Plan afoot to save popular hiking area from development
Kajetan Groicher and Tim Shaw drank in the view of Knik Arm and Mount Denali from the top of Skyline Drive last Sunday afternoon, while a paraglider sailed just below them under clear blue skies. The buddies chatted next to the trail head leading to the Old Wallace Homestead.
“It’s gorgeous back there,” Groicher said. “I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to be a homesteader, back in the day with those views. During summer, I’m definitely up here monthly, if not weekly.”
The trail, originally a road, terminates in a looped route adorned with the ruins of antique cabins. Inside the loop, a well head feeds a man-made pond from an artesian spring. Both are testaments to the land’s history. The cabins, or what’s left of them, are early-to-mid-20th century structures from around Alaska that original homesteader, Til Wallace tried to save by having them hauled up there for preservation. But partiers came in and destroyed the historic buildings over time. The well was originally dug to feed water to a planned housing development in the 1970s. The land’s already been subdivided, and has around a dozen private owners who bought in during that era. But conflicts with environmental advocates plus financial difficulties put the development on hold.
Since that time, the cabins, pond and road, combined with spectacular views and ease of access into the adjacent Chugach State Park, have combined to make the homestead a popular recreational area for the public.
Bill Tucker, one of the homestead’s owners, would like to keep it that way. Along with original homesteaders Til and Mike Wallace, Tucker is spearheading a plan to have the land acquired by Chugach State Park.
But if that plan fails, Tucker said, the land will likely get sold to a developer and get turned into upper-class housing.
Co-owners of the land who bought in on the idea they were investing in a subdivision back in the 70s are getting on in years, Tucker said. Some of them are facing medical bills and other common end-of-life financial struggles. They’re ready to sell the land.
“Yeah, I could hold these people off for another year or two,” Tucker said. “But the next uptick in the housing market, it’s going to be real hard for me to avoid a revolt.”
The Chugach State Park Board approved a resolution in early 2013 supporting acquisition of the homestead, said board member Pete Panarese, with an expected price tag of about $6 million for the 80-acre property. Anchorage Assemblyman Bill Starr put in a funding request to the state legislature, he said, but it didn’t get anywhere.
Six million, Groicher said, “Seems like a bargain,” for the property, considering its value in terms of access to the park, and what 320 acres with a view could go for if a housing developer bought it. He said he’d be in support of paying that in state funds for it.
His buddy Shaw said he uses the homestead to get back to Blacktail and Roundtop slopes for snowboarding in winter, and also uses it to access Ptarmagin hunting in the State Park. Groicher goes on family hikes and overnight camping trips there.
“It’s like our Flattop,” Groicher said.
Panarese said he made a rough estimate of visitors to the area two years ago and put it at 25,000, but thinks it’s “dramatically increased” since that time. Another trailhead adjacent to the homestead goes straight up Mount Baldy and is owned by the Municipality of Anchorage. About one out of four visitors, Panarese said, uses the Wallace trailhead for access to the park instead of the muni one. But one long-term problem with the muni access is that the trail itself has been suffering severe erosion in recent years, which is expected to increase, he said.
Last Sunday afternoon, resident Rachel Peterson was out hiking the trail with her husband and infant daughter. They were taking the homestead trail, she said, because its gentler grade made it easier for the family to go together.
She wrinkled her nose at the prospect of the homestead going to housing development.
“That would suck,” she said.
Over the years, maintenance of the property as a public recreation area has fallen on its private owners, who have continued to clean up trash there even in advanced age.
Tucker said the private owners would like for people to continue to use the homestead for foot traffic, but not to use vehicles on it, and to refrain from littering on the land. He hopes people will sign up for the free permit and wear a button that comes with it, stating they support acquisition of the property by Chugach State Park.
Panarese said he’d like to see the legislature take future requests for funding the acquisition more seriously.
“The fact that the Wallace brothers and Bill Tucker have come to try to educate the public with permitted access, I hope will work out on their behalf,” he said.
For more information about the campaign to preserve the Wallace Homestead or to fill out an application for a free permit visit www.wallacebrothersmountain.com, or email Bill Tucker, at [email protected].