Hatcher Pass Management Plan Public Review Draft: comments

April 23, .2010


Division of Mining, Land & Water

Resource Assessment & Development Section

550 West 7th Ave., Suite 1050

Anchorage, AK 99501-3579

Dear Planners:

The purpose of this letter is to offer the comments of the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition (AQRC) on the Hatcher Pass Management Plan Public Review Draft (Plan). Our comments include an overall recommendation for the management of Hatcher Pass, discussion of the specific recommendations we support and oppose and general comments on the Plan itself.

The Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition is a statewide nonprofit organization which is dedicated to protecting the rights of Alaskans to quiet places for the benefit of public land users, home and cabin owners, communities, businesses, wildlife, visitors and future generations. We believe natural sounds and natural quiet are resources of our public lands which deserve to be protected. We seek a fair and balanced allocation of Alaska’s public lands for both non-motorized and motorized recreational uses.

We first wish to commend the DNR planners for the efforts they made to hear from the various users groups. Though, as indicated below, we disagree with their proposed solutions, they did make efforts to accommodate the concerns expressed. Secondly, we applaud the Plan for adopting recreation as the management mandate for Hatcher Pass.

It is AQRC’s recommendation that for reasons of safety, Hatcher Pass land managers must separate motorized recreational activities from non-motorized recreational activities. This can easily be achieved by designating the East  side for non-motorized and the West side for motorized activities. A single motorized corridor would extend from the parking lot(s) on the East side to the non-restricted West side. This division would ensure that the quiet recreationists could ski, snowboard, snowshoe or telemark without danger of being hit by speeding snowmachines or risk being caught in avalanches caused by snowmachines high marking above. In addition, this separation of activity would have a number of side benefits: eliminate user conflicts and confusion about the location of boundaries, and greatly simplify enforcement efforts. Another benefit would be to forestall the possibility of summer ATV/ORV activity creating resource damage in the East side, such as has already occurred  on the West side.  As a general rule, the use of the same space by motorized and quiet recreationists does not work for the quiet recreationists. Safety and conflict issues arise as is evidenced in the text of this Plan and many, many of the public comments. We note that the definition of “multiple use” in Appendix A to the Plan does not require management  to permit all uses to occur on the same piece of land at the same time nor does it prohibit the type of separation of uses we advocate.

A further reason to support the East-West division is that there is virtually nothing in this Plan which provides additional authority or capacity to DNR to manage Hatcher Pass better in the future. We would argue that had there been adequate management, there would not be the safety concerns, confusion about boundaries, user conflicts and resource damage which have been abundantly documented and described in the Plan.  DNR’s only management tool governing ATV/ORV use on general domain land, which comprises the vast majority of the lands included under the Plan, is the state’s Generally Allowed Uses (GAU). The descriptions of the Willow Mountain, Craigie Creek and Bald Mountain/Hillside units clearly demonstrate that the GAU is inadequate to prevent resource and habitat damage from ATV/ORVs.  Moreover, DNR has no citation authority to enforce the provisions of the GAU. In fact, DNR is totally dependent on DPOR, under an interagency agreement (ILMA), for enforcement of any requirements. The Plan, however, does not indicate that DPOR would be authorized  to actively manage all closed areas. Some enforcement capability would be gained if the Reed Lakes complex and Mile 16 areas were incorporated into the Hatcher Pass PUA, but this, of course, requires legislative action. In AQRC’s  opinion, it hardly makes sense for DNR to approve a plan which recommends , for example,  a number of motorized corridors, when DNR lacks the complex managerial and enforcement capabilities required for successful management. In summary, since DNR does not have the authority or capability to actively manage the vast majority of the 301, 310 acres, it makes sense to simply divide the area into an East non-motorized and a West, motorized area.

Though our recommendation if adopted would  eliminate the need for detailed proposals for individual management units, we do wish to comment on aspects of the Plan as presented.

AQRC supports, for public safety reasons:

1)  closing Marmot Mt. to snowmachining in the Independence (pursuant to the original 1986 Plan) and Archangel (winter option) units. This would eliminate the dangers from speeding snowmachines in the midst of, and high marking above, the quiet recreationists. The failure to recommend closure of Marmot Mt. in the Archangel unit  to snowmachines after describing the existing safety issues is a major defect of this Plan.

2)  creating separate trails/routes for non-motorized and snowmachines on or along Archangel Road. Designating this road to be multi-use creates a very dangerous situation.

3)  closing the Mile 16 unit and the 840 acre parcel south of the Hatcher Pass Public Use Area  in the Reed Lakes/Little Susitna unit to snowmachining;

4)  assigning management responsibilities (ILMAs) to DPOR for all closed areas so there can be some capacity to enforce the regulations;

5)  extending the boundaries of the closed areas in the Reed Lakes/Little Su unit up to the ridge tops to insure the valleys do remain closed to snowmachines.

AQRC supports, for the protection of the resource and the backcountry experience:

6) a year-round closure of High Glacier Peaks to motorized uses in order to protect the non-motorized backcountry skiing, mountaineering and climbing activities facilitated through the creation, twenty years ago, of the mountain huts built and operated by the Mountaineering Club of Alaska and the American Alpine Club on ground leased from the state. The text states that there is “no (summer) motorized use of this unit currently” and in regard to winter, states “(S)ome winter use, including snow maching (sic) and back country skiing” which is “significant and is increasing in amount”. The winter use cited does not make a case that triggers the prohibition against closure pursuant to AS 38.04.200. Moreover,the text goes on to state that most snowmachine access into the High Glacier Peaks unit is from the Reed Lakes/Little Susitna unit. If such access is through the closed areas of the Reed Lakes/Little Susitna unit, such illegal trespass should not be the basis to determine that “a popular pattern of use has developed” for the purpose of invoking the prohibition against closure. To do so would set a precedent that would legalize trespass and punish lawful non-motorized users in the process.

AQRC supports the development of new trailhead and parking facilities, but believes it is imperative that a trails plan be developed and adopted before any improvements are initiated to ensure that the new infrastructure is coordinated with new trails/routes.

AQRC opposes, on the grounds of public safety, conflict avoidance and simple equity:

A)  opening any currently closed areas to motorized uses. In particular, we oppose opening the Reed Lakes closed area to snowmachines. The original rationale for creating Special Use Areas and thereby closing this area to snowmachines was “to provide opportunities for a quiet, backcountry recreational experience accessible from a road system” and we believe that rationale is still valid and the closing necessary. Opening this to snowmachines, under the winter option, seems to be a crude attempt to offer the motorized community a concession due to other closures undertaken for safety reasons. Moreover, opening Reed Lakes to snowmachining would point a dagger right at the heart of the High Glacier Peaks unit and surely and steadily lead to the degradation, if not outright displacement, of the non-motorized backcounty, mountaineering activities. We further oppose opening this closed area to accommodate a so-called snowmachine “play area” where inexperienced snowmachiners could practice their riding techniques. In our opinion, there is absolutely no need for the non-motorized community to agree to sacrifice this area when the 301,000 acres of Hatcher Pass Management Area are surrounded by over 6,000,000 acres of state general domain land. Surely, within the 6,000,000 plus acres, all managed under GAU, which we all know means essentially no restrictions on motorized activity, a snowmachine “ play area” can be found. In fact, several persons who testified at the Anchorage meeting held April 6, 2010 stated that there were several such areas available in the adjacent Matanuska Valley Moose Range.

B) putting  summer ATV corridors through the Mile 16 unit and alongside the Archangel Road. The text does not indicate a demand in the Mile 16 unit which would warrant putting a motorized route through what is essentially a non-motorized area. Moreover, nothing is presented in the Plan which states how ATVs would be made to stay on the designated route. Enforcement is not mentioned. We have similar concerns about how  making an ATV corridor alongside the Archangel Road would be effective in keeping ATVs from going off-road. Moreover, since cars and trucks do use the road, putting ATVs along side would simply lead to safety and conflict issues. Again, since the Plan states that “off-roading” would not be permitted, and the corridor would  simply allow an ATV to go to Fern Mine and return, this proposal seems to be another attempt to accommodate motorized interests at the expense of the current summer user, the quiet recreationist. Without knowing how “off-roading” will be contained within the corridor we find this recommendation to be irresponsible.

