A proposal for a contentious ATV trail in Juneau is out for public comment

The Montana Creek area, pictured May 18, 2021, has seen conflict between multiple user groups for years. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

A proposal for a contentious all-terrain vehicle gravel trail in Montana Creek is out for public comment.

Darrin Crapo of the Juneau Off-Road Association submitted the proposal. He also owns Broken Rudder, a company that sells ATVs and snow machines.

The proposal requests an easement that would be 6,800 feet long and 25 feet wide. The trail itself would be eight feet wide, with a camping area at the end.

“What we really want is to have that campground built up there and have a great place where we can take friends and family,” Crapo said. “Get up and do some camping that’s got some elevation. There’s nowhere in Juneau that you can drive and get up to a higher elevation, get into the backcountry, and do some easy camping that way.”

The trail would be designed for low-speed, low-impact riding, according to Crapo.

Crapo described gravel pit riding, where riders go fast and ride up jumps, and trail riding, where people ride through the country on developed trails, as two of three types of ATV riding.

“We’re looking for a third type of riding experience in Montana Creek,” Crapo said. “And that’s where it’s really purposed for, it’s a leisurely type of a trail.”

Crapo suggested a 10 mph limit for the trail, in line with an existing verbal agreement among Montana Creek users.

Snow and tracks on the Montana Creek trail on May 18, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Chris Zimmer has been a Juneau resident for 20 years. He expressed concerns about ATVs in Montana Creek because riders have a history of crossing salmon-spawning streams in the area.

“And the stream crossings are a real problem,” Zimmer said. “Especially up there in Montana Creek where the fish are spawning, where the juveniles are rearing waiting to head out to sea.”

The Department of Fish and Game has documented illegal stream crossings in Montana Creek since 2010. According to a Department of Fish and Game memo, there were 13 documented ATV stream crossings in 2020.

Nine of those crossings were over anadromous streams. To ride an ATV over an anadromous stream, the rider would need a fish habitat permit. No ATV riders had a permit, making the stream crossings illegal.

“I think a lot of us are skeptical and cynical about, you know, the ability of the riders to either police themselves or change their behavior,” Zimmer said.

Kevin Maier is a local skier and former president of the Tongass chapter of Trout Unlimited. He also wrote an article for the Juneau Empire about recreation in Montana Creek.

“Definitely the crossing of anadromous streams is the illegal part of it, but there’s also, you know, sort of like trail-building,” Maier said. “Riding up into, what I take to be, relatively sensitive habitat zones for both coho and anadromous Dolly Varden, but pink and chum salmon too.”

Crapo says the land for the gravel trail was selected very carefully so it wouldn’t affect the salmon habitats in the area.

“There’s an existing brush ATV trail,” Crapo said. “The starting point for that trail is going to be relocated so that it does not pass through any salmon-rearing areas. Presently there is no spawning that happens on anything where that trail would be.”

But to Maier, those reassurances would not be enough.

“For me, it’s more, the trail represents an invitation to more pioneer riding, which represents degradation of habitats important for fish,” Maier said.

Fish habitats and illegal riding are not the only concerns locals had with off-road vehicles in Montana Creek.

The Juneau Nordic Ski Club has encouraged its members to oppose the trail. They claimed that an ATV trail would push them and other non-motorized users out of Montana Creek.

Last fall, the club attempted to ban ATVs and snow machines from Montana Creek during the wintertime.  After much public comment, the City and Borough of Juneau decided to continue allowing snow machines and ATVs there.

After realizing how popular the area is, the city decided to make a master plan for Montana Creek. The public will be able to give input on the plan this summer, said Michele Elfers, deputy director of Juneau’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“The beginning of the master plan work will be public outreach in various ways,” Elfers said. “So there will be meetings, probably surveys and things like that.”

To make matters more complicated, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources reached out to the city about transferring management of state lands in Montana Creek to the city through a cooperative agreement.

According to Chris Carpeneti at the Department of Natural Resources, the gravel trail application led the state to look more closely at their Juneau State Land Plan.

This plan was created in 1993 and gives direction to the department on how to manage state land. Upon closer inspection, the department realized that the plan recommended the area be managed through a cooperative agreement.

The city is still in the beginning of exploring an agreement, Elfers said.

It is unclear how the gravel trail, if approved, would fit into the Montana Creek master plan or how management of the trail would be handled.

Zimmer agreed that a master plan at Montana Creek is needed.

“I mean we can’t keep having the same conversations every year about Montana Creek,” Zimmer said. “At some point we’ve got to create a system and a plan and stick to it. And that gives everybody some certainty.”

And ATV riders do need a place to ride, said Zimmer. But he does not think Montana Creek is the right place for an ATV trail.

“A lot of people are concerned, you know,” Crapo said. “They hear about ATV trail and think that this is going to turn into some high-speed dirt highway of hoodlums. And that’s not the case at all.”

If you want to give input on the gravel trail proposal out at Montana Creek, you can email your comment to megan.hillgartner@alaska.gov or call at (907) 465-3937.

The deadline for public comment is May 20.

Lyndsey Brollini

Local News Reporter

I bring voices to my stories that have been historically underserved and underrepresented in news. I look at stories through a solutions-focused lens with a goal to benefit the community of Juneau and the state of Alaska.

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