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Talkeetna tussle.

Proposed plans for a visitor center outside the community are dividing residents.

One year ago, Lynn and Marty Terstegge bought the Talkeetna Roadhouse. They looked forward to raising their children in a rural village much like the fictitious community Cicely on the popular television show Northern Exposure. They don't want their lifestyle to change.

The Lees, David and Julie, have lived in Talkeetna for 13 years. They own a local flying service and have two small children. They would like to see more opportunity in the area, so that when their children grow up they won't have to leave home to find work. They don't mind if their lifestyle changes to accommodate growth in the community.

These two families sit on opposite sides of the fence regarding an issue that could change Talkeetna. The point of contention is whether the U.S. National Park Service should build a large visitor center on the out-skirts of the community.

Talkeetna lies 147 miles north of Anchorage. A spur road off the George Parks Highway dead-ends in the town of roughly 250 people. Since its inception as a mining and trapping community at the turn of the century, Talkeetna has retained a quiet relaxed atmosphere. Residents come from every walk of life and include small business owners, retirees, and Bush trappers and miners.

Talkeetna is a renowned jumping-off spot for Mount McKinley climbers, and each spring Talkeetna residents see a flood of outsiders when mountaineering enthusiasts from all over the world invade their tiny community. While residents may prosper from such influxes of people and spending, their current dilemma is how the proposed visitor center would affect their lives and livelihoods.

The site near Talkeetna is one of four alternative plans being considered by the National Park Service for development on the south side of Denali National Park and Preserve. According to Russ Berry, Denali park superintendent, a general management plan for development of the area was created in 1986. That plan called for later completion of a development and conceptual plan, followed by an environmental impact statement to address the development of park facilities and park access.

A 1990 U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee directive requested design and concept plans. A 15-member committee was formed of individuals from the Alaska regional office of the National Park Service, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation, and the Denver Service Center, a planning division of the National Park Service.

Last fall, comments were solicited from Alaska residents regarding the type and limits of development along the George Parks Highway corridor between Cantwell and Talkeetna Junction. Specifically, input was requested to address the development of trails, huts and structures within the park; the type of commercial activities to be allowed; suggestions for roadside exhibits; and the type of visitor facilities needed. Berry notes that prerequisites for a visitor center site included accessibility by road and rail, as well as a view of Mount McKinley.

More than 400 comments were received, Berry reports. Taking public comments and park service directives into consideration, four alternative plans were created. The options are outlined in a workbook published by the National Park Service in mid-February.

The most controversial alternative is a plan that includes development of a large visitor center outside of Talkeetna. The community's residents are unclear about how the center and increased tourist activity would affect their community. Opponents of the plan question the basic rationale of building a visitor center 13 miles off the Parks Highway and more than 148 miles from the park entrance.

One supporter of the Talkeetna alternative is Cook Inlet Region Inc. (CIRI), an Anchorage-based Native regional corporation, which would lease a 190-acre parcel of land to the National Park Service for construction of the center. CIRI also is interested in building a hotel near the center, according to Rick Feller, manager of project development for the corporation.

The combination of proposed visitor center and hotel has impassioned Talkeetna residents. Steve Mahay, owner of Mahay's Riverboat Service in Talkeetna, staunchly supports the plan. He and more than 90 other residents formed the Open Door Committee to encourage development of the community, specifically building the visitor center and the CIRI hotel.

"The plan has less impact than does any other site," Mahay says. He points out that infrastructure to support the center is already in place; Talkeetna has good road and rail access. The proposed site also offers an unparalleled view of Mount McKinley and the surrounding Alaska Range, foothills and Susitna River Valley.

Sandra Jacques, co-owner of Jake's Adventure Co., a Talkeetna-based rafting, hunting and fishing service, agrees with Mahay that the proposed visitor center would not change the area significantly. "They (visitors to the center) would come into town, spend their money and leave," she says.

Talkeetna resident Doug Smith vehemently opposes the center and adjacent hotel. He points out that the community has no zoning and that strip development along the spur road could be disastrous. He also feels the large influx of summer visitors would turn the town into a "mob scene."

Allen Smith, regional director of the Wilderness Society, a non-profit conservation organization, says a visitor center in Talkeetna would be inaccessible to the majority of park users and would disrupt the community. He feels the 13-mile access road would deter people from making the side trip off the Parks Highway.

Smith argues that planners should go back to square one and determine the real need for visitor interpretation in both the state and national parks along the entire length of highway corridor. "Why two centers?" he asks. "Why not disperse the use over several waysides or a combination of facilities? None (of the alternatives) are viable solutions."

Denali superintendent Berry says the park service will take into consideration all comments when developing a singular draft plan and draft environmental impact statement. He expects the plan and the statement to be completed by the end of the year.

Denali Development Alternatives

Alternative A. Calling for no action, this option specifies that future development would occur on a case-by-case basis.

Alternative B. This plan includes a large visitor center (15,000 to 20,000 square feet) about one mile south of Talkeetna; a small visitor center (2,000 to 4,000 square feet) in the south part of Denali State Park; and two roadside pullouts with displays, which the report describes as interpretive waysides. Trailhead access development would occur in Cantwell, Summit and Bull River and would provide:

* A 10-mile trail system connecting with national park lands;

* A 20- to 30-site campground at Cantwell;

* One back-country public-use hut.

Additional proposed facilities would make Ruth Glacier accessible by water and land.

Alternative C. Included in this plan are seven interpretive waysides along George Parks Highway and one near Talkeetna; a large visitor center just north of the boundary of Denali State Park; and a small visitor center in the south part of the state park.

Trailhead development is planned in the same areas as for Alternative B and would provide:

* A 41-mile trail system;

* A 20- to 30-site campground at Cantwell;

* Four back-country public-use huts;

* A 24-mile Riley Creek trail from Cantwell to the park road.

Facilities for access to Ruth Glacier would be more extensive than under Alternative B.

Alternative D. This plans includes a large visitor center in the north development zone of Denali State Park; 14 interpretive waysides along the George Parks Highway and 1 near Talkeetna; and comfort stations at selected wayside exhibits.

Trailhead access development in Cantwell, Summit and Bull River would provide:

* An 81-mile trail system;

* Two 20- to 30-site campgrounds at Cantwell and Summit;

* Five back-country public-use huts;

* A 24-mile Riley Creek trail.

In addition to development of access to Ruth Glacier, trail and public-use huts would be constructed at the end of Petersville Road and at the head of Cheletna Lake.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; controversy over planned visitor center at Denali National Park
Author:Maschmeyer, Gloria
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Taking the high road.
Next Article:Flying through market turbulence.

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