In a state with more public land than any other and a pathetically small population compared to most of the world, yet another dispute has erupted over access to wildland recreation.
This time a plan by one of the least known of Alaska land management agencies to impose a recreational-use fee of up to $500 on snowmobilers crossing its lands next winter has angered the state’s largest outdoor organization.
The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority wants riders to pay to help fund its operations and/or compensate the trust for “documented recreational use patterns on Trust land…that are causing negative impacts to Trust land.”
Which issue actually sparked the fee proposal is unclear in the Trust’s notice of a “Best Interest Decision” involving winter use of Trust lands by both recreational snowmachines and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).
The Trust controls about 1 million acres in mostly small parcels scattered widely around the state. Most of the land is near the road system. Some of it is near areas regularly used by snowmachine riders such as in the areas around Big Lake, a resort community just north of Anchorage, and Cleary Summit, a recreation area just north of Fairbanks.
In a Monday message to Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority CEO Mike Abbott, Alaska Outdoor Council director Rod Arno says his group can’t figure out what the Trust is thinking.
“AOC agrees wholeheartedly with the purpose of the Alaska Mental Trust Authority whose mission by law is to benefit the mental health of Alaska’s residents,” AOC executive director Rod Arno wrote. “(But) nowhere in the Best Interest Decision proposed by the executive director of the Trust Land Office, is there any mention of the benefit to numerous Alaska residents to get out and ride on undeveloped lands.”
“While the number of Alaskans whose behavioral health is fortified by getting out of town to snowmachine and ATV seasonally may be hard to quantify, it is a factor that should be taken into account when determining the bests of Alaskans uses of 1 million acres of Trust lands scattered throughout the state.”
Alaska is a state famous for SAD – seasonal affective disorder – in winter.
“People with SAD experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression. The symptoms usually occur during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight and usually improve with the arrival of spring,” according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Spending time outside catching whatever little sun is available helps in dealing with SAD, the association says. As does “taking care of your general health and wellness (with)…regular exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and staying active and connected.'”
On general principle, Arno argued, the Mental Health trust should be trying hard to get Alaskans up and moving in winter rather than putting up disincentives to doing so.
And though the Trust has suggested the fee is necessary to make up for “negative impacts” to Trust lands by snowmachines and ATVs, Arno noted, the agency has offered no evidence of damage.
At least what the Trust’s land office considers “negative impacts” should be made clear, Arno argued, before the Trust imposes permit fees that are “exorbitant and not consistent with current motorized use on private lands” in the state.”
Fight over almost nothing
The disagreement between the AOC and the Trust comes in the wake of a years-long battle between moose hunter John Sturgeon and the National Park Service on the seldom-visited Nation River in unroaded and remote northeast Alaska.
The Park Service did not impose a prohibitive fee on Sturgeon, but instead tried to simply kick him off the waterway in the Yukon-Charly Rivers National Preserve because the agency didn’t like his preferred type of boat – a hovercraft.
Because hovercraft are uniformly banned from heavily visited national parks in the Lower 48, the park said, they shouldn’t be allowed in the wild parks of Alaska even though the park-enabling legislation – the Alaska National Interest Lands Act – said Alaska parks were to be treated differently.
But land disputes can get very contentious in Alaska no matter how few people are involved.
Sturgeon and the Park Service paid attorneys millions of dollars during the course of a 12-year-long legal battle that twice reached all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which eventually held that the Park Service had overstepped its authority.
Similar and related cases have followed. The state and Ahtna Inc., an Alaska regional Native corporation, are now in court fighting over who gets to control the access corridor along a rough, four-wheel drive road to Klutina Lake in northeast Alaska.
Ahtna sees the road as a low-investment, money-making opportunity. If it controls the land along the road, it can prohibit people from doing anything in the road corridor unless they pay an “access fee.”
The road is adjacent to the Klutina River, a popular salmon fishing stream by the standards of the area. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported 3,734 anglers – or about 42 per day – fished the 63-mile long river over the course of the 2017 fishing season.
Most of the fishing took place near a Richardson Highway bridge that crosses the river near the community of Copper Center. Ahtna would not appear to stand to make much money off access fees, but a dollar is a dollar.
Trust’s gold mine?
How much the Trust hopes to make off snowmachine riders is also unknown. The agency offered no estimate.
Arno said in an interview that he has been unable to find anyone the Trust consulted on costs for the program or potential revenues. The Trust already collects tens of thousands of dollars indirectly from snowmachine riders.
It in 2013 agreed to rent the Matnuska-Susitna Borough easements protecting public use of several of the borough’s most heavily traveled snowmachine trails – including the “Iron Dog” trail – through 2033 at a cost of $67,000 per year.
Snowmachining is considered an economically important tourism activity in the Mat-Su Valley.
The easement corridors are limited to a width of 25-feet, and there are open areas where snowmachine riders clearly spread out behind the 25-foot width of the corridor.
Whether the Trust would try to require snowmachine riders using those trails to pony up for an access fee is unclear. Likewise the response of riders to such a demand.
“Compliance with such an exorbitant permit fee may be minimal, and enforcement would be problematic,” Arno wrote.
“The bad thing is that the parcels are all broken up,” Arno added in an interview. “There’s so many places here in Southcentral that you hit a piece of it.”
He has suggested the Trust might spend more money than it stands to make if it actually tries to post all of its and lands then enforce winter fee collection.
Opposition was already rising in independent-minded Fairbanks where local snowmachine dealer Craig Compeau called the fee crazy and credited Wyn Menefee, the director of the Trust’s Land Office in the Department of Natural Resources.
“Menefee never met a fee he didn’t like,” Compeau said.
Others questioned why, if snowmachine riders are being charged, mushers, fat bikers and others who followed snowmachine trails almost everywhere they go in Alaska these days aren’t being charged.
The Trust is charged with managing its 1 million acres of Alaska land to raise maximum. long-term revenues to help fund efforts to deal with the state’s serious mental health issues.
That’s all well and good, Arno wrote to Abbott, but “it is unclear from the notice whether TLO (Trust Land Office) is trying to collect funds to mitigate snowmachine and ATV use or whether the intent is to provide funding beneficial to trust beneficiaries.”
AOC, which represents about 10,000 members and 48 other non-government entities including several snowmachine groups, suggested the agency “withdraw its decision to charge recreational motorized users and clarify exactly what is the intent of permitting motorized use of snow machines and ATVs (less than 1,500 pounds) on Trust land.”
Sturgeon, who now sits on the board of directors for the Trust, said the organization’s board was never consulted about the plan.
“I don’t know anything,” other than what he’s heard from the AOC and snowmachine dealer who contacted him, he said in Tuesday interview.
“That’s first I heard about it,” he added. He has asked to have the issue put on the agenda for the board’s next meeting in hopes of clearing up the intent of the new fee. He admitted the proposed charge of $250 to $500 seems awfully high.
“A lot of people are kind of upset about this,” he said.