Northern Denali park road plan halted

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2007

ANCHORAGE - A road project pushed by former Gov. Frank Murkowski that could eventually have provided another way into Denali National Park has been halted.

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State transportation officials announced Friday that they have withdrawn permit applications for improvements on the Stampede Road, an access road north of the Alaska Range that leads into the park.

Proponents said a northern route into the park would relieve congestion at the existing entrance and funnel more tourists through Fairbanks. However, people living close to the proposed improved road were strongly opposed.

Residents said the $5 million appropriated for the project could be better used on safety upgrades elsewhere. Local legislators and officials of the Denali Borough agreed. Environmental groups said the project was ill-conceived and would devalue nearby wilderness.

"It made sense to one guy," said David van den Berg, director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks. "We don't think it really belongs."

The National Park Service also opposed the plan. Spokesman John Quinley said the agency favors more access to the park from the south side of the Alaska Range, where a visitors center, trails and other developments in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are in the works.

Howard Thies, DOT acting northern region director, said the Stampede Road project will be on hold while the department measures it against competing projects.

"It is important that we prioritize our limited general fund resources in a way that contributes to motorist safety and traffic congestion relief," Thies said. "Recreational roads such as the Stampede Road project are going to have to demonstrate a greater need in this time of fiscal constraint."

Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Gov. Sarah Palin, said the governor did not order the permit applications withdrawn and that it was a regional decision. Palin in December canceled a Murkowski contract to build a one-lane 11-mile gravel road out of Juneau. Murkowski had signed the contract even before obtaining required permits as a way to accelerate construction of a highway along Lynn Canal Highway.

Like that project, Stampede Road improvement was proposed with state money only and no federal matching money - or the federal review that would accompany those dollars.

The idea of a road into the park from the north side of the Alaska Range was first proposed in 1917, the same year the park was founded, as an alternate route to the existing park road.

The Stampede route was first used by miner Earl Pilgrim in the mid-1930s as a trail to his claim on Stampede Creek at the foot of the Kantishna Hills, just inside the park boundary.

In 1961, the state spent $250,000 for construction of a 50-mile pioneer road along the route. It starts at Milepost 251 of the Parks Highway, 15 miles north of the park entrance near Healy.

Cars can maneuver only the first eight miles of the road, which provides access to homes of about 80 people who work or go to school in nearby Healy. Beyond the first eight miles, the road becomes a rutted track that at times disappears into tundra, said Nancy Bale, president of the Denali Citizens Council, a local environmental advocacy group.

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