Letter to Secretary Jewell, DOI re Alaska Wilderness

Dear Secretary Jewell,

We at the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition (AQRC) know how knowledgeable you are about outdoor recreation, how much you love Alaska, and how concerned you are about protecting its wildness (Fall 2016 Smithsonian Journeys). We also understand that you’re a cross-country skier.

Like so many skiers we assume that you prefer to enjoy your sport in a quiet, natural setting. Like many other skiers in the lower 48, you probably seek out Wilderness areas for quiet recreation. These areas are closed to snowmachines andprovide a refuge for those seeking solitude. Within Wilderness in the lower 48 the natural soundscape has been protected–visitors can hear natural sounds and enjoy natural quiet. The air is clean and free of exhaust. The snowscape is largely pristine, unmarred by the tracks of motor vehicles. And just as these areas provide a refuge for people seeking a respite from the hustle and bustle of modern life, they also provide an important refuge for wildlife.

One would think that Wilderness areas in Alaska would provide the same refuge. Imagine for a moment that you’ve decided to take a once in a lifetime winter ski trip to Alaska. What could be better than cross country skiing, in spectacular terrain, in designated Wilderness, in the country’s wildest state! You’ve heard great things about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve (WRST), so you head there. You set up camp in designated Wilderness. You relax and take in the vast, quiet scene–until you hear the extremely disquieting buzz of snowmachines and soon after see a group of recreational snowmachiners. Maybe they’ll be passing through relatively quickly, which is bad enough. But they might instead be speeding up and down a nearby hillside, or racing in circles or figure 8’s on a nearby lake or meadow.

This is not at all what you’d expected. You’re surprised–no, you’re shocked–and you’re sorely disappointed. Like many who visit Alaska’s wildest corners, you wonder why recreational snowmachining is prohibited in Wilderness in the tamer lower 48, but permitted in wild Alaska? Could this really be what Congress intended?

The crux, as we’re sure you know, is the proper interpretation of Section 1110(a) of ANILCA. We feel strongly that Congress never intended that recreational snowmachining be included as a traditional activity for the purposes of 1110(a) (see Denali National Park regulations on snowmachining in the Old Park Wilderness, starting at 13.950).

Snowmachines play a different role in Alaskan life than they do in the lower 48 and there are legitimate uses of snowmachines in WRST. Examples include for subsistence; travel between villages and access to private land; and transportation (access) for truly traditional, mostly consumptive, activities. But we don’t believe, and don’t think that the Congress believed, that purely recreational snowmachining is an 1110(a) traditional activity. There are innumerable opportunities for recreational snowmachining on nearby state and federal public lands–Wilderness should be different.

The Proposed Action for the WRST Stewardship Plan, however, proposes that recreational snowmachining is a traditional activity and should be allowed to continue in designated Wilderness. Not everywhere, to be fair, but potentially at high levels of use in substantial portions of the Wilderness. What is especially disturbing is that the level and geographic extent of use is to be determined not by what was occurring in 1980 when ANILCA was signed, or 1986 when the park Management Plan was adopted, but in 2016, after snowmachine use had increased exponentially throughout the country, including Alaska, and snowmachine technology had advanced dramatically, with huge increases in the power, range, and speed of the machines.

We would greatly appreciate it if you would ask WRST to reconsider its Proposed Action as it relates to recreational snowmachining in designated Wilderness (for more detail, we’ve attached a copy of the AQRC scoping comments on the Stewardship Plan.)


Brian Okonek, President
Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition

P.O. Box 202592
Anchorage, AK 99520

cc: Jon Jarvis, Director, NPS
Bert Frost, Alaska Regional Director, NPS
Eric Veach, Acting Superintendent, WRST
Ben Bobowski, newly hired Superintendent, WRST
Peter Christian, Chief Ranger, WRST
Bruce Rogers, Stewardship Plan Project Manager, WRST