Group Letter re Wilderness in WRST Backcountry and Wilderness Stewardship Pland

PO Box 631 Bozeman, Montana 59771 TEL (208) 629-1986

July 29, 2016

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

ATTN: Bruce Rogers PO Box 439 Copper Center, AK 99573 Sent via email to Re: Comments on Proposed Action for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Backcountry and Wilderness Stewardship Plan

Dear Mr. Rogers: Please accept the following comments on the Proposed Action (PA) for the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve (WRST) Backcountry and Wilderness Stewardship Plan on behalf of the undersigned organizations. Thank you for the chance to participate in this unusually important planning process. Since WRST contains the largest unit of designated Wilderness in the national park system, this plan may well establish the standards for how to manage activities occurring in Wilderness in all national parks. Please note that the comments submitted by Trustees for Alaska (Trustees) sent separately, are considered incorporated herein by reference.

There are a host of significant issues affecting the backcountry and Wilderness in WRST. However, the bulk of these comments are devoted to the management of recreational motorized vehicle use—and in particular recreational snowmachining in designated Wilderness—and to the natural soundscape.

Recreational Snowmachining (addressed at page 7 of the PA). We appreciate that the NPS recognizes it is required to minimize the impacts of recreational snowmachine use not only to tangible resources, but to intangible values such as wilderness character —values that for many people are the essence of true wilderness.

Fundamentally, however, the Proposed Action (PA) is flawed and very disappointing. Despite stating WRST must manage recreational snowmachine use to minimize impacts to resources, values, and wilderness character, the PA would allow this use to continue in designated Wilderness in seven areas of the Park. To make matters worse, both the locations of the allowed use, and the magnitude of that use, would be determined not by what was occurring in 1980 when the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was passed and through which WRST was created, but in 2016. Recreational snowmachine use has increased dramatically, and snowmachine technology is light years beyond what it was in 1980. In 1980 there were only 401,851 people living in the state of Alaska. Today that number has almost doubled, to approximately 737,625. While it is difficult to say exactly how much recreational snowmachine use has increased in WRST since 1980, it is safe to say that this use has increased substantially in the past 36 years.

In 1980 no company made a “powder sled” capable of venturing far from packed down trails or ice. Today, the 2016 Mountain Sled of the Year – the Polaris AXYS Pro-RMK – has a 795-cc 2-stroke engine and a 155 inch track. The longer track allows for more floation in deep snow and, combined with the more powerful engine, allows riders to highmark steep slopes. One way to understand how these technological advances have translated into advances in snowmachine performance is to review the winning times at the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb. At this event competitors on snowmachines race to see who can ride a set course to the top of SnowKing ski resort in Jackson Hole, WY in the shortest amount of time, or barring a “top out”, who can get the highest. Although the first Hill Climb was in 1976, 1986 marked the first year that a competitor made it to the top of the mountain, riding a custom modified sled.1 It wasn’t until 1993 that “stock models” began making it to the top of the mountain. Today participants routinely make it to the top of the climb in under two minutes, with some doing so in under one minute.2 Modern snowmachines travel substantially farther, faster, and higher, and in much deeper snow than they did in 1980.

For these reasons, we do not believe the recreational snowmachine allocations in the PA are in accordance with ANILCA. As indicated by the comments submitted by Trustees, we believe these allocations are based on a misinterpretation of ANILCA.

Wilderness in Alaska. Most Alaskans, and many other Americans, think Alaska is special. While this can mean different things to different people almost anybody would agree that Alaska’s wildness is among its defining qualities. While wildness defines Wilderness, Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness represents and should always represent the epitome of wildness. WRST contains the single largest Wilderness area in the United States and this Wilderness is what defines the park’s wildness. The Park Service must take care to write a management plan where recreation does not trump the protection of wildlife habitat, wilderness character, and other resource values. Most Americans would agree that Alaska is the wildest state in the nation and that the National Parks in Alaska contain the core, the crown jewels, of the state’s wild lands. It is essential that the Park Service protect the character and resources of Wilderness lands within WRST and not, as the PA proposes, allow uses that are anathema to the very idea of Wilderness. The Park Service cannot let motorized recreational vehicles, which are prohibited in designated Wilderness in the seemingly tamer lower 48, undermine Wilderness values in the last, best place. The lands in WRST are owned by all Americans—not just by Alaskans, or those living near the Park, who might prefer to do the majority of their recreation on a motorized vehicle. The desires of local people are very important, but those desires should not be determinative when they are contrary to the most basic values—and to the legal requirements—of the Wilderness Act.

