Below are the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition’s scoping comments on possible updates and revisions to DNR’s regulations for the Knik River Public Use Area.
A. General. 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; protecting wildlife, of course, requires protecting it not only from disturbing mechanical noise but also from the more obvious habitat damage done by poorly regulated ATVs, snowmachines, airboats, etc. 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, canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing.
We have been concerned about the condition of the Jim-Swan Wetlands area for many years, both before and after the Knik River Public Use Area was legislatively designated, and have participated in several public processes regarding the area. These wetlands cover only about 10,000 acres, less than 5% of the total area of the KRPUA. Yet this Important Bird Area is resource rich. It provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, including of course the Trumpeter Swans for which the area was named. The Knik River has the most productive nesting grounds in Southcentral Alaska for Trumpeters. In addition, there are black bears, moose, Dall sheep, and spawning and rearing coho salmon. There are a variety of ducks, grebes, mergansers, and loons. Several Audubon Watchlist bird species (species at risk) are present. And bird species unusual for the region include Osprey and the northern-most population of Song Sparrow in Alaska.
There are a number of serious problems in the area. We are of course very much troubled by safety and resource issues like illegal shooting, the dumping and burning of cars and appliances, irresponsibly fast driving of ATVs and snowmachines, etc. Because of our mission, however, we have generally focused on the serious damage done to wildlife and habitat by inadequately regulated motorized recreational vehicle use–as well as the loss of high quality opportunities to recreate there without a motor, enjoying (see above) truly traditional modes of recreation like hiking, canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. So in this letter, too, we’ll concentrate on ways to reduce ORV damage and increase non-motorized recreational opportunities.
B. Specific Regulatory Recommendations.
1. All motorized uses, including ATVs and airboats (airboats are even more harmful in these situations than traditional motor boats), in and adjacent to the Jim-Swan Wetlands, should be prohibited from early April to late October (this is needed to protect not only swan and other waterfowl breeding and rearing, but also staging in the fall by very large numbers of swans migrating south). There are thousands of acres in the area that are far more suitable for ATV use–for example, the 25 miles of sand and gravel bars from the mouth of the river to the glacier (although we certainly aren’t advocating blanket use of this entire area). And of course waterfowl and other hunting on and near the wetlands could still be undertaken using traditional, non-motorized means of access.
2. ORVs should be allowed on only a limited number of designated trails, and only at times when impacts on both wildlife and habitat will not be significant. No off-trail, cross country motorized terrestrial travel should be permitted. Creating new trails, by whatever means (including taking a motorized vehicle off of a trail), should be illegal. This would seem to be illegal already–see 11 AAC 96. 016 (c)(16)–yet the creation of new trails is a serious and constantly recurring problem. The Rippy Trail is an example of a trail where a number of new trails either off of or beyond the designated trail have been created. Leaving the Rippy Trail, or any other trail, should not be allowed. The extent of the problem, which is substantial and which of course is not limited to the Rippy Trail, is illustrated in part in the November 8, 2012 U.S. FIsh & Wildlife Service document entitled “Inventory of juvenile coho salmon and off-road vehicle trail distribution in the Knik River Public Use Area.”
3. The six inch rule (11 AAC 96.016 (c)(4)) should be repealed. This regulation authorizes ORV users to create a rut in wetlands and other habitat up to six inches deep. To be frank, it is still amazing to us that a public land managing agency would explicitly condone damage as grossly excessive as this. NO off trail damage by ATVs (or damage by airboats to shoreline vegetation) should be allowed, let alone six inches. As we said above, ATVs should be allowed on designated trails only. The Division of Mining, Land and Water should demonstrate a commitment to responsible stewardship of this highly valuable area by eliminating the six inch rule.
4. ORVs used in the KRPUA should be registered, and should have a large, legible decal prominently displayed. This would be a huge boon to enforcement.
5. Non-motorized recreational opportunities should be enhanced. One of the statutory purposes of the KRPUA is the “maintenance and enhancement of…nonmotorized recreational opportunities (AS 41.23.180 (3)). We’re not aware that this has been done to any significant extent (the Jim Lake Overlook Trail is only a small beginning, considering the magnitude of the imbalance between motorized and non-motorized opportunities). To the contrary, non-motorized opportunities have effectively been reduced as ORV use has increased, creating more conflicts between motorized and non-motorized users, and displacing many non-motorized recreationists (“multi-use trail is a misnomer; the dominating motorized use in the great majority of cases displaces the non-motorized user). What does DNR intend to do to fulfill this statutory requirement and increase high quality non-motorized recreational opportunities? Implementing our recommendation #1 above would certainly help considerably.
6. Shooting range operating hours should be reduced. As we suggested above, high quality non-motorized recreational opportunities, including the opportunity to enjoy natural quiet and natural sounds, are rare on the KRPUA. This is a result not only of motorized vehicle use, but also of the noise from the shooting range. In addition to the hours of closure each day, we recommend that the range be closed for at least two full consecutive days each week. This would allow those seeking some peace and quiet–a break from our noisy urban and suburban areas–a chance to enjoy an overnight outing with at least one source of mechanical noise eliminated, and it would also benefit nearby homeowners.
Of course the best regulations in the world won’t reduce–or, hopefully, eliminate–the harm done by motorized recreational vehicles if DNR doesn’t have an active presence in the area that allows for adequate monitoring and enforcement. The use the area gets, and its exceptional value, clearly justifies the sort of ranger presence that would occur in a comparable unit of the State Park System. Funding should be obtained–a fee system for both day and overnight use would be a start–to substantially increase the DNR presence, focused on the Jim-Swan Wetlands, in the KRPUA.
Thank you for this chance to comment. This is an incredibly beautiful and wildlife rich area and it is heart breaking to see how badly it has been allowed to deteriorate.
President, Board of Directors
Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition