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Park Service proposes opening more of Denali Park Road during winter

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Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2013 12:00 am

FAIRBANKS — The National Park Service is proposing to plow the first 12 miles of the Denali Park Road from mid-February to April on a trial basis starting next winter to increase “the range of opportunities” for winter visitors in Denali National Park and Preserve.

Currently, only the first three miles of the 92-mile road leading into the 6 million-acre park are kept open during the winter.

In an environmental assessment released Thursday, the Park Service is proposing to plow the first 12 miles of the road to Mountain Vista Rest Area for three to five years starting next year while evaluating the impacts of doing so and how much use it received before deciding whether to continue plowing the road or to plow it earlier in the winter. Both private and commercial vehicles would be allowed to drive the first 12 miles of road.

“We want to see what the demand would be,” park public affairs officer Kris Fister said.

Plowing the first 12 miles of the road starting in mid-February is the Park Service’s “preferred” alternative of four listed in an 81-page environmental assessment. Other alternatives include plowing the road for the full winter season, plowing the road starting in mid-January, and maintaining the status quo of plowing to park headquarters at 3 Mile.

“The purpose of this plan is to maintain the opportunities for physically active and/or backcountry winter recreationists while at the same time allowing more visitors in vehicles access to an additional nine miles of the Park Road,” the Park Service wrote in the report.

The Park Service is taking public comment on the environmental assessment through March 16.

The 92-mile Denali Park Road is the only road leading into the 6 million-acre park 130 miles south of Fairbanks. The road is not plowed during the winter and typically is closed by snow in late September or early October. Crews start clearing the road again in mid-March in preparation for summer.

Most of the winter visitors in the park are local residents who use the road for skiing, skijoring, snowshoeing or dog mushing, but Fister said local governments and winter tourism businesses from Fairbanks have asked the Park Service to open the road farther during the winter.

Winter tourism

The Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau has been one of the main entities pushing the Park Service to plow the park road in the winter.

“We made a commitment to marketing winter in Fairbanks, and that’s one of the things we’ve pinpointed,” said Deb Hickok, president and CEO of the FCVB. “Access to Denali would be another option for winter visitors to Fairbanks.”

In a letter to then-park superintendent Paul Anderson a year ago regarding the possible plowing of the park road, Hickok recommended plowing the road all winter and for a minimum of 10 years so tour companies could market it as a destination.

While she hadn’t had time to “digest” the Park Service’s environmental assessment, Hickok said even if the Park Service waits until mid-February to start plowing it’s a start.

“Sometimes it’s small steps that lead to bigger things,” she said. “Any steps we can take in that direction would be positive. It’s good to see something happening.”

The convention and visitors bureau requested the Park Service hold a meeting in Fairbanks in early March to talk about the findings in the environmental assessment and answer any questions people might have.

The Park Service used to plow the park road open to 15 Mile in the 1980s during the winter but stopped doing so for reasons Fister was unaware. It could have been tied to funding or lack of use, she said.

With the development of the Mountain Vista Rest Area at 12 Mile two years ago and construction of the Murie Science and Learning Center at 3 Mile in 2004, which now serves as the park’s wintertime visitor center, it makes sense to offer more winter access, Fister said.

“We now have some facilities and are providing some services in the winter, so why not provide opportunities to get people further out in the park where they can see the mountain and get into more wide-open areas with vistas,” she said.

Costs/benefits

According to Park Service statistics, an average of about 3,800 people visited the park between October and March in each of the past two years. Almost half of those visitors — more than 1,500 — came in March with another 850 in October. The slowest months for visitation were November (220), December (245) and January (255).

“That’s why we’re looking at not starting it in December,” Fister said. “That’s a pretty quiet time of year with short days.”

The alternatives in the environmental assessment address everything from how increased noise from plowing and traffic could affect the wilderness character of the park to what kind of environmental, recreational and socio-economic impacts plowing the first 12 miles of the road would have, as well as how much it would cost.

The Park Service’s preferred alternative is much cheaper than the two other plowing alternatives. Plowing from mid-February to April would cost an estimated $25,000 per year while the estimates for plowing the road for full winter season is almost $540,000 and starting in mid-January is $300,000.

The alternative for plowing the road the entire winter includes almost $300,000 in labor and equipment, as well as $15,000 to build a warm-up shelter at Mountain Vista Rest Area, $10,000 to install an emergency communication device at the rest area and more than $100,000 for the park’s sled dog kennels to add staffing, build season housing, and buy a truck and trailer to haul dogs for training when the park road is being plowed. The biggest expenses under the Park Service’s preferred alternative is $10,000 for the use of a road grader and sand truck and $6,800 in fuel and sand.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

Check It Out

To look at the National Park Service’s environmental assessment or to comment on it, go to park

planning.nps.gov.

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