The clock is ticking for the Alaska Legislature to include funding for the proposed 500-mile “Alaska Long Trail” in its capital budget.
The proposed trail would run from Seward to Fairbanks by connecting existing trail segments through Chugach National Forest, Anchorage and Chugach State Park, Hatcher Pass, Talkeetna, Denali State Park, Cantwell, Denali National Park, Healy and Nenana. Spearheaded by the Alaska Trails Initiative, the idea for creating the trail arose from the 2020 Statewide Trails Investment Strategy, when the group realized how much of the Long Trail already exists.
Chris Beck, program coordinator with Alaska Trails Initiative, has worked with municipalities, agencies and trail users throughout the state on the trail. Beck said during a presentation to the Kenai Peninsula Borough in March that the Long Trail would become a destination for tourists who seek out other long trails, such as the Pacific Coast Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
“I don’t know if this sounds too foo-foo, but there’s something magic about when you have a long trail that people seek it out,” Beck said in March. “They want to go take their picture next to the sign [or] they want to maybe hike a portion this year and a portion next year.”
Though few people are likely to hike the entire length of a long trail at once, Beck said many more will hike segments. For example on the Appalachian Trail, Beck said, more than 30,000 people have hiked it in full over the past 50 years, while 3 million people hike a portion each year.
The route from Seward to Fairbanks, Beck said, is uniquely appealing: It’s almost all on public land; it is near communities; portions already exist; it’s “wild but not too wild,” goes through scenic parts of the state and could be used in all seasons.
Investing in state trails generally and the Long Trail specifically, is as much about economics as anything else. Beck said Monday that if half of the people who typically visit Alaska on a yearly basis added just one day to their trip, in-state spending would increase by $137 million annually. By constructing the trail such that it winds through communities, those economies also stand to benefit from increased spending, he said.
What the trail needs now is $13.2 million more in funding to be put toward connecting the segments of the trail that already exist.
Among the most expensive is filling key gaps on the Southern Trek of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, which runs from Girdwood to Seward and passes through Forest Service federal lands and non-federal lands. The $2.2 million that would be used for the segment would construct a new trailhead south of Girdwood as well as five trail bridges, including four in Turnagain Pass over Lyon Creek, Taylor Creek, Spokane Creek and Bertha Creek and one in Moose Pass at Victor Creek.
Beck said there had previously been support for packing the projects as a general obligation bond package by the state but the idea is likely to be scratched over concerns about whether or not that is necessary due to incoming funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently passed by Congress. The group is now asking the Legislature to add the projects to its capital budget, which they must pass before the end of the session next month. Work is currently underway at the Alaska Trails Initiative to encourage people who support the Long Trail to lobby their representatives for support of the move.
Something Beck is not worried about, however, is a lack of support for the trail, which, he said Monday, has already been voiced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, state legislators and some of the municipalities that the trail would go through, including Anchorage and Seward. The Seward City Council formalized their support for the trail in a resolution passed in January, which said the trail is consistent with the mission of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced at a statewide conference this month that she would be sponsoring legislation focused on improving Alaska’s trail system, including the Alaska Long Trail. Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly passed a similar resolution this month. Specifically, the bill would seek the trail’s designation as a National Scenic Trail, which Beck said would make the project eligible for additional funding opportunities.
More information about the Alaska Long Trail can be found at alaska-trails.org/the-alaska-long-trail.