Refuge Notebook 09/09/2011


Riding mountain bikes on the Kenai Refuge (or not)
by John Morton

One February not too long ago, during a really nasty snow storm, I traveled down the Resurrection Trail in Chugach National Forest on skis while pulling a pulk. One of my companions was mushing a 3-dog sled. I was reflecting on that winter trip as I bounced and slid (and cursed) along the same trail on my mountain bike this past Labor Day weekend, but this time in a deluge of cold autumn rain driven by high winds off Turnagain Arm.

While skiing is also an allowed recreational activity on hiking trails in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, mountain biking isn’t. This seeming disparity in the management of mountain bikes by different agencies got me thinking about the various modes of travel and recreation that are allowed on Federal lands on the Kenai Peninsula.

And as I peddled along with my friend, Andy, we ran into other trail users in the first hour or so out of Hope. Several parties were hunting, having been lucky enough to have drawn a permit to harvest caribou from the Kenai Mountains herd. A couple of guys were packing gear on an old mule; a father and son were hiking out after a day of scouting. But the only parties who had actually taken game (two caribou and a black bear) were riding bicycles!

So why the difference in bicycle management on the two Federal conservation units? It doesn’t seem to make sense until you’ve gained a better appreciation of the laws and policies that guide our respective land management agencies.

The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires that Chugach National Forest (among other national forests) be managed for a variety of uses on a sustained basis to ensure in perpetuity a continued supply of goods and services to the American people. The 2002 Land and Resource Management Plan calls for non-motorized use to predominate across the portion of the Chugach National Forest that lies on the Kenai Peninsula, with specific mention of mountain biking as a desirable recreational opportunity.

In contrast, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is governed by the 1966 National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act as amended by the 1997 Refuge System Improvement Act. That’s a mouthful.

But it established the Refuge System’s mission: “To administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the U.S. for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” Furthermore, each refuge was tasked with managing to fulfill both the mission of the Refuge System and the purposes for which each individual refuge was established.

In the case of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, our purposes were established by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) that directed the refuge to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity. However, the refuge was also tasked with providing, in a manner compatible with our purposes, opportunities for fish and wildlife-oriented recreation.

A compatible use is defined as “a proposed or existing wildlife-dependent recreational use or any other use of a national wildlife refuge that, based on sound professional judgment, will not materially interfere with or detract from the fulfillment of the Refuge System mission or the purposes of the national wildlife refuge”. The six priority public uses of the Refuge System are hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, interpretation, and environmental education.

But there’s one more legislative layer that defines how the refuge treats bicycles. Roughly 1.3 million acres, or two-thirds of the Kenai Refuge, were designated as wilderness by Congress. ANILCA amended the 1964 Wilderness Act so that the use of snowmachines, motorized boats, and fixed-wing aircraft are allowed “for traditional activities” in Alaskan wilderness but bicycles were not specifically authorized.

If this seems confusing, it is. But it’s the law and nobody said it should be easy. The message is simply that different land agencies have different mandates.

And the short answer is that bicycling has been deemed compatible with refuge purposes on refuge roads otherwise open to licensed highway vehicles. In other words, you can ride your bike down Skilak Loop Road, the Swanson River and Swan Lake Roads, and on Mystery Creek Road in the fall when it’s open for hunting. But don’t ride your mountain bike on refuge trails.

The good news, and I say this as someone who really enjoys his outdoor recreation, is that the Kenai Peninsula offers something for everyone. If you can’t find what you want on the Kenai Refuge, you ought to find your niche somewhere on Chugach National Forest, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska State Parks, Kenai Borough lands, and the municipal parks. Enjoy!

John Morton is the supervisory biologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Check out our Facebook at