FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Department of Natural Resources can restrict the use of heavy, off-road vehicles on a popular trail used by moose hunters south of Fairbanks, according to an Alaska Supreme Court ruling released Friday.
The department’s commissioner was within his rights to impose restrictions on the 50-mile Rex Trail, which crosses mostly state and federal land from the Parks Highway to the Wood River north of the Alaska Range, the ruling states.
“The record amply supports the agency’s decision that deep rutting along the Rex Trail presents a safety hazard, especially in winter to travelers on snowmachiners,” the ruling states. “There is also record support for the conclusion that heavy vehicles are responsible for the worst of the rutting along the Rex Trail and that the resulting level of degradation is unacceptable.”
The court further stated that the department has given “considerable attention and study to the question of whether restrictions should be imposed on the use of the Rex Trail and if so what they should be.”
The Supreme Court’s decision ends a legal battle that began in 2008 after the department imposed restrictions on highway vehicles weighing from 1,500 to 10,000 pounds on the Rex Trail from April 15 to Oct. 31 because of a growing number of complaints about damage to the trail.
Robert Caywood, of Wasilla, and several other trail users appealed the decision to the natural resources commissioner in August 2009, but the appeal was denied.
Caywood and the others also appealed an amended decision that allowed owners of tracked vehicles heavier than 1,500 pounds to get a permit to use the trail, but that appeal also was denied by the commissioner. Caywood appealed both decisions to Superior Court, which in February 2011 upheld the state’s authority to impose restrictions. Caywood then took the case to the Supreme Court.
“This decision reinforces DNR’s ability to manage trails on state land for public safety and to maintain access,” said Jeanne Proulx, a natural resource manager for the department’s northern region. “Those were the issues we were dealing with on the Rex Trail.”
The trail, which begins at 280 Mile Parks Highway, was established as a transportation route to mining claims and is recognized by the Alaska Legislature as an R.S. 2477 trail, named for the mining law that granted rights-of-way to states over federal land. Miners still use the trail but move fuel and supplies mostly in winter when the ground is frozen, said the department’s northern region manager, Chris Milles. The trail also has been popular with hunters because the area it runs through is productive moose habitat.
It was after the Alaska Board of Game and Alaska Department of Fish and Game legalized antlerless moose hunts on lands adjacent to the trail in 2004 that traffic — and damage — on the trail began to increase. In 2007, the Department of Natural Resources received numerous complaints about the deteriorating condition of the trail, prompting the decision to impose restrictions in 2008, Proulx said..
In some places, instead of a trail, there was only a long channel filled with water. Some users avoided ruts by creating new paths along the trail, and those too became rutted, creating a spider web of braided trails in many places.
Heavy vehicles — tracked vehicles, four-wheel drive “moose buggies” with wheels, or articulated former military vehicles — had caused ruts up to four feet deep, Milles said. Damage during moose season was followed by winter freeze-up.
“The ruts would be frozen in place and the trail would be difficult to use by dog teams and snowmachines until there’s an adequate snow cover to fill in everything,” Milles said.
Proulx said frozen ruts posed a risk to snowmachiners.
“You could get going pretty well, for a while, but if you picked up any speed and hit one of these extremely rutted or bumpy areas, there could be safety concerns with that,” she said.
Caywood’s attorney, Darryl L. Thompson, of Anchorage, argued that restricting traditional means of access for protection of public safety and property was a ruse and that the restrictions are “not supported by substantial evidence of restrictions necessary for public safety or protection of property.”
In the Supreme Court’s opinion, Senior Justice Warren Matthews said the commissioner may restrict trail use to protect the right of way and public safety if restrictions are tailored to preserve maximum access.
The department set up 10 monitoring sites along the trail in 2009 and has been collecting data for the past four years regarding trail conditions, Proulx said. Much of that data still needs to be analyzed, but the department has been receiving fewer complaints about dangerous conditions along the trail, she said.
The agency is developing a plan to hire a contractor to evaluate possible ways to upgrade the trail through re-routes or trail hardening, Proulx said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. The Associated Press contributed to this story.