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Could the lure of trails salvage Alaska’s economy?

A trail along the Trans-Alaska pipeline could be the start of a booming recreation economy.

The cabin is so easy to reach that you can leave San Francisco in the morning, rent a car in Anchorage, and emerge from the snow-dusted spruce forest before dark, into a clearing reachable only by foot or snow machine. This is what 20-year-old Sean McGrory and 24-year-old Steven McCloud do on their first day in Alaska. They park along the Seward Highway and hike into the darkening woods, along a path that leads to two yurts, a renovated 1936 mining cabin, a sauna and an outhouse. The buildings are surrounded by mountains so dizzyingly enormous you have to crane your neck to take them in. At 9 p.m. in early April, they’re painted with the surreal watercolors of alpenglow.

 

McGrory and McCloud are enthralled. “I can’t even remember the last time I saw this much snow,” McCloud says, stomping his boots as he steps into the cabin.

The trail to the Manitoba Cabin is short, under a mile, but McGrory and McCloud would have hiked it even if it were longer. They’d happily spend days in this area, hiking from yurt to yurt, sleeping in warm beds that are safe from bears, cooking their food on stoves they don’t have to carry. This is the kind of experience they came to Alaska for: something that feels authentic and adventurous, but isn’t too extreme. They’re not up for climbing Denali, but neither do they want the canned itinerary that cruise ship passengers experience. “This is great for people like us who are in the middle,” McGrory says, filling a pot with water from a nearby creek and setting it on the stove to boil. “We wanted to unplug.”

I’m sitting with two other people staying in the cabin tonight, at a communal table piled with books, board games and mugs of red wine, in a room warmly lit by solar-powered lanterns and a woodstove. There’s not a phone in sight, and no outlets to plug one into. McGrory and McCloud look a little shell-shocked, trying to grasp that they woke up in the rush of central California and will fall asleep here, in the starlit Chugach Mountains. They found this place for $200 a night through a Google search.

The Manitoba Cabin system is the first of a series of huts planned by the nonprofit Alaska Huts Association, and McGrory and McCloud are exactly the kind of “in the middle” travelers the association hopes to attract. If it receives the necessary permits, Alaska Huts plans to build three more huts, transforming this quiet corner of Alaska into a New Zealand of the North — a hut-dotted destination for nature lovers who want more than car camping but lack the skills or inclination to backpack.

The association’s executive director, Tom Callahan, believes that expanding access to Alaska’s backcountry is critical for fostering environmental stewardship. But just as important are the opportunities that outdoor recreation can bring to isolated towns with few other options for economic development. Before coming to Alaska, Callahan worked in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where he saw how huts run by the Appalachian Mountain Club drew some 40,000 visitors a year and helped revitalize a struggling region once defined by timber. A world-class hut system in Alaska, he says, could transform rural communities in similar ways.

Callahan’s plans seem visionary in a state where outdoor recreation is dominated by hunting and fishing. Elsewhere in the West, however, they’re nothing new. From overlooked communities in the Utah desert to depressed Montana mining towns, places once dependent on logging, mining and drilling are reinventing themselves through hiking, biking, climbing and skiing. And as the economic benefits of these sports become more obvious, ever more rural counties are turning to trails for a fiscal boost. Nowhere, though, is there more untapped potential than in Alaska. And perhaps nowhere are the challenges so stark.

Toba’s Yurt during a snowy day. The Alaska Huts Association hopes to build several more huts like this in Alaska’s backcountry.
Willie Dalton, Alaska Huts Association

“It’s ironic,” state Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins told me as I was planning my trip north. “Alaska is one of the most beautiful, wild parts of the world, and there are very few trails to get out and experience it.”

Kreiss-Tomkins, a Democrat who grew up in one of Southeast Alaska’s isolated island communities, has a point. Despite the vast amount of public land in Alaska, the state has relatively little infrastructure to attract the outdoor enthusiasts who flock to recreation meccas like, say, Utah. To put it into perspective, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest near Salt Lake City has 1,700 miles of hiking trails spread over a 2,500-square-mile forest. The Chugach National Forest, near Anchorage, covers nearly 11,000 square miles but has just 500 miles of trails. And many of those trails demand considerable backcountry experience, deterring locals and visitors alike.

