Trail advocates gathered on Tuesday morning at Eklutna Lake, a glacier-fed, turquoise, oblong body of water nestled in the mountains of Chugach State Park, to celebrate a legislative victory.
Lawmakers in May approved $234,000 in state funding to fix the 13-mile trail that runs along the lake, repairing and shoring up the numerous spots that have eroded and become difficult to travel.
Those fixes will help make the trails around Alaska’s largest city more attractive to visitors and to locals, said advocates at the Eklutna Lake Trail “Golden Shovel” celebration organized by the nonprofit group Alaska Trails.
“People who come to Alaska want to see real Alaska,” said Matt Worden, owner of Lifetime Adventures, a company that offers kayak tours and rentals at Eklutna Lake, and one of the trail supporters speaking at the event. “When I see people put out that Anchorage isn’t a good spot and they got to go, they have to go somewhere else in the state to see real Alaska, it’s not true.”
The Eklutna trail-improvement project is one of three within Chugach State Park that were approved this year by lawmakers. They are all part of a broader plan, now called the Alaska Traverse, that would establish a connected trail system running about 500 miles from Fairbanks to the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. The plan had until recently been known as the Alaska Long Trail.
The other projects approved are a $1.1 million rerouting of the 5-mile Indian Valley Trail, which is part of a longer route linking Turnagain Arm to Arctic Valley, and $100,000 for a study on ways to restore access to a high alpine destination north of Eagle River called Ram Valley.
Altogether, the $1.4 million for trails approved by the Legislature was far less than the $9.5 million, 14-project Alaska Trails wish list prepared earlier this year. But none of the trail items approved this year by lawmakers were vetoed. That contrasts with last year, when Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $10.5 million of the $14.75 million in trail projects that lawmakers had approved.
The three trail projects put into this year’s capital budget were chosen through careful compromise and strategic targeting, said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, one of the legislative champions of the Alaska Traverse concept.
“We worked really hard with the governor and got a lot of people writing in to support them,” said Wielechowski, who was among the public officials at Tuesday’s trailside celebration.
The $1.4 million was a relatively modest sum and part of a modest capital budget, but it represents progress toward the ultimate goal of a Fairbanks-to-Kenai Peninsula trail system, he said. “Every year we’re getting a little bit more,” he said. “We’re getting there.”
The new Alaska Traverse name was chosen earlier this month by Alaska Trails officials and their partners at the end of a deliberative process that started last year. The Alaska Long Trail name had been a placeholder while public input was gathered, said Mariyam Medovaya, the organization’s Alaska Traverse project manager.
Alaska Traverse emerged as the winner for multiple reasons, she said. There is a nice acronym, AKT, she said. The new name does not conflict with another name in the Lower 48, Vermont’s Long Trail, she said.
Perhaps most importantly, the new name is more reflective of the envisioned trail system or network, which is more than a point-to-point route, she said.
The Eklutna Lakeside Trail fits into that network concept. From the soon-to-be-fortified trail, hikers can reach a route allowing them to ascend Bold Ridge Overlook and, if they are ambitious, continue on to 7,522-foot Bold Peak. Even more ambitious travelers could work their way north to Pioneer Peak Ridge in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
“It’s possible for people who want more adventure,” she said.
It is no coincidence that the three projects funded this year are clustered in Anchorage, Wielechowski said.
Among the trail projects that were vetoed last year were those in the Fairbanks area and in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, he said. Although governments at the borough and city level and numerous business groups have supported the connected-trail concepts, there was pushback from certain other groups in the Fairbanks and Matanuska-Susitna areas, he said.
That skepticism or opposition appeared to be at least in part about concerns that motorized trail use or uses like hunting would be curtailed, Wielechowski said. But those concerns are misplaced, he said.
The Alaska Traverse is not strictly about non-motorized travel, he said. The Eklutna Lakeside Trail project is an example, he said, as some of the improvements will benefit the section of trail designated for all-terrain-vehicle travel. And hunters and trappers are likely to benefit as well from trail expansions, he said.
“If you build the trails, they’re going to allow more access for everybody,” he said.
As much as they want to extend the work beyond Anchorage, Wielechowski said, he and other lawmakers will be reluctant to fund projects in areas where there might be opposition and “if the governor’s just going to veto it.”
Nonetheless, preliminary work is proceeding on one project that would connect Anchorage trails to those in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Among the projects that did win funding last year is a $300,000 study of how to create an 8-mile connection from Edmonds Lake, a scenic spot near Chugiak, to the community of Palmer, said Beth Nordlund, executive director of the Anchorage Park Foundation, the organization that received the money.
The foundation has a contractor to do the study, though any connection that would be created would likely be done by the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said Nordlund, who was also at Tuesday’s Eklutna Lake celebration.
“It’s not going to be the Anchorage Park Foundation that builds this connection. It’s just to get the ball rolling,” she said. “If you don’t have the study, you can’t have the first step.”
Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: email@example.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.