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Front Page » September 2, 2003 » Opinion » Alaska's Steese Highway
Published 4,922 days ago

Alaska's Steese Highway

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Professor of Geology, BYU

If a great road is defined by a journey that equals or exceeds the destination�then the 162 mile Steese Highway running northeast out of Fairbanks is a great road.

In fact a journey down the Steese offers not only the spectacular Alaskan scenery you would expect but provides the added bonus of being able to get up close to the White Mountains National Recreation Area (NRA) and the Steese National Conservation Area (NCA)�the only two special land use designations from Alaska that are part of the BLM's relatively new National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS).

Let's start with the scenery. The road itself is paved for awhile before giving way to chip-seal and then graded dirt ending on the banks of the Yukon River, just beyond a sign that warns you that you may have to share the road in the small town of Circle with an occasional airplane. Since you hardly even pass any cars during the entire journey, it's doubtful that you will risk having to yield to an airplane outside the small general store.

But before you get to Circle (misnamed by eager miners who thought they were a bit further north than they were), you travel through the Chatanika River Valley where the view alternates between dense forests with occasional glimpses of a meandering river to areas where large-scale gold mining has rearranged a sizeable portion of the landscape.

Further along, the high-latitude low-elevation tree line gives way to rolling tundra where, from a pair of summits along the road, you feel like you can see forever. Later you dip back down into the forests surrounding the Birch Creek National Wild River and the town of Central before the large bend in the Yukon River comes into view.

But I didn't travel the Steese Highway simply for the scenery�though it would be reason enough. As with most places lately, I was there because of the presence of special BLM land use designations.

On a short visit it's only possible to access the fringes of either the White Mountain National Recreation Area or the Steese National Conservation Area�both are vast areas of over one million acres with practically no motorized travel during the summer.

But a day hike in each area combined with a very insightful morning spent with the BLM staff in the Fairbanks Field Office helped me to develop an initial feel for these areas�both designated in 1980 with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

The White Mountains NRA is the only NRA managed by the BLM rather than the National Park Service. Interestingly the vast area is much more accessible during the winter when snowmobile riders make use of an extensive trail and cabin network.

During my summertime eight-mile hike into the edge of the White Mountains NRA, I soon realized that most late summer use by humans appeared to center on harvesting of wild blue berries. I passed dozens of people spread out on the slopes near the main trail picking the abundant fruit.

One lady informed me that she comes every year and puts up around fifteen quarts of berries. Another woman said she makes "syrups, jellies, pies, everything" with her berries. Earlier I passed a man dressed in black running shorts and a tank top with a holstered gun around his hips, swinging two very nice silver containers full of berries. Later on I passed two families with worn out kids whose pails were suspiciously empty.

About midway between Fairbanks and Circle, the Steese Highway divides the northern and southern portions of the Steese NCA. The Pinnel Mountain Trail runs along the southern edge of the northern section while Birch Creek makes a 100 mile loop through the southern section.

The Steese NCA is used not only by hikers and river runners but is also considered important caribou range. Unlike many of the NCAs I have visited lately, human use of the Steese NCA is very low. In fact during my visit I would not have been surprised to find out that nobody else was in the area apart from the handful of people I met along the highway who wondered if I had seen any caribou on my hike along a portion of the Pinnell Mountain Trail.

The Steese was included in the BLM's NLCS when it was created in June 2000. The White Mountains NRA was not included in the NLCS until a year or so later when the BLM in Alaska lobbied for its inclusion. The rational was that they felt that the White Mountains were utilized and managed for a diversity of uses that included mining, wildlife habitat, and other activities that went beyond simple recreation, and therefore they felt it was a good fit for the NLCS. As with many other areas they felt that inclusion in the new NLCS would make it easier to access funding and other resources for management initiatives.

In talking with the BLM office in Washington, I was informed that the BLM in Alaska had been much more interested in receiving resources for the White Mountain NRA than the Steese NCA. Yet the Steese NCA was initially included in the NLCS and they had to campaign to get the White Mountains NRA included. If they had been given a choice it's likely they would have put the White Mountains NRA in the NLCS from the get-go instead of the Steese NCA. But while all BLM NCAs were automatically included in the creation of the NLCS, the lone BLM NRA was an orphan child that had to beg for a seat at the table.

But the inclusion of the White Mountains NRA into the NLCS may have been a bit late to receive much additional funding as the change in Administrations has focused resources on oil and gas development and the NLCS has been moved down the pecking order in the continual scramble for resources�or to put another way, just as the White Mountains got a seat at the table, someone cleared the food. Places such as the Steese NCA and the White Mountains NRA will now have to wait until the political winds shift, and it becomes vogue once again to focus on special designations.

But despite management challenges, the BLM land that surrounds the Steese Highway is worth a much longer visit than I had time for. In fact I could have spent a few more hours in the Steese NCA if I hadn't focused on making it to the end of the road where I sat on a bench outside the small general store in Circle eating peanuts and having a drink while I waited to see what would come first�a car or a plane. Neither came and so I drove back down the Steese.

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