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Borough wrestles with how to deal with trail damage caused by ATVs, off-roaders

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Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 10:50 pm | Updated: 12:08 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — If we had another foot or two of snow, John Morack probably wouldn’t be as upset as he is right now about the condition of the dog mushing and ski trails in his west Fairbanks neighborhood.

The added snow would have filled in the knee-deep ruts that four-wheelers and other off-road vehicles have dug into the trails that he and his wife, Judy, use to run their five sled dogs.

But with less than a foot of snow so far this winter, well, let’s just say all the snow shoveling in the world — and Morack has done more than his fair share of shoveling — can’t repair the damage wrought by off-roaders who tear up trails for their enjoyment.

“There’s no way to fix this,” Morack says, standing in a frozen, knee-deep rut that used to be a perfectly good trail. “Last year we filled this in and used it, but my wife said she didn’t want to use it this year and I don’t blame her, so I cut a trail around it.”

It was just one example of the damage off-road vehicles have done on the trails in Morack’s neighborhood, the Musk Ox subdivision off Farmers Loop. The trails connect into the Goldstream Valley trail system, as well as the trails on Skyline Ridge.

Trail tour

At Morack’s invitation, I took a tour of the trail system in his neighborhood last week to see first-hand what he was talking about. What I saw is the same thing I see on the trails in my Two Rivers neighborhood and the same thing people in the Goldstream Valley are seeing on trails there. It’s the same thing that caused the state Department of Natural Resources to ban big off-road rigs on the Rex Trail south of Fairbanks and it’s the same thing that’s happening to trails all over Alaska.

For Morack, an avid trail user who volunteers time and money to help maintain the trails in his neighborhood, it’s a particularly personal issue because he’s also a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Trails Advisory Commission.

“It comes up at every meeting, what are we going to do with the four-wheelers,” Morack said. “I don’t know what the solution is.”

It wasn’t a problem when Morack, a retired physics professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, built his log home on top of Wolverine Drive back in 1972. There were only a few other houses around back then. But today the subdivision is littered with big, fancy houses. There are more people using the trails, from skiers to dog walkers to dog mushers to snowmachiners to ATVers.

Neither does Fairbanks North Star Borough trails coordinator Tom Hancock, who has been dealing with the problem since he took that job in 2007, know what to do about the proliferation of four-wheelers and ATVs on borough trails.

“It’s a big issue,” Hancock told me on Tuesday.

But it’s nothing new, he said. It’s a problem that dates back to the early 1980s, shortly after the first ATVs were introduced.

“Three-wheelers, you remember them?” Hancock said.

Growing problem

As the demand for ATVs has grown, so too have the ATVs themselves, which has only exacerbated the problem, he said.

“It is much more of a problem these days simply because the ATVs are so powerful and so big and so aggressive,” Hancock said. “They have big, honking, gnarly tires on them that can go places today where they couldn’t back then. Conditions don’t mean that much anymore.”

Compounding the problem is that none of the trails that are used today were built the way they were supposed to be. They were carved out of the woods by people like Morack long before the advent of ATVs or sustainable trail building practices. All it takes is a few yahoos on four-wheelers or ATVs on a wet trail, of which there are many in our boggy, permafrosted neck of the woods, to create irreparable damage.

The biggest problem, though, is there isn’t much anybody can — or will — do about it. It many cases, it’s not illegal to do what the off-roaders are doing, and in some cases they may not even recognize the damage they’re causing. Even if somebody is doing something illegal, there has to be some kind of enforcement.

Regulating ATV use on borough trails, or pretty much any trails for that matter, “is almost impossible,” Hancock said.

“It’s a real difficult thing to do,” he said. “It’s so wide open that in order to control it you have to put in some major access control points and that’s tough to do when you have 850 miles of trails in the borough.

“Any barrier we put up they can practically go around or over the top of it,” Hancock said.

Morack will testify to that. Five or six years ago, after a four-wheel drive pickup got stuck and made a mess out of the Skyline Ridge Trail, Morack and some other trail users in his neighborhood placed some bollards at two entrances to keep big rigs out.

“We put these in and some guy with a caterpillar came up and pulled them out,” Morack said. “The borough came in and put ‘em back in for us.”

Four-wheelers still tear up the trail when it’s wet in the spring and fall, but at least the barriers have kept bigger vehicles out, he said.

No solution

Morack, 73, is a tough old codger and he does what he can do. He tours the trails a few times a week, dragging a tire behind his Ski-Doo Skandic to smooth out the trail and erase damage done by four-wheelers, who insist on tearing up trails in the winter, too.

“I don’t understand these guys that live in Alaska and drive four-wheelers around in the winter,” he said, shaking his head. “Get a snowmachine for cripes sake.”

He carries a scoop shovel on the back of his snowmachine to fill in ruts in the trail where he can, though there has been a shortage of snow to do so this winter. When freezeup hits, Morack goes out and cleans chunks of ice out of puddles that four-wheelers and off-road vehicles break through, so they don’t freeze with jagged pieces of ice sticking up. His wife, Judy, makes homemade signs and posts them on the trails asking ATV riders stay off trails when they are soft or at least to drag something behind them to smooth out the trail.

“I want everybody to be able to use the trails,” Morack said. “If people use common sense and think about what they’re doing, a lot of the problems would go away.”

But you and I, and Morack too, know that’s not going to happen. Where there are trails and ATVs there will be problems. This is Alaska, after all, where some people can and will do pretty much whatever they want to in the woods, regardless of how it impacts other trail users.

“I don’t know what you do,” Morack said. “The state is doing the right thing by keeping four-wheelers off trails at certain times of the year. The (Bureau of Land Management) does it too.”

But the borough doesn’t have the resources, i.e. money, or enforcement authority that the state or the feds have.

“We don’t have any money,” Hancock said. “That’s the key.”

Instead, the borough has people like Morack cruising around on his snowmachine, dragging his tire and shoveling snow to fill in ruts that just keep getting deeper and wider.

“Those trails down there would be unusable if somebody doesn’t go down there and smooth them out,” Morack said of some of the rutted trails we toured. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when I don’t do it anymore.”

Neither does the borough.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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