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Paving over a small patch of Alaska paradise at Glen Alps

Bill Sherwonit
Loren Holmes photo

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
-- Joni Mitchell

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The day is bright and warm, clouds streaming across blue heavens, as Wayne Hall and I leave the Glen Alps parking lot, bound for a small patch of Chugach paradise.

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It’s only 10:30 in the morning, but already the lot is three-quarters full. By the time we leave, some 4-1/2 hours later, the lot will be filled to overflowing and many people will park their cars and trucks along the road, despite the "No Parking" signs and the risk of getting ticketed and fined.

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So it goes on an inviting Friday in late July, especially during an Anchorage summer that’s been on the cool, gray, and wet side. Both locals and out-of-towners flock to Glen Alps, one of the primary gateways into our city’s backyard wilderness playground, Chugach State Park, and by far the most popular entry point on Anchorage’s Hillside. Our collective sunny-day rush to the hills overwhelms the parking facilities, leading to traffic congestion and potential safety problems. And sometimes, impatience and short tempers. Not a good way to start a relaxing day in the mountains.

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Wayne and I don’t have to hike far to find our paradise. Only a few dozen feet beyond the asphalt and caretaker’s cabin, the lower of two gravel paths that lead hikers and bikers to the Powerline Trail and beyond enters an wide field of grasses and flowers. Large wildflower meadows grace both sides of the path for several hundred feet. And in late July, the flowers are at, or near, their dazzling peak.

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Over the years, I’ve walked this path hundreds of times in midsummer. Almost always bound for more remote destinations, I’ve rarely stopped more than a few seconds to breathe in the wild geraniums, bluebells, yellow paintbrush, and monkshoods that brighten these fields. But I do take notice of the flowers and appreciate their presence. It’s hard not to do so, once you’ve become aware of what’s here.

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These meadows are as beautiful and lush as just about any you’ll find in Chugach State Park, or elsewhere in Alaska. But because they’re so close to the trailhead and parking lot, I’m guessing that a lot of people rush on by, bound for more distant and wilder surroundings, and they miss the beauty here.

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Today neither Wayne nor I have faraway aspirations. Today we will sit and stand and walk slowly among the flowers and other meadow plants; we will squat among them for a closer look, a touch, occasionally even a sniff. With camera and video, Wayne will capture the form, color, and character of individual flowers and also the wider sweep of the meadows, the interplay of fields and alder thickets and hemlock groves. I, meanwhile, will record names, relationships, and other observations in my notebook.

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We’re doing this for a couple of reasons: to celebrate and to document. Because in only a few weeks, much of these wildflower meadows, and perhaps all of them, will be destroyed, to make way for more gravel and asphalt, more parking spaces, more development in a park whose staff has difficulty maintaining its existing facilities.

Taking the easy road

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No one who’s been to Glen Alps on a sunny mid-summer day—particularly on the weekend—would deny that more parking space is needed. While I’ve learned to avoid the place at such times, another friend who once rented a place in the neighborhood above the lot has described to me how routinely “on gorgeous days, cars lined both sides of the road for more than a quarter mile down the hill from the entrance. . . . the park's popularity has outgrown the little parking area and even I, who tend to be dismissive of such concerns, worry about pedestrians, kids, dogs, emergency vehicles, etc. in the narrow corridor between all the parked cars on either side of the narrow, steep and windy road.”

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Nearby residents and city public-safety officials have been especially concerned that cars parked on both sides of the road could block ambulances, fire engines, or other emergency vehicles. So the APD has gone on occasional parking-ticket sprees (at $200 a pop) to remind people to obey the signs. Not surprisingly, unhappy citizens have protested such expensive penalties, all because they simply wanted to take a walk in the park.

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Though I understand the concerns and the pressing need for a new and better arrangement, what I and many other park advocates can’t comprehend or abide is the state’s decision to replace—that is, destroy—these meadows, thickets, and groves with a short connecting road and new overflow lot that will add 50 spaces to the existing 155.