We also have some general criticisms of the Plan as a whole. AQRC is disappointed in the proposed Plan. Though the Plan is supposed to guide the management of this area for the next twenty years we find it lacks vision. (The most visionary aspect is the suggestion that High Glacier Peaks could be closed to motorized activities in the summer.) Nowhere does the reader get the sense that a planner sat down and asked the question: “what do we want this area to look like, be like in twenty years ?” While the Plan (properly) attempts to provide  active management to deal with the conflict and (some) safety issues now current, it fails to offer proposals which deal with increased demand or different technologies. The Plan’s recommendations just tinker at the edges. Even though the reasons given for doing a new management plan included changes in technology and much increased demand, no quantifiable data is presented of the projected future use, or users, of Hatcher Pass.  There is no discussion of carrying capacity or analysis of possible changed uses. For example, what effect will the Borough’s ski development have on the rest of Hatcher Pass, will it draw more people overall to Hatcher Pass or just to its development areas? Will current quiet recreationists abandon areas of Hatcher Pass to use the Borough’s facilities ? Surely by this time, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough must have a raft of studies showing projected usage and economic data. Also, no priorities are established for the proposed improvements. We note, with dismay, the large number of improvements assigned to DPOR. Knowing their lack of staff and funding, we are skeptical that these improvements can be provided in any kind of timely fashion.

In light of our earlier comments about safety issues, our various criticisms that the Plan fails to deal with future impacts and the inability for DNR to provide the active management required, AQRC reiterates its position that the simplest, more effective way to manage the 301,310 acres in a safe manner for all users is to separate the quiet recreational activities from the motorized activities by dividing Hatcher Pass into an East and West side. We recognize  that this separation does nothing to mitigate or prevent habitat and resource damage on the West side. However, it will prevent it from occurring on the East side.

Finally, we would point out that under the Plan as proposed, a grand total of 18,814  acres are closed to year-round motorized activity. This equates to 6.2% of the 301, 310 total acres. AQRC does not believe that only 6 % of the users of Hatcher Pass are quiet recreationists while 94% of those who use HP are snowmachiners/ATVers. . Our proposal, to simply divide HP into  motorized and  non-motorized areas, would result in 72,330 acres being set aside for quiet recreation and 228,892 acres  available for winter motorized recreation. This division results in 24% of Hatcher Pass being set aside for quiet recreation and 76% for motorized recreation. AQRC believes this, though imperfect, is a much more equitable allocation of the state’s public lands between user groups. AQRC also believes you have the authority to do this closure under the “safety” exception to AS. 38.04.200 or through finding the statute inapplicable, as in the case of the High Glacier Peaks unit. We also believe that DNR could obtain greater management control by considering more areas within the planning area as eligible for “special use” designations.

We are under the impression that today’s increased winter use of Hatcher Pass is due to greater demand by both quiet recreationists and motorized recreationists. This plan, however, recommends closing the same number of acres to motorized uses (actually it is a reduction of five acres) as were closed in the original 1986/89 plan. Stated conversely, this means that the same number of acres are set aside for the non-motorized user as were originally proposed, despite increased numbers of quiet recreationists and changes in methods of recreation, such as snowboarding.  We fail to see how an identical allocation of area between the two user groups can possibly address the present, much less the future, safety and conflict issues identified.  In short, we do not believe that the recommendations of the proposed plan adequately address the needs and concerns of the non-motorized user of Hatcher Pass or adequately deal with the on-the-ground conflict and safety realities.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the Public Review Draft of the Hatcher Pass Management Plan.

Sincerely yours,

Susan Olsen, President

Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition

P.O. Box 202592

Anchorage, AK 99520