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Community Perspective

A simple trail towards a stronger sustainable economy: The Alaska long trail

The COVID-19 virus has threatened Alaskans’ health and ravaged our economy. While taking the necessary steps to control the virus, we now also must begin expanding the foundation for a clean and sustainable industry, an industry that will support both immediate and long-term Alaska jobs and Alaska-owned businesses.

That’s why Alaska Trails, a well-known and respected advocate of public trails throughout Alaska, adopted the idea of a trail connecting Fairbanks and Seward as The Alaska Long Trail. Ultimately, this could become a trail of 2,000-plus miles extending north from Fairbanks to the Brooks Range and the North Slope and south to a future SE Long Trail, offering an alluring mix of trails and ferry rides.

Alaskans are well aware of our history of trails from ancient pathways of commerce and communication by foot, boat and dogsled to the 1,000-mile Iditarod trail from Seward to Nome and the Chilkoot Pass trail. Long trails tell the story of Alaska and who we are. They can also be part of framing our future and what we can be.

Over the last two years, Alaska Trails has scoped out and planned for an Alaska Long Trail as part of the Alaska Trails Initiative. There is lots of good news. First, the Seward-Fairbanks route and connections for corresponding service needs are almost all public lands. This enormously reduces the complexity and cost of the trail. Second, many sections of this trail already exist. Thirdly, there are shovel-ready parts of the project that can put Alaskans to work now. Fourth, there are numerous prospects for the varied source of funds, public and private.

The most important first part of this project succeeding is building the broad public support necessary for the political leaders to take action. This needs to start now. Use this link: https://www.alaska-trails.org/the-alaska-long-trail to learn about the proposed trail and see a draft map and needed public steps that should be taken. Join the team to make it happen.

Building support, and then building the trail, begins at the local level. We need community councils, local governments, and local outdoor recreation businesses and user groups to partner with the state Departments of Natural Resources, Transportation, and Commerce and Economic Development, and with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service to plan for and dedicate the necessary land and funding opportunities.

The payoff for developing The Alaska Long Trail is big. First, there are jobs building the bridges, new trail sections, trailheads, sanitation facilities and trail access points. Particularly in the time of the COVID virus, these jobs are needed and appreciated. Second, the independent traveler who will be attracted nationally and internationally are highly sought-after visitors because of the local economic benefits they bring. Their purchases for travel, overnight lodging and meals, logistics, and side trips all directly benefit local businesses. In addition, individual segments of what will become an internationally known trail will attract day use by all categories of travelers, helping to grow that “one more day” of spending in Alaska.

And of course, the biggest and best payoff is to us Alaskans. We get to use this new adventure however and whenever we want — whether it’s a brief day hike with kids or multiday travel to directly experience new parts of Alaska in ways not previously possible. The opportunities to witness magnificent Alaska scenery, recreation, wildlife, and to experience the sense of history and place is all within our reach (and it helps both our personal health and health of the local economy!)

Historic long trails have captured the attention of travelers all over the world: the Coast to Coast Trail in England, the Inca Trail in Peru, the Camino de Santiago in Spain, hut-to-hut trails throughout the Alps, the Himalayan trails of Bhutan and Nepal, and, of course, the American Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest Trail. Millions of visitors have traveled to trek these trails. This has been their moment. Now, The Alaska Long Trail can make it be ours.

Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles served as governor from 1994 to 2002. He served as Anchorage mayor from 1981 to 1987 and was chair of the of the National Parks Advisory Board from 2009 to 2016.

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