The definition of Wilderness in that Act says that it is an area of Federal land that “has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Using recreational snowmachines as an example, solitude is hard to find when snowmachines, which



can now go almost anywhere and cover an immense amount of ground, are apt to be either encountered themselves, or to announce their presence unseen, since their noise can easily be heard from a mile or more away. As for primitive, the idea that recreational snowmachining is a primitive type of recreation doesn’t pass the straight face test. There is nothing primitive about a snowmachine.

ANILCA provides for special, limited exceptions (subject to reasonable regulations) to the rule in the lower 48 that motorized vehicles are not allowed in designated Wilderness. These exceptions have to be accommodated, but that needs to be done in a way that most effectively minimizes unnecessary adverse impacts to both tangible and intangible wilderness values. Congress did not intend for ANILCA to emasculate the Wilderness Act in Alaska.

Specific Wilderness Concerns. There are millions of acres of state, BLM and National Forest land in Southcentral Alaska that are managed for recreational snowmachining, while there are only a relatively tiny number of acres managed for quiet recreation. Standards for the National Park System are, and should be, high. NPS units should help redress the gross and inequitable imbalance between lands managed for motorized recreation, and lands managed for non-motorized recreation, by providing opportunities for quiet recreation that are not available elsewhere on the public lands.

Section 1110(a) of ANILCA, titled “Special Access [and Access to Inholdings],” provides only a limited, special exception, subject to reasonable regulations, for the use of snowmachines for truly traditional activities. Congress intended that snowmachines could be used for transportation for traditional activities—consumptive uses such as hunting, trapping, fishing, or berry picking (the examples used in the Senate Report)—but not for purely recreational riding.

Purely recreational riding was and is not a traditional activity. This definition of traditional activities was the one adopted by the only NPS unit in Alaska, Denali National Park & Preserve,that has addressed this issue. It is consistent with both legislative history and common sense. Denali got it right. Congress intended that traditional activities mean those activities that are indicative of a rural, utilitarian Alaska lifestyle—not purely recreational pursuits. Congress added this provision to insure that Alaskans could continue their on-going traditional activities even if they would now take place in a newly-created national park. The NPS should adopt the Denali definition for WRST and for all of its units in Alaska.

The wisdom of excluding recreational snowmachining from the definition of traditional activities becomes more apparent every year, as snowmachine technology improves dramatically and recreational riding increases exponentially. As a result, the adverse impacts—not just social, but also ecological, for example to wildlife and clean air and water—created by recreational snowmachines continue to grow substantially.

We are told that there are few complaints about recreational snowmachining in WRST at the present time. This is precisely the time, then, when the NPS should act proactively and prohibit recreational snowmachining throughout the unit—especially in designated Wilderness. The longer the Park Service waits, the harder it will be, politically, to manage the Park as the responsible stewards, with a long-term vision, that the public expects it to be. We all know how  true this is, and it’s illustrated by a quote from a national USFWS brochure entitled “Snowmobiles and National Wildlife Refuge Lands”: “Like any use, once snowmobiling is allowed, it is difficult to prohibit it again regardless of adverse impacts….”

Unfortunately, the Proposed Action, as we noted above, would allow recreational snowmachining to continue in seven locations in designated Wilderness of the Park & Preserve, and at 2016 levels. Only some very limited consolation is provided. NPS proposes that “information such as sound, emissions, group size, elevation or topography, wildlife habitat, and other factors will inform potential management actions.” Those management actions could include “education of recreational snowmachine users regarding avoidance of high-volume areas or weekends; designation of general point to point routes or corridors for travel; requiring use of low emissions snowmachines; requiring recreational snowmachiners to obtain permits at no cost; limited issuance of permits; and area restrictions justified for administration, safety, and other factors.”

Should recreational snowmachining continue to be allowed, we support NPS using the stated factors to inform potential management actions. We would add at least one other factor, scenic beauty. NPS should seek to manage recreational snowmachine use so as to minimize impacts to the scenic snowscape, impacts like those caused by high-marking, by tracking up entire hillsides, lakes or meadows, or by racing in circles or figure 8’s in those areas. Joy riding is not a park appropriate use, and should not be allowed.

