ANCHORAGE - All-terrain vehicle riders in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park have created huge, rutted mud holes stretching several miles along some of the most scenic land in the United States, according to conservation groups.
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The Wilderness Society, the Alaska Center for the Environment and the National Parks Conservation Association filed a lawsuit last summer to protect the more than 13 million-acre park from recreational ATV users.
A settlement announced Tuesday requires that the Park Service prepare an environmental impact statement evaluating the impacts of the off-road machines on nine trails in the park.
About 300 permits for recreational ATV users are issued each year. The lawsuit says nearly anyone can get a permit, with typically more than half of them being issued to people living in or near Alaska's two largest cities.
The settlement allows six of the nine trails to remain open to permitted recreational ATV use while the EIS is being done. The other three most damaged trails - the Copper Lake, Tanada Lake and Suslota Lake trails - will be closed until the fall, when the ground freezes.
"You have places on those trails where you have mud pits that are several hundred yards wide. I have fallen into those mud pits almost to my waist when I was hiking there," Jim Stratton, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said Wednesday.
"ATV riding occurs all across the state of Alaska for a variety of reasons, but national parks are special. I was appalled that this kind of damage had occurred in a national park and the Park Service let it happen," he said.
Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the United States, about three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. It is situated where three mountain ranges converge and is home to Mount St. Elias, at 18,008 feet the second highest peak in the United States.
If the environmental impact statement finds that recreational ATVs should be allowed in the park, then the park service will have to provide written explanation on how ATVs are compatible with the original purpose of the park, created in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
If the EIS finds that recreational ATVs are OK, the Park Service will have to evaluate each of the trails for levels of use.