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Those of us opposed to this solution have made other suggestions, for instance expand and improve Glen Alps Road to allow legal parallel parking; or purchase nearby land outside the park. The owner of a parcel directly across the road from the Glen Alps parking lot was rumored to be interested in selling family land to the state, but this was never seriously pursued.

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It’s my belief—shared by several others—that this parkland is going to be bulldozed and lost forever simply because it’s the easiest and quickest solution to a longtime problem. It’s a $715,000 solution (the amount reportedly appropriated by the state legislature) that’s been pushed by Alaska State Parks director Ben Ellis, Chugach superintendent Tom Harrison, Rep. Les Gara, and, I’ve been told, some influential residents of the Glen Alps area.

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Ellis has admitted that the 50 additional spots are only “a third to a half of what we really need.” Which is why state park officials are looking to eventually pave even more of the park, perhaps with a “connector road” between Glen Alps and Upper Huffman. That project would cost tens of millions of dollars and so seems less likely. Though he’s pushed for this 50-space overflow lot, Gara says there’s “no way” the legislature would agree to a $30- or $40-million road through the park. Yet stranger things have happened in Alaska, so we’ll see where all this leads.

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Park advocate and fellow wildflower and wildlife lover Barbara Winkley has been so upset by this pave-the-park coalition and what she believes to be the unnecessary loss of Chugach wild lands that she can’t bear to visit the Glen Alps area anymore.

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I too mourn the impending destruction of parkland. But I can’t stay away. I need to explore, savor—and learn more about—what’s here, and also bear witness to what’s being lost. So while Wayne aims his camera lens at larkspur and fleabane, I begin taking notes.

To name disappearing things

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As with so many things in life, the more I slow down and pay attention, the more I begin to notice. A meadow that from its edges is rich in tall grasses and a half-dozen vibrant flowering species—monkshood, wild geranium, yellow paintbrush, Sitka valerian, false hellebore, and cow parsnip—becomes a complex community with numerous microhabitats, ranging from dry mounds to wet bogs, all rich in plant life.

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My flower list quickly expands:

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Monkshood, lupine, wild geranium, chocolate lily, triangular-leaved fleabane, tall Jacob’s ladder, bluebells, yellow paintbrush, larkspur, Sitka valerian, Alaska violet, northern yarrow, Alaska spiraea, dwarf dogwood, false hellebore, cow parsnip, twin flower . . .

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Leaving Wayne, I follow faint trails through the meadows, some likely made by people, others by moose. That’s another loss: wildlife habitat. On several occasions I’ve seen moose in these meadows, or along their edges, browsing on willows and other plants.

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Besides the moose, the area is popular with birds, including some nesters. During our stay, Wayne and I see a Wilson’s warbler pair and a bunch of sparrows, most of them juveniles that he thinks are likely white crowns. Over the years I’ve also heard or seen several other species in these meadows and neighboring thickets and hemlock stands, among them golden-crowned, fox, and savannah sparrows, hermit and varied thrushes, ruby-crowned kinglets, common redpolls, dark-eyed juncos, and boreal chickadees.

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Sure, the birds can find other places to nest, raise their young, and feed, but it seems a shame to wreck their homes for the sake of our convenience. This is a park, remember?

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Eventually I find an open spot with several ground-hugging species, including berry plants. I’m reminded that I’ve picked blueberries in these meadows and have seen many other pickers here too across the years. It’s an especially convenient spot for families with young children, both to harvest berries and look for wildlife. And for mystery and excitement, the neighboring hemlock groves have lots of enticing passageways for youngsters (and their parents) to explore.

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My plant list grows.

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Blueberry, low-bush cranberry, crowberry, wild strawberry, nagoonberry, watermelon berry.

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Though I’m pretty good at identifying berries and wildflowers, there are many other plants I simply put into groups. Grasses, mosses and ferns, for example. Several types of grasses grow here, though I don’t know their names. Some grow straight and tall, reaching my shoulders or even higher in places. Others grow in clumps.

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I carefully work my way through the grasses and flowers, trying to minimize my trampling.

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“Don’t worry about it Bill,” Wayne advises me in his wry way. “None of this will be here in a few weeks.”

