be."

Pat O'Leary, a U.S. Forest Service recreation planner in the Seward Ranger District, said the closure in the Chugach was an effort to target protection of resources in the lower areas of the forest.

"Around the trail heads there is generally not much snow," O'Leary said. "And in other parts of the lowlands we are seeing marginal conditions."

He, too, said areas at higher elevations have gotten measurable amounts of snowfall, but added those areas may not be the best for a day on the sled.

"Above the 1,000-foot level there is a fair amount of snow, but that doesn't mean good snowmachining," O'Leary said. "In some areas, the lakes aren't completely frozen over and some of the streams are still open."

In the popular Turnagain Pass recreation area, Girdwood district recreation planner Doug Blanc said Thursday only a foot of snow had accumulated near the pullouts along the Seward Highway -- not enough to allow an opening.

"Pure and simple, we don't have enough," Blanc said. "We really need at least a couple of feet and a decent depth or a good, hard freeze to solidify the base. We've had a lot of freeze-thaw conditions here. This morning I was up there (in Turnagain Pass) and it was warmer than Girdwood. The road was wet."

For some snowmachiners, December is the time to begin seriously gearing up for the season. The lack of snow has forced many die-hard riders to head north to Hatcher Pass and Petersville north of Anchorage.

"There's not a whole lot of riding going on right now on the peninsula," said A-1 Enterprises owner Brian Alexander, whose Soldotna business specializes in snowmachine sales and service. "It looks pretty bleak and brown out there right now, but really the snow is not that late."

He said snowmachine sales have been strong but have recently slowed, adding he has seen more of a decline in service-related items like parts and oil.

Still, Alexander said, the best riding is yet to come.

"After the first of the year, that's when the riding is good," Alexander said. "The snow will come."

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