Just when it seemed that recreational use patterns along Chugach State Park’s South Fork Rim Trail had reached a new equilibrium, one that’s satisfying to walkers, hikers, skiers, and bikers alike, a decision by park staff to cut down healthy spruce trees along the route has revived tensions and newly upset many people who have a long relationship with the popular Hillside trail.
The tree-cutting debacle is merely the latest episode in a complicated dispute that began last summer. At the heart of the conflict is the park’s decision to reroute and reshape the South Fork Rim Trail, which dismayed many people who’ve skied and walked the path for decades. (My July 2019 City Wilds column “For better and for worse, the popular South Fork Rim Trail has been transformed” discusses the roots of this clash.)
Several of the people most distressed by last summer’s rerouting project asked park staff to keep the original trail open as an informal social path. But Chugach trail specialist Joe Hall and superintendent Kurt Hensel quickly and adamantly nixed that idea. From their perspective, having two interwoven trails would only complicate their management and possibly add to recreational conflicts.
Their opposition to the idea couldn’t have been clearer.
Despite park staff’s refusal to reopen the original trail (which in places overlaps with the new one and elsewhere is distinct from it, though located nearby), last fall a group of disgruntled park users chose to remove the barriers that had been put in place by trail crews. So for the past several months, walkers and skiers—and yes, bikers—have had the option of following either the new or old South Fork Rim Trail, or some combination of the two.
Park staff initially seemed resigned to the intermingled trails, at least in the short term, unsure what next steps to take. At some point, Hensel decided to see how things would play out through the winter and decide next spring whether—or how—to re-block the original trail.
The dual system worked well enough through fall and early winter. The new trail was easy to distinguish from the old one, so there was little or no confusion for people using them. But once some heavy snows covered the ground and the trails narrowed, old and new weren’t so easy to tell apart, especially for those unfamiliar with the South Fork Rim Trail.
Whether by accident or choice, more bikers began following sections of the original trail. This worried park staff, because it increased the chance of collisions where the two routes intersect — a reasonable concern.
Still, Hensel decided to continue monitoring the situation rather than take any new action and “re-assess in the spring.” That, too, seems reasonable, given what I’ve observed.
I’ve walked the South Fork Rim Trail a handful of times this winter, and not once have I seen anything approaching a conflict. Everyone I’ve met—skiers, bikers, other walkers—have been friendly and courteous. Neither have I heard reports of recreational conflicts. Despite the worries expressed last summer, it seems everyone has been getting along just fine.
Then, in late January, Hensel took some medical leave. In his absence, trail specialist Joe Hall and ranger Mario Pagni decided on their own to take drastic action: the two cut down eight living spruce trees to block access to the original trail.
I first heard reports of the downed trees near the end of January. Disturbed—and yes, angered—that park staff would kill live spruce to block the old route, rather than use brush piles or some other less drastic measure, I walked the trail in early February and counted eight mature trees cut down.
All but one of the trees appeared healthy; the exception had been attacked by spruce bark beetles and looked to be dying. Nearby was a mature, healthy spruce tree, also cut down; a quick count of its rings showed that spruce to be more than 70 years old.
The cutting of these two trees, so near one another, strikes me as especially appalling. What rationale is there for killing the healthy tree, when the dying one would have sufficed?
When summer arrives, almost certainly bark beetles will leave the downed, infested spruce and invade the neighboring one, healthy before but now also dying. Other beetles, too, will likely be drawn to this tree to raise a new generation, adding to the local beetle population, another complication.
I’ve talked with several other people who’ve witnessed this unnecessary kill of living, healthy, mature spruce trees. All of us are some mix of sadness and fury that park personnel—the people we expect to protect Chugach State Park’s wild nature and values—would do this.
What makes this all the more outrageous is that park staff proudly noted that no mature trees were killed when the South Fork Rim Trail was rerouted last summer. And as I’ve noted above, the dual, intersecting paths seemed to be working. There was no emergency, no need to take such drastic—and in my view, egregious—action. Given the contentious recent history of this trail, it also seems remarkable that staff would take such extreme action without any public notice or input.
Hit with a storm of protest upon his return to work, superintendent Kurt Hensel has emphasized the tree cutting was done without his knowledge and isn’t something he would have approved: “I wasn’t happy about it and I made it clear to Joe and Mario that what they did is unacceptable.
“Their hearts and intent were in the right place; alarm bells were going off, they had safety concerns. But they shouldn’t have cut down the trees.”
Hensel isn’t sure where things go from here. He has no plans to remove the downed trees, at least for now, and he remains unsure what the best long-term solution might be.
What’s clear is that emotions continue to run high, fed by two poor choices: the unblocking of the original trail by some of those who love it, despite park staff’s clear and strong opposition; and the staff’s senseless cutting of live trees to re-block that route.
And now I worry that those downed spruce trees will lure more bark beetles to the area, adding to all the damage and conflict that’s occurred over the past several months in this place of mixed woods and meadows, a place cherished by many that has somehow turned into a kind of crazy battleground. If people who love a place can’t find some agreeable solution and common ground, where does that leave us?
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.