Even Alaska’s most famous national park, Denali, is largely trail-less. In the 1950s, a trail-building effort there met with sharp resistance from Alaskans who preferred to keep the wilderness untrammeled. “Let the tourist be on his own, and not be spoon-fed at intervals,” wrote famed Alaska naturalist Adolph Murie. “Let him be encouraged to keep his eyes open, do his own looking and exploring, and catch what he can of the magic of wilderness.”

But in a state that’s increasingly driven by tourism, the magic of Alaska’s wilderness has become more of a barrier than a draw. Although tourism is Alaska’s second-largest industry, after oil, the state’s wilderness is so formidable that most people see it only from the window of a bus or the deck of a cruise ship. Not only does that discourage beginner and intermediate hikers, bikers and skiers from visiting Alaska, it leaves communities that aren’t on major highways or cruise routes largely bereft of tourist dollars.

And such communities have never been more desperate for dollars. Today, the resource extraction that catapulted Alaska from a backwater “folly” to one of the nation’s wealthiest states has stalled. In Southeast Alaska, timber jobs decreased by 80 percent between 1998 and 2012. On the North Slope, oil production has dropped 76 percent since 1989. Add to that a freefall in the price of oil, and Alaska is now facing a $4 billion budget deficit. Small towns already reeling from the loss of major industries have been forced to absorb cuts to vital services like education and transportation. “We have reached a point in our state’s history that we need to be looking beyond oil,” Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent, said in 2016.

But how, exactly, can a state that depends on oil and gas for up to 90 percent of its revenue expand its economic base? As one Alaskan told me, “It’s not like Microsoft is going to move in.” Another ruefully noted that the state is already doing everything it can to support industries like fishing and mining. There’s just one asset that Alaska has in spades and isn’t taking advantage of, says Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins: its “grandeur and beauty and wildness.”

That’s why Kreiss-Tomkins wants to create an 800-mile path running the length of Alaska, paralleling the existing Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Instead of being a pure wilderness trail, the Trans-Alaska Trail would be served by lodges and roadhouses already scattered along its length. Regular road access would allow hikers and bikers to tackle shorter sections, benefiting places like 45 Mile, an unincorporated community north of Valdez that’s home to several lodges.

The project is slated to start with a 66-mile pilot section starting at the pipeline’s southern terminus in Valdez, but because the company that manages the pipeline opposes having a recreational trail alongside it, there’s no set start date. Kreiss-Tomkins, however, isn’t the type to run from a challenge. When he was 23, he beat a veteran Republican lawmaker to represent a district larger than New Jersey, and he has since been re-elected twice. He believes a Trans-Alaska Trail utilizing existing infrastructure could be a “vanguard example” of Alaska’s nascent adventure tourism economy. “This is not an idle idea,” Kreiss-Tomkins told me. “This is a very real idea. We’re hoping it catalyzes a broader movement.”

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline has a service road and other infrastructure along the way that Alaska Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins says would be ideal for a Trans-Alaska Trail. The pipeline operator isn’t so sure.
Patrick J. Endres/Alaska Photographics

Kreiss-Tomkins has reason to believe his scheme will work. When a trail running the length of Colorado was first proposed in the 1970s, it seemed impossible — the late writer Ed Quillen, a regular High Country News contributor, once called it a “trail to nowhere.” Today, the Colorado Trail attracts thousands of hikers and bikers each year, and breweries, gear shops and B&Bs are thriving in trailside communities. As one county commissioner in the former mining town of Silverton put it: Recreation is Colorado’s new gold.

Nationwide, there are now 236,000 miles of trail on state and federal land, more than double the 103,000 miles that laced our public lands in 1965. And demand continues to grow. After Cheryl Strayed published her 2012 memoir Wild about finding redemption on the Pacific Crest Trail, the number of thru-hikers attempting the 2,650-mile trek from Mexico to Canada jumped from about 300 a year to 3,000. In 2015, the Pacific Crest Trail had to implement a quota system for the first time in six decades to mitigate the impact of all those boots.

Trails serviced by backcountry huts or lodges, like those planned in Alaska, are even more popular than those traversing wilderness. Some 72,000 international visitors a year travel to New Zealand to hike its multi-day “Great Walks” and stay in the adjoining backcountry huts. Other hut systems, like Washington’s Rendezvous Huts and Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division and San Juan Huts, are in such demand they must be reserved months in advance. “It’s a ‘Build it and they will come’ situation,” says Sam Demas, a retired librarian who now studies hut systems around the world. “There’s more demand than supply.”

