Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Releases Draft ORV Plan For Comment

National Park Service officials have released a draft environmental impact statement examining off-road vehicle use in the Nabesna Road area of Wrangell-St. Elias Park and Preserve and proposing ways to minimize their impact. Photo by George Herben via National Parks Conservation Association.

In a bid to gain more control over off-road vehicles that environmental groups said were shredding up parts of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, park officials have released a draft environmental impact statement that looks at ways to better protect the environment from ORVs.

It was back in 2006 when the National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, and the Alaska Center for the Environment sued the Park Service, arguing that park officials were not been providing the necessary oversight to ensure that ATV use did not damage the park.

"The National Park Service has ignored existing laws and regulations designed to protect park resources and values for present and future generations," Mike Steeves, the plaintiffs' attorney from Anchorage-based public interest environmental law firm, Trustees for Alaska, said at the time. "We filed this lawsuit to prevent further damage and to compel the Park Service to manage the park responsibly."

The impacted trails in Wrangells are - Suslota Lake, Tanada Lake, Caribou Creek, Lost Lake, Trail Creek, Reeve Field, Bommerang Lake, Soda Lake, and Copper Lake.

According to the Park Service, "(T)he analysis area falls within the Nabesna District of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and is bounded by the Mentasta Mountains to the north and the Wrangell Mountains to the south. The climate is subarctic. This area is traversed by the Nabesna Road, a 42-mile gravel road from Slana to Nabesna that crosses the headwaters of the Copper and Tanana drainages. The trailheads for seven of the nine analysis area trails can be accessed directly from Nabesna Road. The other two trails, Boomerang and Soda Lake, are accessed from the Copper Lake trail and Lost Creek trail, respectively."

The draft environmental impact statement, which is open for public comment through November 10, offers five alternatives. The preferred alternative, No. 5, "would improve most trails to a maintainable standard and permit recreational ORV use on improved trails in the national park and preserve. Subsistence ORV use would be permitted before and after
improvements.

Here's how the Park Service defines the four other alternatives:

Alternative 1 is the No Action alternative. Significant environmental issues include moderate, adverse impacts to soil, wetlands, vegetation, fish habitat, and wilderness. Socioeconomic effects would be beneficial.

Alternative 2 would permit recreational and subsistence ORV use on nine unimproved trails with no trail improvement. Alternative 2 would result in major impacts to soil, wetlands, and vegetation, and moderate impacts to fish habitat and wilderness. Socioeconomic effects would be beneficial.

Alternative 3 would not permit any recreational ORV use, would permit subsistence ORV use, and proposes few trail improvements. Impacts to soils, wetlands, vegetation, fish habitat, and wilderness would be moderate, and to recreational ORV users would be moderate to major. Effects to non-motorized users, socioeconomics, and natural soundscape would be beneficial.

Alternative 4 would improve most trails to a maintainable standard and would permit recreational ORV use on improved trails in the National Preserve, but not the National Park. Subsistence ORV use would be permitted before and after improvements. Alternative 4 would result in moderate impacts to wildlife and subsistence, and major impacts to wilderness character. Effects to trail condition, visitor opportunities, and socioeconomics would be beneficial.

At the NPCA, Jim Stratton said he was pleased to see the Park Service moving in this direction.

"We were glad to see the Park Service temporarily close some trails in the Nabesna area that were super-saturated by all the rain. These trails can only support a limited number of OHVs before the impacts on the tundra become unacceptable, and that limited number should be given to local subsistence users," said Mr. Stratton, the NPCA's Alaska and Pacific Northwest regional director.

"This is the very same area that NPCA litigated over several years ago because we were, and still are, concerned about the specific impact of recreational OHV riding on these trails. These trails really are a mess and they need much more active management by NPS to keep them from deteriorating further so they can be sustainable for local residents," he added. "Now that they’ve dried out a bit, it is appropriate that they be reopened to local subsistence users. NPCA’s concern about the impact of recreational OHV riding on these trails is being addressed right now in the EIS the Park Service just released for management of all the trails in the Nabesna area."

You can find the entire DEIS, and a comment form, at this site.