Alaska editorial: Locking out public access

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

In a failed attempt to block public access to state lands north of the Yukon River, state senators squawked out a number of Chicken-Little style arguments on the floor last week.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, sponsored SB 85, a bill that amounts to a few sentences that simply lift the travel restriction on state lands on either side of the Dalton Highway north of the Yukon River.

Snowmachines, four-wheelers or other ATVs are currently prohibited within a 5-mile corridor on either side of the highway between the Yukon River and the Arctic Coast. Seekins' bill removes the restriction along 370 miles of the road north of the Yukon River, but creates a one-year delay, during which land managers must create a land-use plan.

Some of the visions of doom raised by those opposed to access have been a little over-the-top.

A few from the top last week include:

• "It's opening up some of the roughest area in the world to weekend warriors," said Sen. Donny Olson, R-Nome.

Ah yes, how we forget that people who live in Nome seven days a week have a greater right to enjoy the wilderness, and obviously must be more responsible than those of us in larger cities. Apparently folks like Sen. Olson see Fairbanksans as people who only have time to care about our city lives all week and escape to the wilds on the weekends to wage war upon the land.

• Stating concerns for ANWR and other future development opportunities, Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said, "I think people are going to rue the day we gave a considerable public relations tool to environmentalists to use against us."

So, are we to assume the position of Alaska's Democrats on wild lands is that it is best to lock them up and keep people out? Clearly the senate minority leader is convinced we must keep the masses away from our wild lands because this state and its people can not be trusted to manage and use them responsibly. Heaven forbid that the masses ruin all future opportunity for the really important people, like BP Alaska and Conoco-Phillips.

• Expressing concerns about terrorist threats, security and public safety, Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said, "This bill will allow off-road vehicles to swarm all over the pipeline."

Certainly those of us who have the pipeline running through our backyard have seen four-wheelers and snowmachines along pipeline corridors, but swarms of four-wheeler wielding terrorists have yet to materialize.

The only swarming that likely will occur after this bill passes - it has the governor's support and it should pass the house - will occur at the offices of the Department of Natural Resources, and rightfully so.

We've watched land mangers wrestle with land-use plans in the past, and a one-year window to pull together a good one for the Dalton Highway corridor will present a challenge. The effort should draw keen, and plentiful, public interest and debate.

Alaska's land managers and Alaskans are the people best suited to work through a public process to create a plan that allows responsible use of the area.

Alaskans don't need to be locked out, but guidelines are prudent and appreciated by those who seek responsible access to all that Alaska has to offer. Access, by the way, that is precisely why many of us choose to live here. Equal access, by the way, that is encouraged by our state constitution.

Our leaders should put their muscle behind allowing responsible access and creating the tools to make Alaska a shining example of a place where people can experience some of the wildest and most beautiful country in the world. That won't be accomplished by locking up our lands and letting folks stare out at it from between the ditches on a gravel road.

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