Mat-Su Borough trail plan sparks rancor

A plan to build new all terrain vehicle trails accessible by the Knik River Public Use area sparked contention at Tuesday night’s Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly meeting. At stake is a balance between paying for maintenance, or paying for safety, in two Borough recreational projects.

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Fishing at Jim Creek. Photo: Mat Su Borough

If you live in the Matanuska Susitna Borough, the two words “Jim Creek” evoke a reaction, whether joy or anger. Jim Creek, located in the Borough’s Butte area, is the scene of campfires, hunting, teenage parties, shooting: fun or mayhem, depending on who you talk to.

Over the year’s the Borough Assembly has made efforts to “clean up” Jim Creek’s disreputable reputation, and has succeeded — to a degree —-by creating a Jim Creek Master Plan.

But at Tuesday night’s Borough Assembly meeting, a move to accept an almost one hundred thousand dollar grant from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to create three miles of off -road vehicle trail at Jim Creek met with some strong comments in opposition.  Like this one, from Gregory Neilson

“What we are seeing occurring in the Knik Public Use Area and in out neighborhoods, is a gross increase in both the numbers of orvs operating on both sides of the highway, and the proposed extension will only funnel more activity into an area which already features unrestrained activity. You can go there with anything under the sun, you don’t have to have any kind of insurance, licensing. ”

And Kathy Hummel:

“Along with the problem that the few homes in the area, I won’t say homes, I’ll say parcels, really couldn’t be developed any more for residential use and they are turning into gravel pits, because this isn’t a desirable place to live. And the reason is that the whole area is presently uncontrolled.”

Some Butte residents say enough is enough. They say that Jim Creek off – roaders spew garbage, vandalism and unsafe riding practices in their wake.  Margaret Renzer:

“There is no required identification on those vehicles. And some of those people are doing pretty atrocious things, and approaching people in dangerous and disrespectful manners.”

And Mitzi Van Eslin:

“People who have tendency to go fast and not think about what they are doing to themselves or to other people. I’ve seen men out there with a four wheel vehicle, twenty miles out there. He’s got his wife and kids on the back. They’re all wearing shorts and T shirts. That’s all well and good, if you live in Florida. But in Alaska, that could be dangerous, especially if you have a roll over or something like that. ”

A few, like  Brendan Knox,  spoke in favor of the grant:

“The main purpose of it is to build trails that can be supervised, that can be used for training. so the idea is to get it for young people to actually learn how to run their four wheelers and be a little more supervised and not be going up and down the highways and on the side roads.”

Eric Phillips, the Borough’s community development director, told the Assembly that the grant funds are specifically to be used for trails for beginning ATV riders.

“The purpose of the funds is to construct a low speed, one way, technical driving course on which anywhere from the youth, to perhaps the elderly population, even a disabled population, could learn to ride without being out there in the fast lane. It would give them basically a managed place where they could feel safe.”

But the money is for construction only, Phillips told the Assembly.

The debate, which ended in the Assembly approving acceptance of the DNR grant, sparked similar negative public comments when it came time to deal with a second recreation facility upgrade. The Mat Su Health Foundation has offered the Borough 390 thousand dollars to fund trail lighting at the Borough’s Government Peak Recreation Area. That move gained Assembly approval, too. Both ordinances will effectively enhance public recreation areas in the Valley, although the public’s input does point out that by accepting the grant money, the Borough is accepting the cost of maintenance of the new facilities.

“Wanting this money because it is on the table.. ummm, can you say, ‘ferry.’ We take this money, and then we end up spending a lot more. And when we take these moneys we have to take a look at indirect costs. So for any trail endeavor, we should look at what it costs us in search and rescue, ski patrol costs, who’s going to maintain it.”

Jim Creek is easily accessible through the Knik River Public Use area, which was created in 2006 by the state legislature. The public use area is supervised by the state through Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Wildlife Troopers and state Fish and Game. The Borough’s Jim Creek area is 470 acres within the public use area. But the Borough, which is a second class Borough, has no law enforcement capability. Eric Phillips:

“Enforcement is not a new issue. It has been here for a long time, and it probably will continue to be an issue into the future. I don’t see the enforcement issue going away, but I certainly understand the concern. ”

Phillips says the slow lane trail project is part of an effort to make Jim Creek a more family friendly site. But he says efforts to solve the enforcement problem are till ongoing,

“We do intend to try to work with some of the motorized groups to see if there is interest in some sort of oversight for this low speed technical trail we are constructing. We work with various community groups on various monitoring type situations throughout the Borough, so there is a precedent for working with private citizens groups to accomplish things that we cannot normally do.”

Phillips says it is hoped that off road clubs will step up to the plate and monitor themselves.