Snowmachine fans get more trails

Forest Service to review off-road vehicle use in Juneau area

Posted: Monday, January 03, 2000

Which national forest trails are open to snowmachines

As in recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has authorized snowmachine and all-terrain vehicle use in the Windfall Lake area and the east side of Spaulding Meadows, the west side of Mendenhall Lake, and the Dan Moller Trail.

Except for at Mendenhall Lake, motorized vehicles are permitted in these areas only when there is at least a foot of snow. Riders on Mendenhall Lake's frozen surface should use caution to avoid thin ice, the agency said.

In Spaulding Meadows, the boundary marking the area closed to motorized use will be posted on trees about 200 feet apart. The John Muir and Peterson Lake public-use cabins are in a closed area.

The part of Mendenhall Lake open to motorized vehicles is between two orange markers at the end of the lake. Access points are 100 yards north of Skater's Cabin and on the left side of the steel gate across from the West Glacier trailhead parking lot.

Access to Windfall Lake and Spaulding Meadows is from the Lake Creek route near the University of Alaska Southeast student housing.

Primary access to Dan Moller Trail is via the trailhead on Pioneer Street. Secondary access is by the Blueberry water tower at the end of Jackson Street. The Treadwell Ditch Trail is closed from the junction with the Dan Moller Trail to Eaglecrest Ski Area.

Specifically closed to vehicles are the west side of Spaulding Meadows, the Dredge Lakes area, the Mendenhall Recreation Area, the Fish Creek Winter Sports Area, and the Eagle-Herbert River area.

The rest of the national forest is open to cross-country travel as long as it's done safely and doesn't damage natural resources.

The Forest Service has posted a map of open and closed areas at its office at 8465 Old Dairy Road.

Juneau snowmachiners hope the state's claim to rights of way on certain federal trails will lead to new places to ride.

But the process of transferring ownership and deciding how the trails will be managed are very much up in the air.

Local motorized users now have limited trail access to national forest land. They aren't allowed in state parks, such as the Eagle Beach State Recreation Area. The city has opened up an old rock quarry for vehicle use, but riders say it's small - and rocky.

At public meetings last year to amend the Juneau Trails Plan - which sets priorities for various agencies' trail managers - snowmachiners and all-terrain vehicle users came out in force and asked for more places to ride.

``We've worked very hard to get snowmobilers involved in the public process,'' said Mark Wilke, treasurer of the Juneau Snowmobile Club. The group incorporated last year and now has about 215 members, he said.

The U.S. Forest Service will begin a process this year to review off-road vehicle use in the Juneau area. But it could be one or two years before a plan is published.

Snowmachiners aren't counting on that. They're looking to a federal law, part of the Mining Act of 1866, intended to give miners access to their claims. The law lets states claim rights of way and manage uses on some public and private land.

That portion of the law was repealed in 1976, but the state says it still applies to rights of way established before the federal government designated land uses. In Juneau, that includes old mining routes that are hiked and skied today.

In 1998, the state Legislature claimed rights of way on about 600 routes statewide. Each year, the state Department of Natural Resources will list more rights of way as their historic use is established.

So far, the state has claimed the following Juneau trails, many of which lead to old mines: Nevada Creek, Montana Creek, Perseverance, Sheep Creek, Lemon Creek, Nugget Creek, Spaulding Meadows Ski Circuit, Peterson Lake, Amalga-Eagle Glacier, Yankee Basin, the Treadwell Ditch and Bessie Mine.

``The (listed) trails really represent everything we could hope for,'' snowmachiner Wilke said. ``There's no other places in Juneau that hold the type of terrain that appeals to snowmobilers.''

Many of those trails are wholly or partly on the Tongass National Forest.

But before the federal government accepts those claims, the state must prove the routes were publicly used prior to the land's designation as national forest, said Dennis Hopewell, an attorney in the U.S. Interior Department's Anchorage office.

The state also must show the historic route is the same as the modern trail, Hopewell said.

The state hasn't yet applied for title to any Juneau trails, and it's not clear how the state would manage them if it did.

``It's kind of a whole new process to figure out what our role is on this,'' said Ron Schonenbach, Southeast land manager of the Department of Natural Resources.

The agency has consulted with the state Department of Law and expects this week to give the Juneau Snowmobile Club the state's viewpoint on the rights of way.

Rights of way are like any other state property, said Nancy Welch, a state land manager who is spearheading the rights of way project from Fairbanks.

``That's really the question on (rights of way) - what kind of activity can occur, what kind of vehicle,'' Welch said. ``We have to be sure to manage it so it's not to the detriment of what the feds are managing it for.''

The state generally allows off-road vehicles on its land as long as they don't break through vegetation and cause erosion. The state could require a certain depth of ground frost and snow cover before riding can occur, Welch said.

Some environmentalists oppose these types of rights of way.

They are concerned not only about motorized uses, but that the routes could become highways and utility corridors, said Sue Schrader, conservation advocate for the Alaska Conservation Voters, a Juneau-based lobbying group.

``It kind of opens the whole Pandora's box of development alternatives that I would think most Alaskans would want to look at very closely,'' Schrader said. ``It is interpreted by many people very, very broadly.''

Information on state rights of way regulations is available on the Department of Natural Resources' home page, www.dnr.state.ak.us/land/f2477.htm.



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