Nature Center seeks grant for improved parking

Thursday, April 7, 2016 - 13:09
  • With the popularity of the Eagle River Nature Center, it can be almost impossible to find a place to park. Friends of the Nature Center are seeking for solutions. PHOTO BY Pete Panarese FOR THE STAR

I really enjoy the Eagle River Nature Center and the Chugach State Park (CSP) wild lands to the east. On almost every visit something extraordinary happens. Last October, my wife and I drove to the Nature Center to look for wildlife. A short distance down the trail, the vista opens up to a majestic view of the surrounding mountains and beaver built wetlands adjacent to a salmon spawning stream. Much to our good fortune, a brown bear was at the far end of an open area going in and out of view chasing fish. We quickly moved to the safety of a viewing deck to get a better look using our binoculars. Other visitors were also on the deck but hadn’t spotted the bear. They were elated and thankful when we pointed it out to them and gladly shared our binoculars.

Eventually, the bear came so close to the viewing deck that binoculars were no longer necessary. It was exciting to see the bear and to share the experience with others. Although initially fearful of being so close, with a little whispered coaching about bear behavior, they relaxed and enjoyed what they claimed to be the high point of their visit to Alaska.

The Nature Center is run by the Friends of Eagle River Nature Center (Friends). “Friends” is a private, non-profit business that operates the state owned building and surrounding land formerly known as the “Paradise Haven Lodge” under contract with CSP. Besides managing the trails, the Nature Center staff provides numerous programs that educate the public on the natural history and ecology of Eagle River, backcountry safety, and hiking information.  The staff also rents and maintains six public use facilities: four yurts, a cabin, and a group camping area.

Last year, 85,000 people passed by the visitor counter at the Rodak/Crow Pass Trailhead just outside the door of the Nature Center. Many were students guided by a Friends Naturalist on field trips nearby.  Others were people heading out to one of the public use facilities. Rental of the yurts and a cabin is one of the most popular programs offered by Friends and generated $62,000 last year for Nature Center operations.

Public interest in having a Chugach State Park visitor facility in Eagle River began as early as 1976. Many Alaskans thought such a facility would support local tourism and serve as an economic asset to the community. CSP acquired Paradise Haven Lodge in April 1980 for $248,700 and converted the bar/restaurant into a visitor center, which opened in March 1981.

Beginning with the recession of the 1980s, downward pressure on the budget has been a continuous challenge for CSP. The implementation of a park user fee system helped CSP continue to provide services park-wide, but other measures were needed to keep facilities open.  Private operation of the Eagle River Visitor Center seemed to be a logical choice. A commercial use permit to operate the facility was issued to Friends in 1996. The name of the facility was changed to the Eagle River “Nature” Center. In 2006, CSP solicited competitive bids for a long-term contract to operate the Nature Center. Friends won that 20-year contract.

Under the terms of their contract, Friends is responsible for providing educational programs; construction, rental and management of the public use facilities, i.e. public use cabins and yurts; maintaining the trails and trail facilities within a few miles of the Nature Center; and paying for the cost of those services and the operation of the Nature Center. In 2015, that cost came to approximately $329,000. The Friends were able to meet that cost by generating revenue from donations, sales of merchandise, rental of cabins and yurts, fund raising, group instruction, and most importantly, membership and parking fees.

The contract also stipulates that any improvements made to the Nature Center by Friends will become property of CSP. While Friends may construct a facility like a viewing deck, it is not financially feasible for them to construct a new Nature Center or ancillary facilities such as an additional parking area without the help of government or private funding.

When CSP purchased Paradise Haven Lodge in the early 1980’s, the plan was to make temporary use of the old log cabin and surrounding land. CSP anticipated that the wealth from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay would provide ample opportunity to fund a “Phase II” and build a new center. As anticipated, its function as a visitor contact and ranger station at a major trailhead has generated visitation levels that have quickly overwhelmed the capacity of the aging cabin and limited parking to accommodate safe public use. When the Nature Center opened in March 1981, a large drawing of “Phase II” was displayed for all to see. It depicted a larger, modern facility with paved parking for 100 vehicles as well as support buildings and improved trail access.