As for the management actions themselves, all of them should be implemented, and not just for designated Wilderness. The Proposed Action, as we understand it, would allow recreational snowmachining to continue in all of the non-Wilderness (backcounty) areas covered by the plan. As indicated earlier, we don’t believe recreational snowmachining is appropriate in units of the National Park System and an appropriate interpretation of Section 1110 (a) would prohibit such activity. If this use is going to be allowed in the WRST backcounty, all of the above factors and all of the above management actions should apply.

Natural soundscape. The plan needs to address the protection of natural sounds and natural quiet. These values, taken for granted until very recently as being a fundamental part of any outdoor experience, are being lost at an increasingly rapid rate.

Consequently, we very much appreciate the fact that the Proposed Action addresses the natural soundscape by including natural sounds as one of the issues assessed in the Desired Conditions analysis (although we think some of the effects conclusions are overly optimistic). We also appreciate the work being done, in the face of logistical and technical constraints, to set up a small number of sound monitoring stations.

It’s important, though, that this monitoring lead to a Soundscape Plan that assesses the present situation and then provides for the protection, and where necessary, restoration, of natural sounds and natural quiet, for the benefit of both people and wildlife. The literature is rapidly expanding on both the adverse effects of mechanical noise to people and wildlife, and on the health benefits of quiet for people.

ATVs. ATVs are not among the motorized vehicles included as a special exception in Section 1110(a). ATVs often create, especially in wet Alaska, very substantial habitat and landscape damage. As with recreational snowmachining, we don’t think recreational ATV use should be allowed in any units of the National Park System.

Although it’s unfortunate that recreational ORV use is permitted on several trails off the Nabesna Road in the frontcountry, we applaud the fact that the PA would prohibit recreational ORV use in all backcountry and Wilderness areas within WRST.

However, the PA is somewhat unclear in regards to ORV use within the Chisana and Donohue Basin Zones. In the Chisana Zone, the table at page 25 says that no recreational ORV use will be permitted, while under Desired Conditions, Access, it says recreational ORV use will be minimized. The final plan should clarify that recreational ORV use will not be permitted within the Chisana zone. Likewise, for the Donoho Basin Zone, on the table at page 32, for ORV use it says Not Applicable. We are unsure what this means but request that the final plan clarify that recreational ORV use would be prohibited in this zone as well.

Watercraft. The National Park Service, including WRST, deserves much credit for how it has dealt with certain watercraft. We understand that jet skis and hovercraft are not allowed in WRST. The noise of these craft can greatly disturb humans, and wildlife as well. The whine and change in pitch of jet skis is incredibly annoying. Strictly from a noise standpoint, air boats should be added to this list of prohibited watercraft. All three of these craft – jet skis, hovercraft, and air boats – can cause significant harm to fish and wildlife because of their ability, and sometimes their tendency, to travel among the shallow waters and grasses of lakeshores and river edges, to what can be the significant detriment of fish and waterfowl, including, for example, swans.

We hope that watercraft, which receive almost no mention in the Proposed Action, will be thoroughly addressed in the draft EA and Plan.

Enforcement. Many regulations relating to activities in the backcountry and Wilderness of WRST are difficult to enforce. The same would be true for new regulations that might be generated by this plan. That should not be an excuse for failing to develop a plan that protects Park resources and the visitor experience—and that complies with the law. Many, probably most, visitors will obey the regulations; some enforcement will be possible; and over time a culture of responsible backcountry and Wilderness values and behavior will develop.

Wildlife. The Proposed Action says very little about wildlife and the effects on wildlife of motorized and other activities. We hope we’ll see a complete analysis and serious consideration of this question in the draft EA and Plan.

Thank you again for the chance to offer these comments. If Alaska is no longer wild, where in the U.S. will true wilderness be found?

Sincerely, Hilary Eisen Recreation Planning and Policy Manager Winter Wildlands Alliance

On behalf of:

Brian Okonek, President, Board of Directors, Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition

Pamela Brodie, Chapter Chair, Sierra Club Alaska Chapter

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Regional Director, The Wilderness Society

George Nickas, Executive Director, Wilderness Watch

Kimberly Baker,  Executive Director, Klamath Forest Alliance

Natalynne DeLapp, Executive Director, Epic-Environmental Protection Information Center

Darrell Jury, Board President, Friends of Plumas Wilderness

Marla Nelson, Rewilding Attorney, WildEarth Guardians .