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Alaska trail would link city, wilderness — if it can survive red tape

Anchorage is one of the cities that would be connected by the Alaska Long Trail. (Ash Adams for The Washington Post)
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PALMER, Alaska — An overgrown and nearly forgotten section of the historic Iditarod trail; a sidewalk through the state’s largest city; narrow tracks over soft Arctic tundra; a paved path adjacent to a busy highway. These may not sound like portions of what could be a mostly wilderness through-hike across the nation’s least-developed state, but to proponents of the Alaska Long Trail project, they are the key pieces of a 500-mile dream.

A bipartisan collection of politicians and outdoor enthusiasts here is working to make the idea a reality through incremental trail development statewide. But whether the project comes to fruition could be decided by a battle against an obstacle greater than funding or politics: red tape.

Organizers of the Long Trail — ultimately connecting Seward, a cruise port and fishing hub at a far tip of the state’s road system, and Fairbanks, the last major stop before the state’s Arctic oil fields — aim to string together about 100 miles of existing trails with 400 miles of historic routes, many established by Indigenous Alaskans.

The final trail, which could take decades to construct, would include trekking around or over several glaciers, four mountain ranges, two state parks, one national park, one national forest and hundreds of miles of near-total solitude with little connectivity to the outside world. Unlike other major U.S. through-hikes, including the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail is planned as “braided,” with multiuse sections for snowmachines or other motorized use or bypasses splitting the designated trail into routes for different users.

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For example, from Girdwood to Eagle River, cyclists could take an existing paved route about 70 miles through Anchorage, while hikers could skip the city entirely and instead travel 40 miles over the mountains on Crow Pass Trail in Chugach State Park, planners said. And in a northern section of about 100 miles between Talkeetna and Cantwell, which moves through Denali State Park and Denali National Park and Preserve, some sections could accommodate motorized vehicles in the winter and only nonmotorized in the summer, they said.

“Alaska has many hundreds of lifetimes of wild adventure,” said Chris Beck, a retired community planner who has become the de facto Long Trail frontman, volunteering full time with the nonprofit Alaska Trails. “While sort of an old technology, [trails] are a brilliant way to provide those kinds of experiences,” he said. “And the problem that continues to confront Alaska is we’ve not had the public resources to improve and develop those trails.”

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Beck and the bipartisan coalition he’s spearheading want to change that. Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) signaled support last year by offering a trail funding package. Republican and Democratic state legislators approved the measure, only to have Dunleavy ultimately veto it as part of an unrelated state budget squabble. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Alaska Republicans, have sponsored measures to fund Long Trail-related development on federal land.

The state’s Senate Finance Committee has approved funding for the trail in the 2023 budget, although it is unclear whether the governor will approve that money.

The project is also supported by the nonpartisan, progressive Anchorage Assembly and outdoor-focused trail organizations around the state. Multiple community fundraising projects have raised money for planning and development.

But that’s where the easy part of the project ends — and the red tape begins. Piecing together the trail means connecting many types of land. Because only about 12 percent of Alaska’s 373 million total acres is privately owned, according to the state, the majority of needed sections are already controlled by federal, state or local governments, with small slices owned by individuals or Alaska Native corporations.

Although working with mostly public land is comparatively cheap because it requires few purchases, the trade-off is a bureaucratic maze of proposals, easements, transfers, public notices, surveys and approvals that can take years for each section, no matter how small.

It’s something the would-be developers of a roughly 12-mile state-owned part of the proposed Long Trail in the Talkeetna Mountains have already experienced. With deep powder in winter and pristine summer views of mountains, trees, creeks and wildflowers, the 300,000-acre Hatcher Pass Management Area is beloved by hikers, mountain bikers and snowmachiners, as well as cross-country, downhill and backcountry skiers. It is also home to several active and historic gold mines.

Yet an easement application for the trail project that the local government filed to the state in 2018 has barely moved. Officials with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Mining, Land and Water, which manages the area, said that before they can approve it, they must process a separate application for a hydroelectric project that would pass through roughly the same area. The application for that project was originally filed in 2006.

“At this point, we are minimizing our effort to just trying to get the state land authorizations done,” Joel Groves, an engineer with Fishhook Renewable Energy who proposed the project, said in an email. “I can’t say what the problem or the solution is, Fishhook’s experience is just a symptom of the disease.”

DNR has 109 pending public access easement requests statewide, a category that includes trail requests as well as projects such as highway realignments, said AJ Wait, a DNR natural resource manager. The goal is to process trail requests within eight months of receiving a complete application, he said. But doing so can take “significantly longer” when the land is slated for multiple uses or managed outside the agency’s recreation division, as in the case of Hatcher Pass, he said.

The problem is likely to come up again during Long Trail planning. DNR’s Division of Mining, Land and Water oversees 95 million acres of land open to mining across the state, compared with the roughly 3 million acres of land and water managed by the parks and recreation division, according to DNR’s website.

Beck thinks speeding DNR action would require boosting overall agency funding and staff in an era beset by state monetary shortfalls. Operations funding for the DNR parks section alone decreased from $3.5 million in fiscal 2012 to $447,000 for fiscal 2022, for example. But former Alaska governor Tony Knowles (D) said the solution lies in something far more simple: direction from “right at the top.”

“To me, this is not a complicated issue. It’s an issue that doesn’t require a lot of money, or broad public support,” said Knowles, who now advocates for state trails. “You have to have the support of the chief executive of the state to make the departments move.”

An official with Dunleavy’s office did not directly respond to a question as to whether he would direct DNR to take action, noting instead that “many of the trail project’s segments have not been identified yet, nor applications submitted.”

Meanwhile, at least one group of landowners along the trail has concerns about the potential effect it could have on their way of life: Indigenous Alaskans in the Native Village of Eklutna.

Unlike many of Alaska’s 229 designated Native Villages, Eklutna is not rural. With its border a mere one-eighth of a mile off the busy four-lane Glenn Highway between Anchorage and the state’s second-most populated region, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, it’s in what Beck describes as the trail’s “most challenging section.” The only current pedestrian route through it is a narrow highway median.

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Other options are severely limited. The roughly five-mile section of highway winds between the Chugach Mountains and Alaska Railroad track on one side, and protected hay flat wetlands on the other. To avoid putting foot traffic on the road, planners want to extend the raised paved bike trail that runs parallel from Anchorage but ends several miles south of Eklutna Village, and then somehow move hikers over the hay flats.

One such method could include cutting through Eklutna Village, said President Aaron Leggett, who is also the senior curator of Alaska history and Indigenous culture at the Anchorage Museum. But his community doesn’t want hikers disturbing their way of life, he said.

“The people that are living currently in the Eklutna Village do not want a trail running through the middle of their neighborhood,” he said. “People in the village can still do a limited amount of subsistence, small-game hunting and berry picking and those kinds of things. … What you want to avoid is unintended consequences.”

Leggett likes the idea of the trail. But respecting Indigenous communities means working with Native groups to plot the course, compensating them for any needed land, and acknowledging Native history through on-trail education and use of traditional place names, he said.

Perhaps more so than most modern Alaskans, artist and mountain enthusiast Max Romey already understands the Long Trail’s challenging future. He has held fundraisers for the trail project.

Over the summer of 2020, he attempted the entirety of the roughly 150-mile historic Iditarod trail’s southern trek, which includes miles of bushwhacking through dense alder and head-high devil’s club, a plant he describes as what grows if “a porcupine had a child with celery and grew as fast as zucchini and as tall as trees.” That winter, he also walked and skied a portion of the would-be trail between Anchorage and Talkeetna, including miles on the highway, before taking his journey northwest toward Nome and the coast. What he found on his trip, he said, was endless possibility — and challenge.

“It’s one thing to slowly bushwhack your way from one place to another, but it’s a very different thing to hope that the odds are in your favor as you go so close to the highway,” he said. “I think for me it just showed that you need more than a median to make a trail.”

Making the trail a reality despite the route and bureaucratic challenges will have to include more than just planning, he said. “What you need is imagination,” he said. “You need the spark to start the bonfire that can cut through all the red tape and all the inertia of actually creating a strip of dirt that goes from the tip of Alaska to the end, which is so much harder than you’d ever think it would be. But it’s also going to be so much more worth it.”

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