Long Trail Advocates Seek Hike in Funding

By YERETH ROSEN
Alaska Beacon
    Trail advocates are asking legislators to appropriate more than $20.3 million for 21 projects envisioned as part of a system connecting more than 500 miles of trails between Fairbanks and Seward.
    The request, from the nonprofit organization Alaska Trails and its coalition partners, would help continue steady progress to creating what is being called the Alaska Long Trail, a network that would run from the Resurrection Bay coast of the Kenai Peninsula to the boreal forest of Interior Alaska. The campaign seeks to improve, expand and link existing trails to create a system in Alaska that is similar to the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast or the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast.

Braided trails created by crowds of hikers are seen in 2022, from the top of Flattop Mountain in Anchorage’s Chugach State Park. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)


    Much has already been accomplished to make the Alaska Long Trail vision a reality, Haley Johnston, deputy director of the nonprofit organization Alaska Trails, said in a presentation Tuesday at the state Capitol in Juneau. Trail expansions and improvements have already been completed, and more are underway, she said.
    Perhaps most notably, Johnston said, is that visitors to Alaska and outdoors enthusiasts who live here are taking notice of the Alaska Long Trail idea.
    This year, visitors are expected to be hiking from Seward on the coast of the Kenai Peninsula to Eagle River, the woody community on Anchorage’s northern outskirts. There are a few missing trail sections between those spots, but there are options for passing through them, she said.
    “We’re excited that the little sections that we’re missing are small enough now that they won’t be prohibitive to folks coming and doing this section of it,” she said. “So we’re going to see folks hiking that Seward to Eagle River section, stopping in businesses along the way, camping in campgrounds, staying at hotels, going to the brewery in Girdwood, all of the economic benefit that we’re hoping to see will finally have some numbers about that.”
    Also ongoing this year is a sweeping feasibility study by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and funded with federal appropriations secured by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to consider whether the Alaska Long Trail can be designated a National Scenic Trail. Such a designation would help secure more federal funding while relieving the state’s funding burden and continuing northward progress, Johnston said.
    For the state legislature’s consideration this year, almost all of the Alaska Long Trail-related budget requests are for projects in the Municipality of Anchorage and the adjacent Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which combined hold a little over half of the state’s population. Funding requests this year range from $60,000 for the design of trail improvements at Peters Creek Valley in Anchorage’s Chugach State Park to $3.5 million for the design and engineering of a 7-mile trail between Carlo Creek and McKinley Village just outside of Denali National Park and Preserve.
    Among the highest priorities on the wish list concerns one of Alaska’s most heavily used hiking sites: Flattop Mountain in Chugach State Park. The request is for $2.7 million to realign trails on the mountain that have deteriorated through time and use to the point where they pose a safety hazard, sometimes spurring the need for emergency responses, according to the project description.
    As they seek state funds, Alaska Trails and associated advocates have been pitching trail projects as worthwhile economic investments.
    The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which in recent years started measuring economic impact of outdoor recreation nationally and within states, has calculated that outdoor recreation accounts for 4% of Alaska’s gross domestic product. That percentage is near the top among states, just behind Montana, Wyoming, Vermont and Hawaii, according to BEA calculations, Johnston said in her presentation. Additionally, Alaska outdoor recreation jobs grew by 14% in 2022, the third-highest growth rate among U.S. states, she said.
    More generally, trails help draw people to live in Alaska or keep them here, making them a “nice antidote to outmigration,” Johnston said.
    “I know that I showed up in Alaska at the ripe age of 20 to do some outdoor recreating and then promptly decided to live here for the rest of my life and buy a house and get married and create a community. And I’ll never leave, in large part because of outdoor recreation,” she said.
    If experience in Juneau is any guide, only a minority of the desired Alaska Long Trail projects will win funding in the budget that legislators are assembling this year.
    The budget for the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, funded three projects for $1.43 million; while Alaska Trails and its partners had requested $9.4 million for 13 projects. The previous year, the budget provided $4.22 million for seven projects; Alaska Trails and its partners had requested $14.75 million for 15 projects.
    Among the rejected budget requests, some had been approved by lawmakers but were vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
    There are multiple other sources of money for the trail projects that far outweigh state contributions, however.
    Aside from federal funding, which through 2023 amounted to about twice the amount that came from the state, money has come from sources outside of government through nonprofit organizations, Johnston noted in her presentation.
    One example is the Mellon Foundation, which has provided $1.7 million for Indigenous language signage along Anchorage trails. Work on that project, which aims to erect 32 place-name signs, has already started.
    Budget request rejections and Dunleavy vetoes notwithstanding, support for trail projects is widely popular among legislators.
    “‘Trails is usually our favorite topic,” Sen. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, said during Tuesday’s presentation, which she organized. She noted that most of Chugach State Park lies within her district. “People in Eagle River love their trails. But not just Eagle River. It’s everyone from across the state.”
    The recreational value of trails became evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, when use skyrocketed, she said.
    “I think it’s fantastic because it’s something that your whole family can enjoy. And this is really going to bring a lot of economic opportunity to some of our smaller communities along the way,” Merrick said.
    The overarching project is again being called the Alaska Long Trail, even though its promoters last year selected a new name – the Alaska Traverse – to differentiate it from other major trail systems like Vermont’s Long Trail.
    That reversion was done for bureaucratic reasons, Johnston said during her presentation on Tuesday. While Alaska Trails and its coalition partners have flexibility to change the name, Congress and the BLM do not, she said. To reduce confusion, all parties will be using the same Alaska Long Trail name, at least until the BLM finishes its feasibility study, she said. “Once that’s done, we’ll reapproach what the long-term name is going to be.”
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20 YEARS AGO

April 2004

Photo caption: Grace Larson holds one of the Easter breads she baked for sale at the annual Rainy Day Bazaar Saturday at Centennial Hall. Hundreds turned out for the event, sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard Spouses and Women’s Association.

50 YEARS AGO

April 1974

All youngsters from walking age on up to age 12 are invited to an Easter egg hunt Sunday. Ages 5 and under meet at the Centennial Building; ages 6-9 in front of the visitor center at Totem Park; and ages 10-12 at Totem Park. Some $150 in cash and merchandise prizes will be offered.

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