A world-class mountain-biking trail system near Fruita, Colorado, helped boost the economy, with sales tax revenues jumping by more than 50 percent in five years.
Howie Shultz

Rural communities benefit disproportionately from America’s love of trails. The United States Bureau of Economic Analysis is in the midst of producing the first comprehensive study of the economic impact of trails and other conduits to outdoor recreation, but numerous smaller studies have already begun to capture that impact, confirming what towns like Fruita, Colorado, already know: Even trails that are close to town can have huge economic returns. Between 1998 and 2004, as Fruita developed its now-world-class mountain bike trails, sales tax revenue in the sleepy desert community jumped by 51 percent. Today, once-vacant storefronts are bustling.

Five hours away in conservative Kanab, Utah, county commissioners are hoping for a similar bump: In 2015, they allocated $20,000 to build 100 miles of new hiking and biking trails in partnership with the International Mountain Bicycling Association. In Oregon and Washington, locals are plotting a 200-mile route connecting hiking trails in the Columbia River Gorge to small-town lodges and B&Bs. And in Anaconda, Montana, Lydia Janosko of the Anaconda Local Development Corporation is partnering with the Anaconda Trail Society to build an “adventure camp” for Continental Divide Trail hikers and long-distance cyclists.

When I spoke to Janosko by phone, she told me a story familiar to many rural Westerners, of a community that never really recovered from the loss of its copper smelter in 1980. She and others tried to promote Anaconda’s beautiful surroundings to entice new businesses, but few took her up on the offer. Families continued to move away in search of better opportunities.

A couple years ago, Janosko started noticing a growing number of cyclists passing through town. She contacted the Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association and learned it had been promoting a route that passes near Anaconda, which is between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Janosko also learned of a study by the University of Montana showing that bicycle tourists linger in the state three days longer than regular tourists and spend 40 percent more on amenities, particularly in off-the-beaten-path towns that motorists tend to skip. By providing free Wi-Fi, lockers, charging stations and nearby hot showers, the Adventure Cycling Association suggested Anaconda could lure these tourists to spend the night — and spend money at local businesses.

When Anaconda’s adventure camp opens this summer, it’ll be the seventh such camp in rural Montana. A local brewery is also in the works, and there’s a new bicycle shop downtown. “We’re still bouncing back,” Janosko says, “but the energy in Anaconda is shifting.”

Toba’s Yurt — seen here under the Northern lights — is just a short hike in from the highway.
Willie Dalton, Alaska Huts Association

Alaska’s trail builders hope their communities can experience a similar shift, but an unsupportive pipeline company isn’t the only obstacle they face. Some residents are skeptical that a Trans-Alaska Trail could ever be as popular as the Colorado Trail, or that a hut system here could rival New Zealand’s. Alaska has grizzlies; those places do not. Alaska already has backcountry huts, albeit barebones ones used mostly by locals. And Alaska is too far away, people told me, to attract recreationists in any great number.

Most significantly, though, state and federal agencies in the 49th state have been slow to adapt to the changing economic landscape, making it hard for would-be trail builders to get funding, permits and support. In the Tongass National Forest, an independent analysis by Headwaters Economics found that the U.S. Forest Service spends 37 percent of its budget on timber and 15 percent on recreation, despite the fact that timber supports just 240 jobs in the region and tourism supports 6,700. In the state capital of Juneau, legislators grappling with Alaska’s budget deficit have dug deep to find money for oil subsidies while cutting recreation funding. Even the Alaska Huts Association is exploring a backup plan to build its huts on state land in the not-unlikely event it can’t get Forest Service permits.

“Outdoor recreation is undervalued as an economic driver,” says Lee Hart, director of a nonprofit called Levitation 49 that seeks to diversify Alaska’s economy through outdoor recreation. “That’s just the mindset of our state.”

Or as Lynne Brandon of the nonprofit Sitka Trail Works explained, “Alaska is still in the dark ages compared to places like Colorado.”

On the other hand, some Alaskans would rather stay in the dark than have their state overrun by spandex-clad, Instagramming hordes. Tourism, even the environmentally conscious kind, changes a place. Hardware stores are replaced by gear shops selling $90 leggings. Loggers and miners with a multigenerational connection to the land are replaced by seasonal guides. Housing costs rise. As longtime residents of Moab, Utah, or Queenstown, New Zealand, can attest, the money that outdoor enthusiasts bring can be a double-edged sword.

Plus, even quiet recreation can harm the environment when it unfolds on a large scale. Preliminary results from a multi-year study in Idaho and Wyoming show that wolverines change their behavior in unhealthy ways when backcountry skiers hit the slopes in greater numbers; another study found a fivefold decrease in bobcat and coyote populations on California public lands that were open to hiking. In 2011, scientists reviewed 69 independent studies and found 88 percent of them linked outdoor recreation like hiking and canoeing to negative consequences for birds, including fewer chicks.

But as elsewhere in the West, rural communities in Alaska have few alternatives. Residents can’t change the complex global forces that have led to the demise of the industries they once depended on. They can only adapt.

I went to Alaska to learn more about Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins’ plan for a Trans-Alaska Trail, but as I talked to entrepreneurs, community organizers and nonprofits around the state, I realized that Alaska doesn’t necessarily need an 800-mile trail to jumpstart its recreation economy. Changing deeply held beliefs about oil and recreation is like “steering a ginormous ship,” says Levitation 49’s Hart, but everywhere I looked, I saw signs that the wheel was beginning to turn. In the small town of Palmer, owner Peter Schadee of the Knik River Lodge decided to buy a fleet of fat bikes to boost winter business after noticing an influx of cyclists heading to a nearby glacier. In Sitka, Lynne Brandon is working on a bike trail that connects the ferry and cruise ship terminals to Sitka’s historic downtown, expanding opportunities for Sitka’s small cadre of bike tour operators. In Wrangell, once known as the Timber Capital of Alaska, a former logger named Jim Leslie now runs wilderness boat tours. In Anchorage, Hart helped organize the state’s first outdoor recreation summit last June. And around the state, other communities are also building trails and investing in recreation.

“The number of rural communities that are looking at developing a trail system continues to expand,” says Paul Clark, who runs a National Park Service program that helps Alaskan communities construct trails on non-NPS land. “Every year there are more.”

Backcountry skiers gather over a trail map at the Manitoba Cabin, part of a hut system in the Chugach Mountains.
Matt Hage, Alaska Huts Association/cc Flickr

Back at the Manitoba Cabin, McGrory and McCloud have just settled down to eat their pasta when the door creaks open again. Two red-cheeked faces peer inside: a couple from Seward, trailed by a grizzled, wolfish dog with bad hips. As we gather around the table to eat and drink, a faint snowfall brushes the windows. It feels like we could be at one of the famous backcountry huts in the Alps, or perhaps New Zealand, except a little more rough around the edges. A little more Alaska.

We live in an era when trail builders have to justify their efforts economically. But the reason trails garner economic returns is because we’re drawn to them, and the reason we’re drawn to them is less quantifiable, more meandering. Trails make it possible for us to get to places we’d never otherwise reach, to fall in love with places we’d never otherwise know, to meet people we’d never otherwise cross paths with. They satisfy an ancient impulse to ditch our daily obligations and embark on a journey, emerging somehow different than when we set off.

Working on this story, I was reminded of a summer I spent building and repairing trails in Idaho’s backcountry. Until then, I thought the paths I hiked on were sprung from the earth, as if generations of human feet had worn them into the ground like the trails deer and elk weave into the forest floor. But as my fellow recruits and I were handed our tools for the season — saws and shovels, pulaskis and pickaxes — I realized that the creation of a trail is more often a violent, wrenching affair, born of crushed rocks and sawed trees, sweat and sore backs. Foot by foot, mile by mile, trails are built at the expense of what was there before. Sometimes the end result is better and more sustainable. Sometimes it changes a place’s identity in painful ways. The outcome, I suppose, depends on your view.

That night at the Manitoba Cabin, after everyone has gone to sleep, I step outside and walk to the middle of the clearing. From this vantage, the cabin looks like a tiny glowing ember nestled in a sea of wintry mountains, a tail of smoke curling from its chimney. A three-quarters moon glows through the clouds, illuminating the snow-packed path winding through gnarled spruce forest. The bases of the trees are just beginning to thaw, releasing the fragrance of wet bark and snowmelt into the air. It smells like something new — like early spring.

Note: This article has been updated to correct the total mileage of trails nationwide; there are 236,000 miles of trail on state and federal land, not 326,000.

HCN correspondent Krista Langlois lives in Durango, Colorado, and frequently covers Alaska.