Alaska BHA Comments on White Mountains and Steese Travel Management Plans- Interior, AK

The White Mountains National Recreation Area and Steese National Conservation Area provide some incredible opportunities for Alaskans across the state. Located just about an hour and a half drive north of Fairbanks, the two areas combined offer 2.2 million acres of BLM managed land with ample opportunity for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. Between the two areas there are 12 public use cabins, 250 miles of groomed winter trails, the Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail, Beaver Creek Wild and Scenic River (WSR) and Birch Creek WSR. The area is home to caribou, moose, grizzly bear, black bear, Dall sheep, ptarmigan, grouse and numerous species of fish like arctic grayling, whitefish, northern pike and salmon. The road accessibility of these areas makes them incredibly attractive for many people seeking an outdoor experience, particularly hunters pursuing the Fortymile caribou herd.

The Fortymile caribou hunt has been popular among both resident and non-resident hunters for many years. The hunt area covers a huge distance from the Dalton Highway on the west all the way to the Canadian border on the east, allowing hunters opportunity for a remote wilderness experience accessed by boat or bush plane or a road accessible hunt from one of the highways. The Steese Highway has long been a favored access point among hunters because it winds its way into the high country providing good access to tundra ridgetops and prime caribou habitat.

Much of the area that is hunted from the Steese Highway falls within state land, the White Mountains NRA or the Steese NCA. For many years people have been accessing this land with OHVs from social trails that have been formed from years of use.  As hunter numbers in the area have increased and OHVs have gotten more powerful, this has started to create more of an impact on the land. Earlier this year, Alaska BHA members and other volunteers were called upon by the BLM to help repair the Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail, from damage by illegal OHV use. The amount of hunting pressure and OHV use the area saw in 2020 has been the subject of an Op-ed in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner and a proposal to the Board of Game to change how the Fortymile hunt is managed. Alaska BHA has attended several meetings with state and federal agencies, interior Alaska community members and others, all to discuss the best strategy to mitigate negative impacts from increasing OHV use. Most recently was the public meeting to discuss the Bureau of Land Management’s Travel Management Plans for the White Mountains NRA, and the Steese NCA.

The Travel Management Plans were not a solution proposed by the BLM for specific problems. These TMPs have been being created for some time and are a general approach to travel management within the Steese NCA and White Mountains NRA. Incidents like the damage to the Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail, and the general increase in OHV use in the area are examples of why these TMPs are needed. Whatever final proposal the BLM selects for the final management plans, they are likely to effect hunters who use OHVs in the Steese NCA or White Mountains NRA. Alaska BHA considered this when preparing our comments, we realize that OHVs can be an important tool for access in Alaska, but we also see their impacts and believe that responsible management of their use is needed.

For the White Mountains NRA, we submitted comments in support of Alternative C, with some modifications such as requests to include an additional OHV route and to implement stricter regulations on the use of pack animals (sheep, goats, camelids) within Dall sheep habitat. For the Steese NCA we submitted comments in support of Alternative B, with the suggestion to also implement stricter regulations on the use of domestic pack animals (sheep, goats, camelids) in this area. We believe these alternatives and suggestions strike the best balance between resource protection, OHV travel and other uses of the White Mountains NRA and Steese NCA. We want those who use OHVs to be able to continue to do so responsibly and still have access to incredible areas and good hunting opportunities, these travel management plans are a step towards that goal.

About Jacob Mannix

BHA's Alaska Chapter Coordinator. Lifelong Alaskan, angler, hunter, gatherer, hiker, floater and general outdoor lover.