A Displacement Story over Three Decades

by Libby Hatton

After a few miles on a homesteader’s route, I broke trail through a silent forest of birch and spruce and over the muskeg until I reached Swan Lake. Then I traversed the expanse of glistening untracked snow over the lake and the swamp beyond. The Alaska Range loomed to the north as a backdrop to the peace and quiet of the wild lands below. The only sound was the swish of my skis and sled. As dusk came and I neared my cabin, an owl’s hoot welcomed me back. It was early March 1976. I was 10 miles west of the Parks Highway as the raven flies and on a bluff overlooking the Tokositna River and Denali State Park. The Tokosha Mountains and Denali itself were framed in my picture window. This had been open to entry land and friends had built a cabin for me the year before. The nearest neighbor was more than a mile away. During my stay I saw otter, moose, marten, grizzly bear, porcupine, beaver, and a wolf and the tracks of many others. As spring came the air was full of returning bird sounds.

Jumping ahead to 1986, I now skied over cabin trails almost all the way to my own place. It was fun meeting the occasional dog team, skier, or cabin owner on a snowmachine hauling in supplies. We all knew each other and would always stop and visit in the middle of the trail. My days were divided between getting wood and exploring this wilderness on skis. Every turn of the river had new discoveries; eagles arriving at their snowcapped nest, moose browsing in the willows, an otter snow-boarding on her belly, trumpeter swans returning, fresh wolf tracks marking their trail. Skiing in the woods had similar joys; hidden ponds in their winter perfection, meadow snowscapes, unbroken views from hilltops. Occasionally I heard the sound of a dog team or a snowmachine and it was a welcome event: it meant that visitors had come for an afternoon or a day or a week.

Ten years more and the snow and the sounds are different. By 1996 the trail is icy and bumpy from speeding machines. People hauling supplies are having a miserable time. On a weekend day large groups of screaming machines whiz by. In Denali State Park, the river is bank to bank rutted snowmachine tracks and smells of hydrocarbons. It is no longer fun to be on it—or even safe. Bankings are carved from high marking, fewer animals are seen. In the woods and on the hills and over the muskeg, deep tracks cut up the landscape. I cherish the few places and times left where the sights and sounds of the natural winter landscape can be enjoyed.

2006.. The view remains but the sense of wilderness is gone. Bird song and wind whisper have been drowned out. Few animals are seen. The snow is rutted and ugly everywhere. Neighbors avoid going out on weekends or holidays. A few people skate ski on the showmachine highways but can’t go for a peaceful woodsy ski or snowshoe jaunt.

May 2006, I sold the cabin, displaced to Anchorage, population greater than 260,000, where there is more natural quiet in the adjacent areas of Chugach State Park that are closed to snowmachines than there is in the very sparcely populated upper Susitna Valley. I don’t know where the animals and birds were displaced to.

What happened over these 30 years? The population grew, the Wasilla and Anchorage snowmachiners “discovered” the area and Denali State Park has no restrictions on snowmachine use in that area, in spite of pleading by the majority of the local property owners at the time the management plan was reviewed. The director caved in to the loud demands of the motorhead minority. With no oversight or enforcement by the Department of Natural Resources or the Division of State Parks and Outdoor Recreation, there are also no speed limits, no restrictions to keep machines on trails, no prevention of animal harassment, and no protection of neighborhood transportation trails. In one generation, because of lack of regulation, the entire upper Susitna Valley has been lost to quiet living and recreation. Both wildlife and people are displaced.

The actual numbers of people who live and/or recreate in the area is not large. With designated snowmachine trails separate from neighborhood trails and with snowmachiners staying on trails, everyone could enjoy the outdoors and the magnificent scenery in their own way.

The original cabin owners formed a group that called themselves the Tokosha Citizens Council. Their main reason for forming was to protect the natural peace and quiet of the area and to retain the wilderness qualities. They proposed a road-free plan to the Mat-Su Borough but the Borough dragged its bureaucratic feet and nothing was done.

Winter is not the only season affected by the unregulated increase in motorized toys. In the spring and summer the air is full of noise from flightseeing trips to Denali. ATVs roam the landscape, destroying it as they go. Some of the little lakes now have jet skis screaming around in mindless circles.

I sold my cabin to a family with three children. Those kids will never know the same joys of winter wildlife discoveries in their own backyard or hear the spring arrive in a naturally quiet land.

It didn’t have to be this way. If government agencies did long term planning with protection of natural resources like wildlife and natural quiet in mind, children could have inherited the same wonderland.