Wrangell-St. Elias NP & P Nabesna ORV DEIS

November 9, 2010

Bruce Rogers, Project Manager

Nabesna Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan DEIS

Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve

PO Box 439

Copper Center, AK 99573

Re:  Nabesna ORV DEIS

Dear Bruce,

The following are the comments of the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition (AQRC) on the Nabesna Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  Thank you very much for the chance to participate in this extremely important planning process.  We support Alternative 3, but with major revisions, including the adoption of the majority of Alternative 5’s provisions with regard to trail improvements, subsistence, and new non-motorized trails and routes.

The DEIS is an impressive document, and obviously a lot of thought and time went into it.  We very much thank you for that; NPS has clearly taken this issue seriously.  The Park Service is also proposing a number of new opportunities for the non-motorized user and lover of natural quiet and natural sounds, and we certainly appreciate those proposals.

We would ask that you please also refer to our June 3, 2008 scoping comments, since many of those comments are still applicable; in fact, we will repeat some of what we said earlier in order to place these present comments in context.

A.  About AQRC, and General Comments on the Natural Soundscape in Alaska

The Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition 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.

Alaska’s natural beauty, wildness, wildlife, expanses of undisturbed open space, and peace and quiet are among its most cherished values, and Alaskans, our visitors, and future generations have the right to experience the natural sights, sounds and quiet beauty of our state.  In the vast majority of cases, the obtrusive noise, summer landscape degradation and winter snowscape defacement, exhaust, and dangers of motorized recreation are incompatible with those special natural experiences.

Unfortunately, though, natural quiet and the opportunity to hear and enjoy natural sounds are increasingly hard to find in our state—a fact which would surprise the great majority of non-residents for whom Alaska is a potent symbol of the natural and the wild, not of noisy mechanization.  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 only 10 or 20 years earlier.

Ironically, accessible natural quiet can be easier to find in the lower 48, in the many designated Wildernesses where motorized recreation is prohibited, than in supposedly wild Alaska, where many federal land managers erroneously believe that ANILCA requires them to allow obtrusive recreational activities, for example, snowmachining, even in designated Wilderness.  Recreational snowmachining, inaccurately characterized as “traditional,” is allowed in spite of its numerous adverse impacts and the conflicts it so often creates with truly traditional, low impact means of access like walking, snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

AQRC believes in a fair and balanced allocation of the state’s public lands for both non-motorized and motorized recreation.  At the present time, there is a gross imbalance on the public lands that both unwisely and inequitably favors motorized recreation over muscle-powered recreation.  In the interests of both good stewardship and fundamental fairness, this imbalance needs to be rectified—thereby also helping to protect clean air and water, fish and wildlife, scenic beauty, and the wilderness character for which Alaska is famous worldwide.  And of course the National Park Service, as the federal agency with the most protective public lands mandate, is the appropriate and the perfect agency to begin this task.

B.  More Specific Comments on the DEIS

1.  AQRC supports Alternative 3, but with major revisions

AQRC supports Alternative 3, the only alternative that would prohibit recreational ORV use on both Park and Preserve lands, while allowing managed ORV use for local subsistence and access to private inholdings to continue.  We strongly believe that there is absolutely no place in the National Park System for recreational ATV riding—especially in Alaska, the nation’s last stronghold for truly wild lands.  Primarily on State of Alaska general lands and federal BLM lands, there are tens of millions of acres available in our state for recreational ATV use, including millions of acres in the Copper Basin.  There is no need for such use on lands managed by the agency which is supposed to be—and which Americans expect to be—the most protective of our federal land managers.  The National Park Service is not a multiple use agency.

a.  WRST statutory purposes implicitly exclude recreational ORV use

We don’t believe the statutory purposes in ANILCA for the establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias NP& P (“WRST” or “Wrangell”) include recreational ATV use.  Recreational ATV riding is hardly analogous to “mountain climbing” and “mountaineering.”  The Congress, for many years before ANILCA, understood that wilderness and motorized recreation are incompatible.  It allowed for a possible (but not mandatory) exception in Alaska for subsistence-like use of snowmachines, power boats, and airplanes.  ATVs were not included in this provision.  We still very confidently believe that Congress never intended that recreational snowmachining would be allowed in designated Wilderness in Alaska—let alone recreational ATV use, which not only creates user conflicts but can be so very damaging (as the need for this EIS demonstrates).

Additionally, but in more general terms, the courts have concluded that on National Park System lands conservation trumps enjoyment (1-17, 1-18); protecting all of WRST’s resources, including the natural soundscape, should be the NPS’s goal.  Instead of effectively managing for the lowest common denominator, or the minimum protection required by law, the Service should be a model land managing agency and strive to be the most responsible steward it possibly can.

b.  Recreational ORV use is an inappropriate means of accessing the backcountry

We also believe that there is no justification for recreational ATV use as a means of transportation to remote backcountry and Wilderness boundaries.  First of all, ORV access results in an unacceptable level of damage to WRST resources compared to other means of access.  Secondly, as a practical matter, we’d be interested in learning, for example, how many recreational ATV users ride to the Wilderness boundary, get off their machines, and pull on backpacks so they can enjoy a week of backpacking in the designated Wilderness (or how many wilderness enthusiasts use ATVs as transportation to Wilderness boundaries or to de facto wilderness; I don’t personally know any).  Third, wilderness recreation, by its very nature, does not include crowds of users in the same area.  An opportunity to find a reasonable degree of solitude is another of the fundamental values of wilderness recreation.  If motors (other than highway cars on established roads) are to be used, the historical means of accessing remote wilderness in Alaska is by airplane (see, e.g., 4-137).  While excessive airplane use is clearly antithetical to the wilderness experience (for example, flightseeing traffic can be a significant problem in this regard), occasional flyovers by air taxis transporting recreationists who are willing to use their arms (boating) or legs to get around once they’re dropped off are rarely a problem.  If such flyovers do become a problem, limits can and should be placed on them.

Wrangell, while accessible by road (in contrast, for example, to more remote parks like Gates of the Arctic), is still to a large degree unspoiled.  We have a great opportunity here to have what in some terms is the best of all possible worlds—a road accessible National Park that in many places is still largely undeveloped and not yet overwhelmed by mechanical intrusions.  We should strive to keep it that way.

But there is a need for major revisions to Alternative 3 before it is adopted.

2.  Subsistence ORV use

Although the subject of the lawsuit that prompted this EIS was recreational ORV use, it is very clear that subsistence ORV use is an essential part of the analysis.  We agree with the Park Service’s conclusions regarding the special provisions in ANILCA for continued subsistence harvests, and for reasonable access, including managed ORV use, in support of these harvests (1-7; 1-23).  Consequently, we recommend the inclusion in Alternative 3 of the majority of the subsistence provisions of Alternative 5.

Since subsistence ORV use will continue, degraded portions of trails will only further degrade unless improvements are made.  The scarring and other adverse impacts of these unimproved trails are unacceptable in a National Park System unit.  We recommend—with two important exceptions— that the proposals for trail improvements in Alternative 5 also be included in a revised Alternative 3.  We do this with some hesitation, since easier travel could mean more hunters on ORVs creating spur trails, and extending trails beyond their present terminus.  But on balance we believe that the majority of the improvements should be undertaken—assuming, of course, which may not be a reasonable assumption, that monitoring and enforcement are adequate.

The two exceptions are the proposed blading of the Trail and Lost Creek trails.  Both of these trails have relatively little evidence of non-primitive types of recreation or of mechanization.  In spite of the ORV use, the recreational experience still has a largely natural feel, since on the graveled portions of the trail even the exact route is often not apparent and the hiker is able to do his or her own minor route finding.  Blading would inject an obtrusive scar and a totally unnecessary artificiality into the experience, and might not in any case survive the not unusual flooding of these creeks.

ANILCA clearly makes provision for reasonable regulation of subsistence ORV use.  We recommend that Alternative 3 include the provision in Alternative 5 that in designated Wilderness such use be on the designated trails only; that is, off-trail use would be prohibited.  But we believe that such a provision should be applied to all ORV use, including therefore such use outside of designated Wilderness.  We do not think it is unreasonable to ask hunters to carry their harvested game back to their vehicles (see, re recreational use, 2-7).  Many people already do this, and have done so for years, including my 75 year old friend who hunts off of the Denali Highway.  Such a provision will both protect presently undisturbed land and result in ORV noise being originated only from the immediate trail tread.

Finally, we are concerned that the statement in the Preferred Alternative that “unmanaged proliferation of trails is minimized” is not nearly strong enough. The Park Service should seek to eliminate/prevent such proliferation, and if it starts to occur to any degree appropriate management tools need to be strictly implemented.

3.  Non-motorized opportunities

Off of the road system, and putting aside for the moment the use of small planes to access the backcountry, the National Park Service should encourage non-motorized access rather than motorized access to its lands.  Many Alaskans, and many in the lower 48 as well, have gotten out of the habit of even thinking about, let alone guiding young people towards, the possibility of obtaining access to the backcountry in the most truly traditional ways—by walking, snowshoeing, or cross country skiing.  NPS seems at times to share this attitude, appearing to ignore the possibility of non-motorized travel as a means of “access” (e.g., 3-88; “Away from the road corridor, access is by airplane, snowmobiles, and/or ORV….”; see also ES-6).

The National Park System can play an invaluable role, and provide a badly needed alternative, by encouraging healthy, traditional, muscle-powered, primitive forms of recreation.  We can reduce fossil fuel use, increase the burning of excess food calories (often junk food), reduce other impacts on the environment and on quiet users, and provide opportunities for a more contemplative, appreciative view of the natural world.

Although the Park Service in general could do far more to encourage non-motorized recreation, we very much appreciate the proposals that have been made in the DEIS for new non-motorized trails and routes in the analysis area, recognizing that existing non-motorized trail opportunities are extremely limited (4-160) (needless to say, we support the continuation of the few existing non-motorized trail opportunities:  e.g., end of Trail, Lost and Caribou creeks trails, and Skookum Volcano Trail).  Although, with regard to the motorized trails, more people will certainly be interested in using improved trails than the trails in their existing, often appalling state, subsistence ORV use will still occur on those trails, and many users will prefer hiking trails and routes where they will be free of the noise and other impacts of motorized use.  Since it makes sense to balance the number of motorized trails with at least an approximately equal number of non-motorized trails and routes, we recommend that in this regard the provisions of Alternative 5, which includes the largest number of new non-motorized opportunities, be included in Alternative 3.

More than once, the DEIS talks about “considering” new non-motorized trails and routes (see, e.g., 4-29).  But improvements to motorized trails are proposed without qualification.  What is the explanation for this difference, which would seem to unfairly favor improvements to motorized trails over new non-motorized trails and routes?

At 4-179 the document refers to motorized trails as “shared-use” trails; at other places we believe the term “multi-use” was employed.  These are unfortunate terms, which ignore the fact that the benefits of the “sharing” are not equal.  There is very little impact to the motorized user when a non-motorized recreationist uses the trail, but there is clearly an adverse impact to the muscle-powered user when he/she encounters the sights and sounds, or experiences the other impacts, of motorized use.  It’s like when a smoker and a non-smoker share a restaurant table; while the smoker is not affected, the non-smoker is.  And although the concept of displacement is referenced more than once, the document seems not to recognize the extent of displacement that occurs when trails or areas are managed for motorized use, which inevitably becomes the dominant use.

It’s said at 4-159 that “[t]he visitor experience for an unknown but presumably large proportion of non-motorized trail users is diminished by encounters with ORV users on the trails.”  We would certainly agree.  But it’s also the case that the experience is diminished by seeing evidence of ORV use—that is, trails that have obviously been seriously degraded by such use.

4.  Natural soundscapes

The National Park Service deserves considerable credit for being a leader among federal (and other) agencies in analyzing the effects of its decisions on—and in some instances at least, seeking to protect—the natural soundscape:  natural quiet and natural sounds.  We appreciate the sampling efforts, although they were of course extremely limited (we certainly hope that substantial additional sampling/monitoring will be undertaken in the future), and the attempt to analyze the effects of the five alternatives on the natural soundscape.  We are of course disappointed, however, that the agency’s preferred alternative does not appear to include any measures that would reduce the incidence of artificial, mechanical sounds; we would be happy to have this impression corrected if we’re wrong.

When the subjects of 1. natural sounds and natural quiet (and the magnitude of unnatural sounds), that is, the natural soundscape; and 2. artificial noise from motorized vehicles, are addressed, planners, land managers, the public, and others often (and it seems hard to avoid) lump two issues together:  the effects of that noise on the natural soundscape, an independent natural resource like clean air and water and scenic beauty which includes the effects of mechanical noise on not just humans but also wildlife; and the effects of that noise on the quality of the experience for non-motorized human recreationists seeking a quiet, natural experience.  The first is an ecological issue, the second a social one.  Both issues need to be analyzed, and both the natural soundscape and opportunities for high quality muscle-powered recreation need to be protected—or restored—to the greatest extent reasonably possible.  Alternative 5 proposes to take action to provide more non-motorized recreational opportunities by creating (considering?) new non-motorized trails and routes, but would seem to do nothing to protect the natural soundscape.  Alternative 5 would result in more mechanical noise, not less; that is, more insults to the natural soundscape—unlike Alternative 3, which would reduce the level of that noise.

The analysis of the natural soundscape seems to focus on two issues:  the decibel level of sounds, and the number of times a visitor would encounter unnatural sounds.  Other issues which need to be addressed in analyzing this mixed question of non-motorized visitor opportunities and the natural soundscape include the character of the sound (is the  pitch high or low?; does it rise and fall (which can be extremely irritating)?); at what time of day is the noise made (mechanical noises are generally more irritating when a person is hoping to relax at camp in the morning or evening, or trying to sleep)?; and what are the visitor’s desires and expectations?

In the latter regard, the question of whose experience will be measured is an issue that is relevant to several of the resources/experiences/etc. that are being analyzed.  With regard to ORV sounds on the nine (and other) trails, focusing on travelers on the Nabesna Road (who are characterized, it seems, as the “typical visitor” (2-55))would appear to be inappropriate.  For those people (and I’ve been one of them, for parts of all my visits, which have always included sightseeing), the expectation is that mechanical noises will undoubtedly be experienced.  But for people heading off of the road into the backcountry, the desire and hope of many of us (certainly most AQRC members and supporters)—if not, unfortunately, necessarily our expectation on Alaska’s motor-dominated public lands—is that we will be able to enjoy natural quiet and natural sounds.  The quality of our experience can be adversely affected by even a single ORV encounter if we think we’re in an area where we won’t have any such encounters; or if we realize that we won’t be able to escape the noise of ORVs but head out anyway because there are few alternatives, the quality of our experience will be less than it would have been in a quiet situation.

Just as we shouldn’t judge our W(w)ilderness (whether designated or de facto) management by how it’s perceived by people driving the road, so we shouldn’t judge the state of the natural soundscape and how it’s experienced by humans only by the perceptions and experiences of those who remain on the road.  [We see the same issue with regard to scenic impacts, incidentally.  While severely degraded trails would rarely adversely affect those driving the road (since the trails are almost never visible from the road), they can have a very significant adverse impact on the experience of the non-motorized recreationist in the backcountry].  Are we managing our National Park System only for the majority who presumably experience the park primarily at developed facilities, or are we also seeking to provide a high quality natural experience for the minority (which we of course consider to be a significant one) who leave the road and travel the trails, or travel off trail, into the backcountry?

Finally, non-motorized recreation is clearly more compatible with the goal of maintaining “[t}he atmosphere of peace and tranquility” (1-18) in WRST than noisy recreational ORVs.

5. Wilderness

We were very pleased to see the Service paying substantial attention to wilderness management, both of designated and eligible Wilderness (incidentally, and outside of the scope of this EIS, we of course continue to be extremely disappointed in its apparent conclusion that recreational snowmachining is a traditional activity under ANILCA section 1110(a), an interpretation which we believe is both inappropriate and inconsistent with the Congress’s intent).  We support the agency’s revised eligibility determination.

We believe, however, that the DEIS fails to attach sufficient significance to some of the Wilderness Act’s most familiar language.  This failure may have little direct relevance to its analysis and conclusions regarding Wilderness management in this particular situation, but it is quite important in a broader context.  The Act refers to “a primitive…type of recreation” (3-82).  ATV riding (and snowmachining) are hardly “primitive” forms of recreation.  But instead of primitive recreation, the DEIS uses in several places terms like “primitive quality” (3-82) and “primitive experience”.  It may be a subtle difference, but failing to use the exact phrase “primitive…recreation” makes the inappropriateness of motorized recreation in Wilderness less obvious or stark; it seems to avoid calling a spade a spade.  Similarly, there is less emphasis than there should be on the Congress’s concern about “growing mechanization.”  The words of the Act are powerful and deserve emphasis and repetition.

6.  Costs, implementation, and monitoring

There is a significant lack of cost figures in the document.  Page 2-20 shows the total cost of each alternative, but there is no breakdown regarding the total cost of motorized versus non-motorized projects, nor are the costs of each individual project provided.  This is a critical flaw.  Similarly, there is no estimate of the time each project will take to complete.  Consequently, it is impossible to determine whether the projects can be completed for a reasonable cost; whether non-motorized projects are receiving a fair share of both labor and money; and in what order the various projects should be undertaken (regarding this latter issue, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the document that explains the Park Service’s intent).

We recommend, in order to treat both user groups fairly and provide needed balance, that the Service complete at least (since the costs in time and money are likely to be far less for non-motorized projects) one non-motorized project for each motorized one.  More basically, an implementation plan should be prepared and provided to the public for review and comment.

The document does not seem to include any information regarding the effectiveness of the proposed trail improvements.  Will they in fact accomplish their stated purpose?

Finally, will adequate resources be committed to monitoring?  The lack of adequate monitoring is a very common problem and it’s not clear that it won’t be a problem in this situation as well.

7.  Other

a.  Cumulative effects.  In a number of places, the DEIS suggests that ORV noise impacts are less important than they might otherwise be because they are only one of several sources of noise in the analysis area (see, e.g., 3-97).  This is substantially flawed reasoning, and it’s the same reasoning that is frequently put forward by motorized recreationists (most commonly, that ATV or snowmachine noise isn’t important because there are always commercial airplanes flying overhead anyway).  In fact, in virtually every case, the more noise the bigger the conflict and problem, and eliminating or reducing any source of noise is beneficial.  Just because there’s some road noise (which can of course be left behind, while ORV noise extends a considerable distance into the backcountry), limited airplane noise, and the noise from subsistence ORVs, does not by any means reduce the importance of eliminating the noise from inappropriate recreational ORVs.

b.  Existence of trails before WRST was established.  We believe the fact that ORV trails were established and used before WRST was established is not nearly as important as some people apparently feel it is.  First of all, the levels of use were presumably far below what they are now and what they’re projected to be in the future.  Secondly, times change, and when the Congress legislates new designations a number of uses are continued while others are eliminated.  Commercial logging might have occurred in WRST before establishment, but it is now no longer allowed.  Similarly, recreational ORV use should now be prohibited in this special protected system, especially in light of the many opportunities available on BLM and state land.

c.  Wilderness-related businesses.  We were pleased to see the NPS reference, seemingly sympathetically, businesses that rely on wilderness experiences (see, e.g., ES-7, 2-54).  Alaska should be the premier state in the nation for wilderness-related businesses, but in discussions of economic effects, and in most land management decisions, they are inevitably the poor stepchild, and other economic factors almost always trump their interests and needs.  More public land agencies should manage a significant portion of their lands for this generally benign, and often educational, in the broadest sense, type of business, which of course requires the designation of areas free of recreational ATVs, snowmachines, jet skis, airboats, scenic overflights, etc.  Unfortunately, in spite of this apparent sympathy, the agency proposes to allow conflicting recreational ORV use to continue.

d.  The future.  We were very happy to see the NPS at least limit the definition of recreational ORV use (1-1) so that it doesn’t include recreational riding that is not in support of consumptive uses or undertaken as a means of transportation to non-motorized recreation opportunities (although, as we certainly hope we made clear, we don’t support ATV use in National Park System units for these recreational purposes either).  The clear trend in both Alaska and the rest of the country is to use ATVs for purely recreational riding, at all seasons, and too often for thrill seeking purposes.  It would be tragic if NPS were to allow this type of riding on the lands which it is supposed to be stewarding.  It’s unfortunate enough that other agencies allow this often destructive behavior to occur on the lands they are managing.

e.  NPCA/TWS comments.  We have seen, and we support, where they don’t conflict with these comments (they of course do conflict with ours with regard to the basic issue of recreational ORV riding on Preserve lands), the comments submitted by the National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society.  Those comments reflect their staff’s substantial knowledge of federal land management and their ability to devote considerably more time to some of the details of the DEIS, including Trail Standards and Indicators, Frequency of monitoring, Monitoring of other motorized trails, Management Tools, and the illegality of allowing recreational ORV use in the Park, and we support their recommendations.

Thank you again for the chance to comment on this important document, and for all of the agency’s very hard and well-intentioned work.


Cliff Eames

Member, Board of Directors

Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition,