FAIRBANKS - Outdoor enthusiasts, including hunters and conservationists, largely oppose a proposal to allow off-road vehicle use along the Dalton Highway.
Most of the 100 who attended a public comment session on Tuesday argued that lifting the long-standing ban would damage the area's landscape, increase hunting pressure on caribou and moose populations, disrupt scientific research at the Toolik Field Station and cause safety problems along the 414-mile road.
Off-road vehicles are currently prohibited from driving within five miles of either side of the Dalton Highway between the Yukon River and the Arctic Coast. The proposal would remove the restriction north of the Yukon River crossing. The road serves as the main supply route for Prudhoe Bay.
The law allows people to stop their vehicles anywhere along the highway and walk, ski or dogsled into the countryside.
"There already is access to the area," said Nancy Fresco of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.
Most of the criticism centered on the use of four-wheelers and the ruts the vehicles can leave in the spongy tundra during the summer.
Kotzebue Democrat Rep. Reggie Joule, an Inupiaq Eskimo, said there was concern among Native and non-Native residents in the area about the impact the proposal would have on subsistence and tourism activities.
Scientists from the Toolik Field Station, 284 miles up the highway, testified on the potential effect of four-wheelers. The station attracts $36 million in research funding and about 350 scientists annually who research climate on the tundra.
"We have real concerns that the use of wheeled vehicles in the area would jeopardize the research that's done at the station," said Brian Barnes, director of the Toolik Field Station. Barnes said he would not object to granting greater access to snowmachines during the winter.
Testimony before the Senate Resource Committee in favor of opening the area was scarce.
Fairbanks Republican Sen. Ralph Seekins, the bill's sponsor, said state and federal management would limit any environmental damage from allowing off-road vehicles near the road.
"Every issue that was raised here has already been addressed in the bill," he said.
The purpose of removing the restriction is to provide greater public access to a large part of the state for recreation and hunting, Seekins said.
Public meetings on the issue will be held this week in Coldfoot, Barrow and Peters Creek.
Seekins first introduced legislation to lift the ban in 2004 and again in 2005. If it doesn't pass this session, the bill will die.
The proposal stalled in committee at the end of the last legislative session. Its expected to go to the Senate floor for a vote when the Legislature resumes in January.