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Alaska Long Trail hopes to bring tourists, money and opportunity to Peninsula

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Courtesy Photo
Alaska Trails

A 500-mile trail connecting the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks is in the works, and organizers say it has the potential to create big economic impacts in the communities it runs through — including Girdwood, Moose Pass, and especially Seward, the end-point of the trail.

The idea of a so-called Alaska Long Trail has been around for a long time, but really picked up steam in 2019, according to Haley Johnston with Alaska Trails, the coordinating organization for the project.

“It’s also being driven by this coalition of people who are along the trail corridor,” she said. “It’s a group of people from across the state who are making decisions and trying to push this thing forward.”

The long trail will be open to a variety of recreation types — like hiking, biking and snowmachining. The long trail will connect existing trails along its corridor, which already have restrictions on uses. Johnston said those usage requirements will stay the same for existing trails.

Johnston said 20% of the route already exists as trail, and work on the trail will happen in pieces.

“As a whole, I think the Alaska Long Trail will be great. But independently, each of these trail projects is worthy of its funding,” she said. “Individually, they’re going to bring economic and health benefits to the communities that they’re adjacent to.”

The organizations working on the trail are getting piecemeal funding for each part of the project.

During the last legislative session, several of these projects connected to the long trail had big financial wins, including $1.5 million allotted to the Crow Pass to Eagle River trail.

Johnston says the project will take a lot of capital. On top of the costs of building new routes and improving existing trails, Alaska Trails will also have to pay for trail mapping and planning for additional sections of trail.

Johnston presented earlier this month at the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s industry outlook forum about the possible economic impacts of the Alaska Long Trail. She said recreation is Alaska’s biggest tourism selling point, and data shows demand is growing statewide, and on the Peninsula specifically.

“People are here for the outdoor splendor, and so I think the Kenai already occupies a part of Alaska and the nation’s imagination about what outdoor recreation in Alaska looks like,” she said. “It’s a really natural place for visitors to recreate outdoors because it’s not as wild as the Brooks Range but it is more wild than what they know in Ohio.”

She said prospective long trail hikers could have a big dollar impact per person, especially compared to tourists on pre-booked cruise ship tours. Trail hikers are more likely to spend at local businesses, restaurants and lodging locations, Johnston said.

“Their economic impact has the chance to be both deeper and wider in one community,” she said.

Johnston said realistically, it will take about five years for the trail between Seward and the Mat-Su to be complete. Everything north of there will take a while longer, she said.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL.