Copper River Basin Area Plan: Scoping Comments

April 29, 2016

Dear Planning Team,

The following are the scoping comments of the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition (AQRC) on the Copper River Basin Area Plan for State Lands.  Thank you for the chance to participate in this very important planning process.

Founded in 1996, AQRC’s mission is to maintain and restore natural sounds and natural quiet in Alaska through advocacy and education for the benefit of people and wildlife.  More particularly, we’re dedicated to protecting the rights of Alaskans to quiet places for the benefit of public land users, home and cabin owners, communities, businesses, visitors, future generations, and wildlife.  We believe that natural sounds and natural quiet should receive the same consideration given to other ecological values, such as clean air and water, fish, wildlife, soils, vegetation, scenic beauty, and wilderness character.  Although there are many places in Alaska that look the same as they did 100 or more years ago, very few sound as they did just 10 or 20 years ago. 

In addition to protecting ecological values like the ones listed above, one of AQRC’s specific goals is a fair and equitable overall balance on the public lands between those managed for motorized recreation, and those managed for quiet, truly traditional forms of recreation like hiking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, canoeing, and kayaking.

1.  The Natural Soundscape (natural sounds and natural quiet).  Many of us remember very well when it was quite unusual to be disturbed by mechanical noises in the outdoors.  There was quiet, which was beautiful in itself, and there were beautiful natural sounds, like falling snow and birdsong.  These days, that quiet and that chance to hear natural sounds are all too frequently shattered.  As we said above, there are many places in Alaska that look the same as they did 100 or more years ago, but very few that sound as they did just 10 or 20 years ago.  But “peace and quiet” are still highly valued, and frequently mentioned by visitors to the public lands both in Alaska and Outside as one of the outstanding and most appreciated characteristics of those lands. The State of Alaska should seek to protect those values, and where necessary, restore them.  And as we also said above, the natural soundscape is just as deserving of analysis and protection as other ecological values that are routinely assessed.

Unnatural noise can harm human health, both mental and physical.  A doctor at a Seattle hearing on a proposal that would result in large numbers of coal trains passing thorough the city said that the two biggest stressors he sees in his patients are traffic and noise.  Natural quiet and natural sounds can be soothing and can benefit human health.  And unnatural noise can harm wildlife as well as humans; one of the best examples is how this can disturb songbirds during the breeding season.

But beyond any measurable demonstration of health effects, many people visit the public lands as a refuge from noisy, busy, crowded daily lives.  This certainly includes tourists, whether from Alaska, from other parts of the nation, or from other countries (and these tourists can generate significant economic benefits).  Most of them, we suspect, are not only hoping, but expecting, to be able to hear and enjoy natural sounds, and to experience natural quiet.

The State should treat the natural soundscape the same way it treats other important ecological resources, and should consider, including in the Copper River Basin, developing soundscape plans.  These plans would identify a sounds baseline, provide for periodic monitoring, and describe ways to maintain and, where appropriate, restore natural quiet and the opportunity to hear and enjoy natural sounds.

2.  Quiet Recreation.  Statewide, there is a gross imbalance on the state and federal public lands between the many areas and trails managed for motorized recreation, and the relatively tiny number managed for quiet, truly traditional, non-motorized recreation.  This is certainly true of the Copper River Basin.  Virtually every acre and trail on the State, BLM, and National Park Service managed public lands are open for recreational snowmachining, and only a very small portion are closed to summer ATV travel.  Concepts of balanced land management, true multiple use management (in the absence of obviously overriding factors, at least some lands are allocated for all legitimate activities), and fairness to the many Alaskans and visitors who are seeking a quiet outdoors experience require that the State set aside lands to be managed for quiet recreation (that is, closed to motorized recreation).  The plan, consequently, should designate a reasonable number of areas and trails that are suitable for quiet recreation and are recommended for closure to motorized recreation.  The Division of Mining, Land and Water arguably does less than any other state or federal land managing agency to provide quality opportunities for quiet recreation; it would be a real step forward, and a feather in DMLW’s cap, if it were to do so now.

Quiet recreation and motorized recreation don’t mix.  There is a clear conflict between the two.  So-called “shared” trails and areas aren’t truly shared–the quiet recreationist is the loser as his experience is significantly degraded by the noise, air pollution, marring of scenic landscapes (in both summer and winter), and loss of wildlands character in areas open to motorized recreation.  However, perhaps more often than his experience is degraded, the quiet recreationist is totally–and unfairly–displaced by the motorized recreationist.  Only areas managed for quiet recreation can provide a quality experience for the non-motorized user.

The need to more responsibly manage motorized recreation becomes more apparent every year, as snowmachine and ATV technology improves dramatically and the range of the vehicles increases equally dramatically–as do the associated conflicts and impacts.

As suggested above, the effect of motorized vehicle noise on humans is not their only impact.  Ecological impacts include degradation of fish and wildlife habitat; other impacts to fish and wildlife; air and water pollution; often severe damage to soils and vegetation; snow compaction; and the loss of natural quiet and natural sounds.  As a responsible steward, the State should of course protect these important           resources.

The State should also encourage, rather than discourage, visitors to enjoy its public lands with muscle, rather than motorized, power; the health benefits of muscle-powered recreation are especially important at a time when obesity is a serious state and national problem.

Another benefit of recreating on one’s own power is coming to better understand our state and nation’s history:  how tough, both physically and mentally, and how self-reliant, our ancestors could be.  In traveling as they did a person gains substantially added respect for their accomplishments in sometimes very harsh environments and conditions.

The regional conservation group Copper Country Alliance has compiled a list of areas and trails that it suggests are suitable for quality quiet recreation and should be recommended for closure to motorized recreation (or at least some reasonable portion of them).  We include that list below, and endorse it.

    • A portion of Thompson Pass.  Experienced and knowledgeable backcountry skiers have recommend that the northern, partially wooded end of the Thompson Pass area, Mile 34 to 54, be non-motorized.  This does not include the highly popular open areas farther south, and receives relatively little, and relatively recent, snowmachine use
    • Tiekel River downstream of the Richardson Highway
    • Mile 62 Richardson Highway to Kimball Pass via telegraph route
    • Perhaps another route or area within the Tonsina Controlled Use Area, which is already closed for motorized hunting from late July through September
    • A route on any state land along the north bluff of the Tonsina River, from the Richardson Highway bridge to the Edgerton Highway bridge
    • Mile 12.5 Denali Highway trail on the north side of the highway
    • Mile 4 Denali Highway to a ridge within the Paxson Closed Area
    • West side of the Copper River from O’Brien Creek south
    • Designated non-motorized routes or trails in the Nelchina Public Use Area

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide scoping comments on this important planning process.  We look forward to continuing to participate in the process, including of course reviewing and commenting on the draft plan.


Susan Olsen
Member, Board of Directors
Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition
P.O. Box 202592
Anchorage, AK 99520