By Joseph Robertia
Winding through thick stands of spruce and birch, past the down and charred remains of an old burn and over a grassy marsh, the Hidden Lake Trail finally opens up to a vista of Skilak Lake with the backdrop of the snow-capped Kenai Mountains. It’s a pristine view, wild and unmarred by any evidence of human impact — usually, at least. But lately, the natural aesthetics of the area have been spoiled.
“It’s disconcerting to say the least,” said Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Andy Loranger, regarding significant damage done along the trail in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area of the refuge.
Vandalism usually conjures images of broken windows, spray-paint graffiti or carved initials — actions involving deliberate damage to public or private property. Vandalism can also include acts that negatively alter or destroy wilderness areas, as was the case around Skilak recently.
At a makeshift campsite near Skilak Lake, roughly a dozen live, green spruce trees — some with trunks more than a foot thick — were chopped down with an axe, and the downed timber left in place. Other trees had the bark completely peeled off, which will cause the tree to die eventually. Still others had large initials cut or carved into the bark, some with letters an inch thick and nearly a foot high.
“There is no cutting of live trees on the refuge. Regulations state all wood harvested should come from dead or downed trees,” Loranger said. The only exception is during the holiday season when the refuge briefly allows the harvest of Christmas trees.
“The purpose of the refuge is to protect and conserve resources, so one person cutting a tree may not seem like much,” Loranger said. “But what if the 6,000 visitors the refuge gets annually all had that attitude and chopped down a live tree?”
And each tree plays a part in the overall ecosystem, from nesting areas for birds, to escape spots for porcupine and climbing gyms for bear cubs.
“From the refuge standpoint, every green tree is also a potential wildlife habitat and plays a significant role in the environment,” he said.
Beyond that, cutting live trees violates the Golden Rule of wilderness recreation, which is to leave no trace, so that others can experience a wild area the same way as the first person to ever set foot there.
“The idea is, for the thousands of visitors who come and visit the same place, they can all enjoy it and feel like they’re the only ones who’ve been there. Cutting live trees, it not only negatively impacts the refuge, but it negative impacts other people’s experiences,” Loranger said.
The vandals also left piles of litter — burned cans, melted plastic water bottles and other trash in the makeshift fire pit of their impromptu camp. Littering also is against the rules.
“If you pack it in, you pack it out. There’s no excuse to leave trash in the backcountry, even when it’s difficult to carry out. It can harm wildlife, which we see all the time with this kind of thing, and it defaces the wild country for so long. Who wants to come to Alaska for a wilderness experience and see trash?” Loranger said.
While all of these infractions happen to a lesser degree from time to time around some of the remote backcountry cabins, Loranger said that it is odd to see so many trees killed and so much trash left on an easy, only 1.5-mile-long trail, so close to the road.
“It’s unfortunate and we sent folks to clean it up and look into it,” he said.
Anyone with information on these or other acts of vandalism or littering in the refuge is asked to call 262-7021.