While waiting for “Phase II” to develop, CSP has helped Friends with some big-ticket items such as a badly needed new roof and septic system in the late 1990’s. That project cost about $30,000.

In 2006, Senator Lisa Murkowski provided a $300,000 federal grant to the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation to assist Friends with a public process to determine the best location and design for a new Nature Center. The final product was a vetted conceptual drawing which very much-resembled the old “Phase II” design from 1981. The new concept depicts a new facility with a parking area located below the existing center with an access road descending from Eagle River Road. The price tag for a new center, access road, and parking area was estimated to be around $15 million.

In 2014, State Representative Lora Reinbold obtained $300,000 for a new maintenance facility. This appropriation provided a secure building, complete with water, lights and heating, for equipment storage and trail maintenance activities. This facility also provides the many live-in volunteers that work at the Nature Center with a place to prepare meals, wash clothing, and shower.

In 2014, the Rasmuson Foundation provided a $100,000 matching grant to replace the floors in the main room of the Nature Center, modernize the kitchen, and renovate or upgrade the restrooms.

Starting in 2013, Eagle River Road was rebuilt to modern standards. This $26 million project, 91 percent paid for by federal highway funds, created a spectacularly scenic drive that ends at the Nature Center. This improvement has greatly impacted the use of the area. Visitation has increased dramatically especially during the summer. The improved road, combined with the growing popularity of Nature Center programs and special events, has put increasing pressure on the forty parking spaces currently available.

For years, visitors have been using the emergency lanes alongside Eagle River Road as overflow parking. Although there is a small overflow parking area near the Nature Center, it is hard to find and the access is a steep, single lane road. Volunteers are not always available to direct circulating drivers and they park wherever they can.

Neighbors began to complain about cars parked in the emergency lane blocking their view of on coming traffic and clogging up their subdivision roads. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has placed signs along both sides of the 25 mph approach to the Nature Center indicating “No Parking” areas. Even the area in front of the old restrooms near the Nature Center were signed “No Parking”. After someone drives all the way out to the Nature Center, they are going to park anywhere they can. Occasionally, they park on the subdivision roads nearby.

DOT has a permit system to allow the legal use of no parking areas. The permit costs $100.  It requires the permittee to buy insurance, hire a certified flag person paid $150 per hour for a minimum of four hours, and provide or hire staff to assist the flag person. In December 2015, Friends obtained a permit for the “Solstice Lantern Walk”, an event which drew more than 350 people to the Nature Center. Those attending the holiday celebration were mostly parents with kids enjoying the ambiance of candlelight and bonfires along the Rodak Trail.  Reports from the staff indicate that the event went off without a hitch even though a neighbor did call the police to complain about a parking problem.  Because Friends had obtained a permit, no citations were issued.

Friends is currently seeking grant funding to construct additional parking below the Nature Center. The grant will provide seasonal overflow parking and an improved access road leading to parking near the new maintenance facility. Until additional parking is available, DOT should allow visitors to park in the emergency lane on one side, preferably the mountainside, of Eagle River Road. If the parking problem is not soon improved, Friends may have to stop hosting events such as the Crow Pass Crossing and the Fat Tire Mountain Bike races or pass the additional $700 permit along to the organizers.

Alaska is strapped for funds and it’s going to be that way for many years to come. We all need to work together to solve this untenable parking problem. Please help the Nature Center; call your Legislators and ask for their support. Become a member and use “Pick, Click and Give” to donate a small portion of your PFD to the Nature Center.

Pete Panarese is a retired state park manager and serves on the Friends of Eagle River Nature Center Board of Directors and the Eagle River/Chugiak Parks and Recreation Board of Supervisors. He can be reached at [email protected].

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