Public comments can make a difference.
After receiving online citizen comments on a proposal that would change the trailhead for the popular Bison Gulch Trail just south of Healy, the decision was made to leave the current parking area, but also continue with plans to build a new, safer parking area at Antler Creek.
“Public comment does matter, especially while we are in the design phase,” said Danielle R. Tessen of the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities. “We do listen and we do make changes based on what the public says.”
In this case, there were only seven comments, but it was enough to change the plan, currently in the design phase.
Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker was pleased with the decision.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “Not take away from something already there, but at the same time provide a safer option.”
The proposal for this community-driven project was to move the current parking area to the west side of the Parks Highway, closer to Antler Creek. At the current parking area, at Mile 245, hikers have to cross the busy highway at a particularly dangerous spot - on a curve with poor visibility. The reasoning was that hikers could start the hike at the Antler Creek trailhead and connect with the Bison Gulch trail on top of the ridge-line.
But those who left public comments online did not agree. Hikers love gaining altitude and great views so quickly, one said. Some proposed the current parking area stay where it is and a foot trail be built under the Bison Gulch bridge to avoid crossing the highway.
Meanwhile, at its meeting last week, the Denali Borough Assembly said it hopes DOT engineers will consider designing the new parking area with a future rest area in mind.
“There are some questions about who would fund it and who would maintain it,” Walker said. “Those questions are yet to be resolved. But we are willing and able to keep working on it.”
This project is unusual because it originated with the Denali Borough, which applied for a $385,000 Federal Land Access Program grant, which was funded by FHWA Western Federal lands. Denali Borough and National Park Service paid the match on the project (10% of the total). The borough then asked DOT&PF to implement the project.
It’s not often that a community suggests a project and then provides funding.
The current Bison Gulch Trail goes for 3.4 miles from the current parking lot, up the ridge. It intersects with Antler Creek Trail 2.1 miles from the Bison Gulch trailhead. That intersection is 3.3 miles up the Antler Creek Trail. The National Park Service also proposes an additional 0.7 mile loop trail that will connect to the Antler Creek Trail, to be built at a later date.
The Denali Borough has actually classified that whole area as an area for future recreation and the mayor is hopeful that more trails could be planned there in the future.
At least one person who commented publicly suggested a new trail to the Nenana Canyon, which could also provide spectacular views.
Bison Gulch is the most direct route to the top of Mount Healy. It is steep, with stupendous views. Hikers can expect an elevation gain of nearly 4,000 feet. A roundtrip hike can take five to seven hours.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.