Wrangells' Trails, Resources Protected From Illegal ATV Use

Wrangell-St. Elias
ATV damage on trails off the Nabesna Road going to Copper and Tanada lakes.
Photo credit: George Herben 

Settlement ensures Park Service will regulate recreational vehicle use

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Alaska Center for the Environment, and The Wilderness Society announced a settlement in 2007 with the National Park Service on litigation filed the previous summer challenging illegal all-terrain vehicle (ATV) use on nine trails in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The lawsuit sought to protect the park from unregulated recreational ATV use, which is damaging tundra ecosystems, including wildlife habitat and water quality.  Anchorage-based public interest environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska provided legal representation. 

“Wrangell-St. Elias is one of the world’s premier wilderness parks, and today we are starting the journey to heal some serious wounds to the land caused by recreational ATV riding,” said NPCA Alaska Regional Director Jim Stratton.  “We are pleased that the National Park Service saw the merits of our legal challenge and chose to settle this case in a manner that protects park resources.”

The settlement requires the National Park Service to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) evaluating the impacts of recreational ATV use on park resources.  Should that EIS determine that recreational ATV riding can continue, then the settlement further requires the Park Service to make a written finding on the compatibility of ATV use with the purposes for which Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve was established.

“ATV enjoyment is appropriate in many places in Alaska, however, unregulated recreational riding is not compatible with most people’s view of a national park,” said Randy Virgin, executive director of Alaska Center for the Environment.  “We look forward to working with the National Park Service to carefully evaluate recreational ATV use to determine what, if any, ATV use can be permitted in the future.”

Pending completion of the EIS within four years, six of the nine trails contested by the litigation will remain open for permitted recreational ATV use, and use of the three most damaged trails, the Copper Lake, Tanada Lake and Suslota Lake, will be restricted. On these three trails, extensive damage includes mud holes up to several hundred yards wide and several miles long, created when the permafrost melted. These trails will only be opened for recreational riding in the Fall after the Park Service has determined that the ground has frozen sufficiently to a level of six inches, and can support the weight of an ATV. 

Park Service rules on ATV use allow for only limited riding under specific circumstances, and only when such riding does not impact the purposes for which the park was created. The Park Service had not conducted the necessary analysis required to ensure that Wrangells remains healthy if ATV riding is permitted, and this litigation addressed that.

“The National Park Service had ignored existing laws and regulations designed to protect park resources and values for present and future generations,” said Mike Steeves, the plaintiffs’ attorney from Trustees for Alaska. “We are pleased this lawsuit was successful and we think it will compel the Park Service to follow its own management rules.”

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, referred to as the mountain kingdom of North America, is the largest unit in the National Park System. The park includes the continent’s largest assemblage of glaciers and the greatest collection of peaks, above 16,000 feet, as well as Mount St. Elias, the second highest peak in the United States.

The lawsuit and the settlement do not restrict access to the park by local subsistence users living in resident zone communities around Wrangells.

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

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