Perhaps some reprieve

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A later conversation with Tom Harrison, Chugach’s superintendent, actually gives me hope that some of these meadows will survive. Construction plans call for a new road to begin at the existing lot and follow the lower, meadows trail for a couple of hundred yards, with the overflow parking lot itself to be “tucked into the hemlocks, off to the right.” In all, Harrison expects about 1-1/2 acres to be resurfaced.

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Though the new road will likely be paved, at least initially the new parking lot will be gravel, partly because of the cost, partly because park officials want to see how the expanded parking works with a gravel lot that doesn’t have defined spaces. Maybe people will park closer together, allowing room for more than 50 vehicles. On the other hand, knowing how some people park, it may hold considerably fewer.

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Harrison tells me that initial work will begin in mid-August, with the project scheduled to continue through next July. For at least part of that time, Glen Alps’ transformation into a construction zone will diminish the already existing parking space, making for even more grumpy visitors. Harrison notes that the Glen Alps webcam provides a “real time view” of the parking lot, so people can avoid it on really busy days. Or not.

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Harrison hopes at least some park visitors will instead go to the newly redesigned and expanded Upper Huffman parking lot/trailhead, though it doesn’t provide such direct access to Flattop and other alpine areas.

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“It’s the closest available place to Glen Alps,” he says, adding, “It adds on another mile and a half (to reach Flattop, for example).” Plus there’s a substantial elevation difference.

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Will people reroute themselves to Upper Huffman or take their chances parking along the road at Glen Alps? Time will tell, but I’m betting Glen Alps will be as busy and crowded as ever, even if park visitors have to park illegally and negotiate a construction zone.

A mere flower?

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In early afternoon, Wayne and I meet another Chugach lover and wildflower fancier. Like Wayne, Vivian Mendenhall is roaming the meadows and taking picture after picture. Earlier she spoke with a ranger, who confirmed that construction—and associated destruction—begins in a couple of weeks. Vivian says she may write a letter to the editor, to remind people how gorgeous these flowers are right now—and that their days are numbered.

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Now walking together, Wayne and I add to our expanding list:

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Pink pyrola, Sitka burnet, alpine meadow bistort, wild celery, common wormwood, mouse-eared chickweed, marsh fivefinger, meadow arnica, tall fireweed (not yet blooming), shy maiden, coastal fleabane.

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Toward the end of our explorations, Wayne and I come upon a wild geranium that is stunningly white (rather than the usual lavender).

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“Wow,” Wayne exults. “It’s beautiful.”

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Indeed it is. Neither of us has ever seen a white wild geranium before and we wonder how rare such flowers are. That in turn leads us to wonder if there might be a flower or other plant hidden in these meadows sufficiently rare to stop the project. We’re not knowledgeable enough to know. But what if someone like local plant expert Verna Pratt were to look around? Of course it would be a long shot. And given the state’s resistance to endangered species listings of Alaska’s marine mammals, it sure isn’t going halt work here for a mere flower.

Delight tinged with sadness

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After more than four hours in the close company of flowers and grasses and insects (bumblebees, moths, flies, midges, gnats, wasps, even a dragonfly and, happily, few mosquitoes), my face burned by the bright afternoon sun and my notebook now bearing five new pages of scribbled notes, I suggest to Wayne that I’m ready to go.

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“Already?” he grins. I sense he’d be content to spend the rest of the day here, capturing digital images of these subalpine beauties.

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Before leaving, we ascend the small hill toward the Glen Alps viewing platform and Wayne takes some panoramas of the meadows. Standing beside him, I feel a delight in this day, tinged with sadness. I know that Wayne and Vivian feel it too.

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The last photos taken, we walk toward the parking lot, once more filled to capacity. Several cars and trucks circle, drivers waiting for a spot to open. Others, less patient, park along the road. Already a long line has formed and it’s only 3 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon, with people all over town looking toward the hills.

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Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications (both traditional and online) and is the author of 13 books, most recently Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness and Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness, the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He has closely followed and written about Alaska's wildlife politics since the mid-1980s.

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The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.