Birch Hill Recreation Area is on the cusp of a big decision: where to put a new parking lot.
Parking is not sexy, but it is vital. Good decisions about parking make it part of the background. Bad decisions about parking can scream their presence constantly.
That the area needs a new parking lot is good. People are using Birch Hill in many ways: walking, running, dog exercise, cycling, disc golf, skiing, weddings, parties and festivals. While the current parking is often adequate, more and more large regular events, such as ski and running races and the Clucking Blossom festival, draw huge numbers of participants and spectators. In the next couple of years the excellently designed and maintained trails will be the site of the upcoming winter Junior Nationals and Arctic Winter Games. Both events will draw large crowds.
That’s all good for the community. Many local people are participating in activities that promote good physical, mental, and social health. In turn they support local businesses by purchasing clothes and equipment, such as skis, running shoes and discs. Some big events draw many people from out of town, adding another component to our tourism industry.
But to use the recreation area people need to park their cars. Since some events max out the current parking, it’s obvious more is needed.
The borough Parks Department has recognized this and is considering six alternatives. I believe Alternative 5 is clearly the best option. Under this option the borough would purchase a piece of private property adjacent to the recreation area and build a parking lot on it. This alternative has many advantages.
• The plot already has been cleared and used for parking in the past, so much of the work has already been done.
• The parking lot would displace no trails. An access road to the parking lot, which would take off from the current access road, would affect one trail — the Warm-Up Loop — in a minimal way.
• The lot would be only a short walk to the Stadium, the heart of the recreation area, and space exists to build a walking path.
• A vegetation buffer would be retained to help shield the parking lot from neighbors. Proper energy-efficient LED lights can minimize light pollution and further help reduce the impact on the neighborhood.
• No new parking lot access points would spill out onto neighborhood roads.
• The new parking lot would allow access to the easier non-race trails on race days.
Those last three points are particularly important to me. I want to maintain the popularity of Birch Hill Recreation Area without unduly inconveniencing the neighbors. I also want the trails available to casual users even when big events are happening. While I now participate in cross-country ski races, when I first came to Fairbanks I did not. I can remember days when I decided not to ski because the events took over easy access to the trails.
Ski club members have tried to address that issue, but no simple solution is available. Alternative 5 would finally make a solution much easier.
The other alternatives have good points but far too many bad points. Several would have a huge negative impact on trails. Some are too expensive or don’t add enough parking space. Some would place the parking far from the stadium. One would take over the terrain park, an important feature for kids, with no suggestions on where a new terrain park would go.
(There are no obvious places.) One would increase congestion along the access road.
Most do not offer alternative access to the easier trails on big-event days.
I have heard that a few people oppose Alternative 5. That’s their right, but I know that a vocal minority can get their way if the majority stays silent (especially in an election year).
I encourage anyone who cares about Birch Hill Recreation Area to view the parking plan alternatives. (See the options at co.fairbanks.ak.us/parksandrecreation/ Facilities/BH/Master_Plan.htm) The alternatives are not very detailed and don’t always explain important aspects (such as how users will get from the proposed parking lots to the stadium or how many cars each plan will accommodate), but they give a good general overview.
See if you agree with me that Alternative 5 is the best option. Then send your comment to Steve Taylor (email@example.com), the employee working on the project.
The comment period is open until Friday.
This parking lot will help serve Birch Hill Recreation Area for many years to come. Let’s do it right.
Eric Troyer is a longtime Fairbanks resident and an avid trail user. He and his family use Birch Hill Recreation Area for walking, running, disc golf, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.