Haines joins effort to link, promote Panhandle trails

Thursday, May 30, 2002

Chilkat Valley News
By Jeff Goodhart

Imagine, if you will, trekking up Mount Ripinsky one day, then hopping a ferry to a secluded sea kayaking spot near Sitka the next.

Now imagine being able to experience that outdoor adventure with help from an organized, well-marked and thought-out system of trails that link together Southeast Alaskan communities via the Alaska Marine Highway System.

That is the vision of SEAtrails, Southeast Alaska Trail System, whose mission is to facilitate the planning, construction and maintenance of a regionwide trail system to enhance economic development, quality of life and transportation.

With initial support from TRAAK, Trails and Recreational Access for Alaska, the grassroots project is being organized by residents, community governments, trail organizations, as well as state and federal agencies and visitor industry representatives. TRAAK meets four times a year and acts as an advisory body to DOT, DNR, Fish and Game, and to the forest and national park services on any issue in the state pertaining to recreational access.

Through this week, nine communities, including Haines, have passed resolutions in support of the SEAtrails concept, which includes trails for hiking, biking, kayaking and scuba diving, as well as cultural and historic sites and those accessible by the handicapped.

“The city is in support of the endeavor,” said city economic development director Robert Venables, who along with tourism coordinator Michelle Glass early August attended the second annual SEAtrails meeting to discuss the future of the project.

Venables said involvement in the group and its effort would assist local leaders on focusing on Haines’ trail infrastructure. Residents identified the construction of trails should be a priority for the city in its recently completed Plan for Public Use and Access. SEAtrails representatives, Venables says, will visit Haines next spring to assess current trails.

And, as part of the planning effort, the city this fall will schedule a meeting with area hikers to get a feel for local needs and opportunities, Venables said.

“The city will look at its large trails, and to lure more folks into the region, also will look at how the Dalton Trail, which has a lot of opportunity, could be better,” Venables said.

But SEAtrails will not only assist in the betterment of local trails.

The group also will serve as a marketing arm for the region, Venables said.

“It’s another vehicle for Haines to get good exposure in the marketplace,” he said, adding, “Haines has an opportunity to promote itself to eco-tourists and adventure travelers who want to get off the roads,” and into the wilderness.

Venables stressed Haines is only in the planning stages for the regional trail system at this point, but that the possibilities are many.

“A Eur-rail-type pass system could be created with the ferry system in Southeast to facilitate SEAtrails travel,” he said. “People could spend a couple months traveling the region by ferry, and enjoy all the trails the different ports offer.”

TRAAK board member Davey Lubin of Sitka added the pass system would not require travelers to establish preconceived travel plans, but would provide opportunities to move more freely from port to port – an option travelers can not experience on a mainline ferry trip with its set dockings.

How can the project be funded?

The project locally could be paid for through grants, volunteer efforts and tour taxes, Venables said, but since the planning is in the preliminary stage, specific funding sources are uncertain.

He noted the April visit by SEAtrails would “let the city know what needs to be done,” before a marketing plan could be created.

Is the regional trail system possible?

“Absolutely,” Lubin said. “It’s not only possible, but it’s probable.”

Lubin said the concept has garnered a level of support in Southeast that is “equal to none.”

And while state and federal organizations have showed interest and participated in SEAtrails meetings, Lubin stressed “participation is strictly at the community level,” meaning “if a community does not want to be involved, we won’t force it. Projects will happen at the level each community wants.”

The DOT, particularly Alaska Marine Highway System, has participated in SEAtrails since the group began in May 2000.

Ferry system chief George Capacci said the DOT sees the project as a way to boost non-vehicular, or walk-on ferry traffic.

Lubin said, “SEAtrails sees DOT as an integral partner in the project. With regards to transportation, the DOT is a link between towns. It also is an outlet for information dissemination on all its ports, and as far as recreation, the department offers an interesting activity in itself – riding the ferry.”

SEAtrails, Lubin noted, is “in step with DOT plans to put into service a system of fast ferries and shuttles to link Northern Panhandle communities, and ease travel between Haines, Skagway and Juneau.

The department currently is awaiting a final study from consultants with the Juneau-based McDowell Group and Seattle ship designers Elliot Bay Design Group regarding how the ferry system’s costs could be reduced, while improving service. Officials said the use of fast ferries and shuttles would help accomplish that end.



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