During the recent legislative session I passed HB 244, which will transfer some state land to the Denali Borough for a rail corridor from near Healy to the border with Denali National Park.
I strongly believe a majority of Alaskans support a new way of visiting the heart of the park. Still, a well-organized group opposes any new development in or around that area, and HB 244 has gotten their full attention.
Development opponents point to the growth of the "Glitter Gulch" strip on the Parks Highway - and I agree that safety and aesthetic issues must be addressed there as well as other regions of development between there and Healy.
What surprises me, however, is the well-coordinated opposition to HB 244. I am opposed to any new road into Denali Park - from the north or south - because I believe such a road will be harmful to the environment. A road brings with it pollution, litter, animal conflicts, as well as the need for services such as EMS, police and towing.
A railroad, on the other hand, allows for controlled and limited access. In an opinion piece in a recent issue of the Anchorage Daily News, Nancy Bale argues that this railroad will "open a 3,500 acre stretch of currently roadless state lands to yet more unregulated development." That statement, to put it plainly, is untrue and misleading. For one thing, it's unlikely a railroad corridor will take up much more than a few thousand of the 90,000 acres which make up the Wolf Townships - 300 feet times approximately 40 miles equals 1,456 acres. HB 244 authorizes no road and no unregulated development, I am confidant there will be no negative impact on existing uses of this land.
HB 244 does allow a railroad to set aside a few extra acres for ancillary uses. But the gist of the bill is to allow for a 300-foot wide corridor for a train and maybe utilities such as fiber optic cable. And that's it. HB 244 authorizes no road and no additional development.
Denali National Park is a federal park and Alaska's no. 1 attraction, and should be open to all visitors, not just those with the physical or financial means to take on a backcountry walkabout. I checked with two lodges near Wonder Lake: a cabin at Denali Backcountry Lodge is $660 per night ($330 per person, double occupancy, or $305 per person for three or more in a room). A room at North Face Lodge is $445 for a single person per night, $345 per person double occupancy. They're wonderful places - for folks who can afford it.
A train, on the other hand, will provide an opportunity for a park visit to those with more modest means, as well as to the elderly and disabled. School groups will benefit as well. Without improved access most of Denali Park will remain open only to those with the time and means to get there on their own.
Nancy Bale wrote that we should step back and halt all development at Denali Park. I disagree. There's no standing still. It's fair for all Alaskans that we provide for controlled, wise growth at our state's top attraction. Our responsibility is to be sure this park, which is the property of all of us, is not closed to everyone except those with physical vigor or lots of cash for leisure.
There's two ways to do it. One, we can move ahead with some of us dragging the rest of us down. Or we can work together to see wise and well-planned development undertaken at Denali Park. HB 244, I believe, is a good start.
Jeannette James is a Republican state representative from North Pole.