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Improvements to a popular West Juneau trail system are aimed at heading off head-on collisions between snowmachines and cross-country skiers.
Parts of the Dan Moller and Treadwell Ditch trails were widened and speed restrictions were placed on areas where the two user groups may be in conflict.
But some trail users disagree about the changes. Snowmobilers say conflicts are minimal while skiers say they're so bad they've stopped using the area.
Although there appears to be no record of documented injuries, one section of the Moller trail has the potential for problems, said Ron Marvin, recreation staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service's Juneau Ranger District.
"I'm sure there have been some situations where people were skiing down the trail and they had a close call," he said.
The Moller trail runs about three miles and 1,800 vertical feet from a parking lot on West Juneau's Pioneer Avenue through forest and field to an alpine Forest Service cabin. About two-thirds of a mile up, it crosses the Treadwell Ditch Trail, a decades-old path following the remains of a trench that once brought water to mines in Douglas.
In the summer, hikers, backpackers and mountain bikers use both routes to stretch their legs, view wildflowers and wildlife and pick berries. And in the winter, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers use the Moller and parts of the Treadwell Ditch Trail to enjoy the snow and access meadows, passes and bowls where they have more room to roam.
The potential for ski-snowmachine collisions probably was worst on an area of the Moller trail beyond the muskeg fields above the Treadwell Ditch, said James King, director of Trail Mix, a nonprofit group overseeing local trail development and repair projects.
Growth of brush and small trees constricted the approximately mile-long, inclined, forested stretch. As snowmobiles and skiers beat down a path, anyone going up or down the trail was channeled into a narrow thoroughfare.
"A snowmobiler couldn't get out of the trench and a skier couldn't get out of the trench," King said.
Recent brushing and other improvements widened that stretch of trail. Marvin said snowmachiners also are being asked to stay on the right heading up the Moller trail and the left heading down. The idea is to create separate lanes for each user group.
"By opening it up a bit we should have a wider path where the skiers and the snowmobiles can meet," Marvin said.
Mark Wilke, treasurer of the Juneau Snowmobile Club and a Moller trail user, said widening the trail was a good idea. But he questioned whether the trail really posed much of a problem.
"I've never once been in a situation that I would call an unsafe situation. We're actually moving pretty slow through those areas," said Wilke, a Trail Mix board member who worked to improve snowmachine access to the Moller trail. "It's usually pretty easy to determine who is going to have a harder time giving the right of way."
Robin Paul, who snowmachines the trail with her family, also said she's never run into a problem.
"It's a narrow area where you would have to be alert but I've never had a situation where we were in any danger of being in a collision with anybody," she said.
Steve Kocsis, who represented Juneau's Nordic Ski Club on an off-road vehicle planning committee, said he's heard plenty about problems on the Moller trail.
"I've had people come to me about close calls," he said, "and they felt there was a safety issue."
Heather Bingaman, a West Juneau resident who hikes the trail, said brushing, widening and other changes won't make the trail any safer.
Trail rules at a glance
THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
Rules for the Dan Moller-Treadwell Ditch trail system include:
Snowmachines must limit speed to 15 mph on the new Blueberry Hills access trail and the Treadwell Ditch.
Snowmachines are not allowed on the lower Moller trail, between Pioneer Avenue and the Treadwell Ditch. They must use the new access trail from the end of Jackson Street in the Blueberry Hills Subdivision.
Snowmachiners should stay on the right side of the Moller trail on the way up and on the left side on the way down along the forested upper portion of the trail below the large, landmark spruce tree. Cross-country skiers should take the other side.
A foot of snow or a series of snowfalls that leave a hard-packed surface is needed before the trail system is opened for motorized use.
The Treadwell Ditch north and west of the Moller trail is closed to motorized vehicles.
Forest Service staff will patrol the trails during high-use times.
Call the Juneau Ranger District office at 586-8800 for trail status. The gate at the trail entrance will be closed when there is not sufficient snow for motorized use.
"It doesn't take away from the fact that these are machines that can go 100 mph and people die from collisions with snowmachines," she said. "Snowmobile use on the Dan Moller Trail is completely and totally and inherently incompatible with other uses of the trail."
The Forest Service has put some restrictions on snowmachines using the trail system. One is a ban on motorized use on the lower part of the Moller trail, between the Pioneer Avenue trailhead and Treadwell Ditch. Another is a 15 mph speed limit on the ditch trail. A third is a ban on motorized access until a foot of snow is on the ground.
Wilke said snowmachiners shouldn't have a problem with the restrictions, in part because of the recent completion of a new access route to the Moller trail. Created over two years with a state grant, Trail Mix support and volunteer labor from snowmachiners, the route runs from a new parking area at Jackson Street at the top of West Juneau's Blueberry Hills Subdivision and follows a smoothed, widened Treadwell Ditch to the Moller trail.
The crushed-rock trail starts 300 feet higher than the Moller trail's Pioneer Avenue trailhead, where snow is easier to find.
"We went up with an excavator and flattened out about an 1,800-foot part of the ditch trail," Wilke said. "There were some very narrow sections that were quite dangerous. Me and my son almost went off the edge one time."
Snowmobiler Paul said the improvements will make it easier to get to the high meadows near the top of the trail. And she said snowmachiners will continue to act responsibly and share the trail.
"We don't just do it haphazardly," she said. "You're really alert to your surroundings. You have to be."
But skier Kocsis said increased access for snowmachiners raises the potential for accidents on the trail. That and other concerns will continue to chase skiers away from what once was a favorite winter trail.
"The basic conflict is the noise and the pollution from snowmachines that prevents most of the Nordic skiers I know from using the Dan Moller Trail," Kocsis said. "They are just going to other areas."
King, of Trail Mix, said although recent work should lessen problems on the trail, it's no surprise the conflicts continue.
"Anytime you combine two user groups, especially when you combine motorized and nonmotorized groups, you have a conflict," he said.
"The best possible solution is you create separate areas for separate uses. But here in Juneau we don't have that option because we don't have that much land."
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.