Preserving Fragile Tundra at Wrangell-St. Elias

On the Alaskan tundra, the passage of even one off-road vehicle (ORV) can turn sensitive wetlands into ugly mud bogs, and as subsequent motorists skirt the mess, muddy scars widen to the size of football fields. Meanwhile, park officials at Wrangell-St. Elias had invested little toward long-term trail care. Although park regulations allow ORV use by local residents living off the land, NPCA charged that the Park Service had been violating federal law by issuing permits for recreational ORV use.

To stop the damage, NPCA partnered with the Alaska Center for the Environment and The Wilderness Society to file a lawsuit against the Park Service. The case never went to trial. Instead, NPS agreed to a settlement that significantly curtailed recreational ORV use and created a long-term management plan.

Now, damaged off-road vehicle trails in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve are finally getting fixed! Six years after NPCA’s lawsuit challenged the Park Service’s illegal permitting of recreational off-road vehicle use, which had shredded park wetlands and left behind a muddy mess, plans for a sustainable trail system are complete. Soon, we’ll see new hiking routes and solid access for qualified local residents, property owners, and recreational trail users.

Why are ORVs even allowed in our largest park? When most of Alaska’s national parks were created in 1980, Congress understood that access is a big challenge in remote Alaska. They wisely decided that, if resources are protected, parks can support appropriate access to private properties and traditional subsistence activities like fishing and berry-picking as well as sport hunting in national preserves.

Unfortunately, poorly managed ORV use damaged fragile wetlands in one area of Wrangell-St. Elias. Trail improvement work is scheduled for the next 5-10 years and NPCA will advocate for full funding until the problem is solved. Local volunteers, Park Service, and NPCA staff celebrated by building a sustainable tread across 500 feet of the park’s Copper Lake Trail in August 2011.

In September 2011, NPCA activists sent more than 4,000 letters to Wrangell-St. Elias’ planning team thanking them for the thousands of hours spent engaging to stakeholders and crafting trail improvements. Many of our activists’ personal messages were heartwarming and inspiring:

  • “In a time when many decisions seem to be harming our national parks, this plan seems to help all parties involved and is a step in the right direction.” Kenneth Smith, Florida
  • “There is a time and place for ORVs. Thank you for finding the right place for their use at this time.” Marie Poliquin, Minnesota
  • “Thanks for keeping serenity and raucous fun separate and both available to U.S. citizens!” Tracy Hart, Rhode Island
  • “I appreciate your efforts to strike a balance between off-road vehicle use and the integrity of the landscape.” Emma Miniscalco, Washington, DC
  • “Hooray for this trail plan. It is so great to get such good news when so much environmental news is discouraging. Thank you for your efforts.” Dr. Faye Starkweather, California
  • “Thank you for the creative thinking, and the respect and protection of public lands. Bravo!” Anita Walsh, New Mexico
  • “You get an A+.” Martha Jaegers, Missouri

NPCA is proud to be a problem-solving partner. We applaud the dedicated park staff responsible for crafting a trail plan that meets the needs of locals and visitors. 

“We’re really pleased that our litigation led the Park Service to roll up its sleeves and tackle the trail problems that were so evident to everyone,” says Jim Stratton, senior director of NPCA’s Alaska Regional Office. “This announcement ushers in a new approach to trail management, one that is focused on protecting the fragile tundra and wetlands of the Wrangells while improving access for local folks using these trails for hunting, fishing, berry-picking, and traveling to their remote cabins.”

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