ANCHORAGE - Snowmachiners and all-terrain-vehicle drivers must have a driver's license to travel on public land, a longtime rule that came as a surprise to officials of two state agencies.
New awareness of the rule could cause problems in the Bush where such vehicles are used for hunting, fishing and transportation. But it is expected to cause few problems in Juneau, where most young snowmachiners are accompanied by their parents.
Spokesmen at the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation said they only recently became aware of the law. They have since produced a brochure listing the license requirement.
The minimum age for a driver's license in Alaska is 16. A person can get a learner's permit at 14, but the permit requires supervision by a licensed driver.
Pete Panarese, a Department of Natural Resources official who oversees law enforcement in state parks, said he was embarrassed that the law was a revelation to him. He has since found out the law has been on the books since 1978.
"It's not unheard of for regulations to lie in the shadows," Panarese said.
Many Alaska State Troopers say the requirement is news to them.
Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said the new interpretation of the old law probably will have little effect, given that it is "not a high enforcement priority."
That especially holds true in the Bush, he said, where few people have licenses, and snowmobiles and ATVs are the chief mode of overland travel. Even in the state's recreation hot spots, such as the Big Lake area north of Anchorage, troopers are unlikely to enforce the law unless a snowmobile operator is behaving badly, he said.
In Juneau, most snowmobilers have to drive their machines to trailheads in pickup trucks or trailers, which means younger riders travel with parents or other adults, said snowmachiner Robin Paul. Paul, who has sons ages 11, 14 and 16, said the driver's license requirement made sense.
"Most kids under that age, if they're going to be out riding, they're going to be out with their parents anyway," she said.
Paul Prusak, northern region planning manager for the Department of Transportation, discovered the law about a year and a half ago as part of an expanding study of winter transportation.
Prusak discovered the state's driver's license statute covers operation of a "motor vehicle" not only on roads or rights of way but also on "other public property in this state." The definition of "motor vehicle" elsewhere in the law was so broad that it clearly included snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.
Prusak said Alaskans probably will not want their state to be one of the most restrictive places when it comes to snowmobiling. Officials expect the state's nine-member Snowmobile Trails Advisory Committee to discuss new rules that could be presented to the Legislature.
Empire staffer Ed Schoenfeld contributed to this report.