ANCHORAGE - A proposed trail linking Eagle River High School with Chugach State Park would run through a corridor used by grizzly bears and a state game biologist fears a repeat of last month's mauling if it's built.
"I can think of few worse places to build trails in the Anchorage area," said Department of Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott, who responded to the mauling of a 15-year-old mountain biker taking part in a 24-hour race near a stream frequented by bears in Far North Bicentennial Park.
The new trail is proposed for a canyon where brown bears roam from one food source to another.
Trail advocates contend that grizzlies can be found everywhere, not just in that canyon, and that roughly half of the proposed 7-mile trail system already exists. They also say ski trails are needed near 3-year-old Eagle River High School.
"The impetus here is to get the school kids off the roads," said Jaime Schmidt, a member of the Eagle River Trails Development Committee formed by Mayor Mark Begich. "Both the high school and the middle school kids run on the roads, and they cross main streets."
The proposed trail would travel north past Hiland Mountain prison to the Eagle River Campground, across and along Eagle River to Briggs Bridge and Chugach State Park. A short loop would be built south of the high school.
The trail would cross a section of Eagle River that does not have spawning salmon. However, bears use the area to cross from one spawning spot to another.
"Bears walk back and forth there just like a grocery store," Sinnott said.
Building a broad, well-packed, maintained trail that draws bikers, runners and walkers during the summer is an invitation to disaster, Sinnott said.
"Try to stop your kids riding just a few hundred yards to a place like that," he said. "Seems like a huge mistake."
Trail advocates say people are already finding their way to the river valley. Informal trails link housing developments to the river from the north, Schmidt said. People have used the campground for years and fish along the river all the time.
"There's been concentrated human activity (at the campground) for decades," she said. "It's not like it's a real large or wild or primitive area. It's a real small area and there are people all over the place down there."
Debbie Ossiander, who represents Eagle River on the Anchorage Assembly, wants to see a link between the high school and the campground and beyond. People are going to use the river valley, trail or no trail, she said.
"It's a prime recreation area and tons of people live very close to that river," she said.
James King, director of the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, said there are ways to design the trail to minimize danger, managing undergrowth, moving the section of trail that would parallel the river closer to neighborhoods, and making curves in the bear corridor gentle instead of sharp so users can see a long way.
"Nobody wants to create something that we know is dangerous from the beginning," King said.
King said an environmental assessment is needed before the state signs off on allowing the trail into Chugach State Park. That won't happen in time for trail work in the park to begin this year.
The part Sinnott is most concerned about is not on the construction schedule this year. The veteran biologist is not swayed by the hopes that the bear threat will be minimized.
"I know these people are very dedicated, and they have political support," Sinnott said. "We're just raising our concerns: From a human safety perspective, this seems like a very bad idea. Usually we lose in those situations. Then it will be individual people who lose because they're mauled. And the bears will lose because people will be walking down the trail with shotguns.
"They can ignore me at their leisure. They can build those trails. But when people start getting mauled, this is on them."
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