Issue StatementCottonwood Creek Bridge & TrailPalmer Hay Flats State Game RefugeAlaska Department of Fish and Game
The Cottonwood Creek area of the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge protectswetlands habitats important to many species of fish and wildlife. The area also providesrecreational opportunities for an assortment of users. Limited facilities include an approximately7 mile-long wetlands trail used by a variety of refuge visitors including fall waterfowl huntersaccessing the area via ATV. Habitat impacts from ATV traffic have long concerned refugemanagers. Additionally, the single light-duty pedestrian and ATV bridge over CottonwoodCreek has recently been condemned and is no longer safe for public use. Funds have beensecured to replace the condemned bridge; however, issues related to habitat impacts from ATVuse along the trail remain. While solutions involve logistical and financial challenges, theDepartment seeks a solution to ensure continued access while maintaining productive wildlifehabitats.
The Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge encompasses approximately 45 squaremiles of freshwater, brackish and saltwater wetlands; forest; lakes; tidal sloughs and mudflats inUpper Cook Inlet. The refuge was established to “protect and preserve the natural habitat andgame populations” of the area (AS 16.20.020) and it provides importation habitat for tens-ofthousandsof migratory waterbirds including ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds and sandhill cranes.It also provides habitat for large numbers of muskrats, moose, bears and other wildlife; and forfive species of Pacific salmon and other fish. The refuge is road accessible and is located inclose proximity to over half of Alaska’s population. The refuge provides varied opportunities foroutdoor activities and is popular for fishing, hunting, trapping, wildlife viewing, photography,nature study, hiking, skiing, canoeing, boating and other activities.The Cottonwood Creek site provides access to one of the primary freshwater wetland complexesin the refuge and encompasses approximately ten square miles of mostly open water habitat.Facilities at the site include an access road, several parking areas, a vault toilet, uplands hikingtrails, a covered overlook shelter, interpretive panels, a bridge over Cottonwood Creek and the 7-mile long wetlands trail. The wetlands trail is open year-round for non-motorized access, forwinter snow machining when snow conditions allow, and for ATV traffic only during the fallwaterfowl hunting period. The bridge is also used by thousands of pedestrians engaged in sportfishing activity during the summer salmon fishery and by many other refuge users.The wetlands trail provides access to a large portion of the Cottonwood Creek wetland complex.While the trail originates outside the legislative boundary of the refuge, it traversesapproximately 1.5 miles of state land managed by the Department consistent with the purposesof the refuge (through an Interagency Land Management Assignment (ILMA) and deededmanagement rights with the Department of Natural Resources). It then enters the refuge for theremaining 5.5 miles.While generally prohibited within state wildlife refuges (5 AAC 95.420(a)(7)), refuge regulationsallow for the seasonal off-road use of ATVs in a limited corridor in the Cottonwood Creek areaunless the commissioner “determines that use of the corridor is detrimental to the protection ofrefuge resources” (5 AAC 95.505(1)(A)(ii)). The refuge management plan recognizes the publicbenefits for allowing limited ATV use in the refuge but also guides the department to addresshabitat impacts.The trail at Cottonwood Creek predates establishment of the refuge (1975) but like many areas inthe state, use by ATVs has increased in recent decades. Use of the trail corridor by ATVs ismanaged through the issuance of a General Permit and field management has consisted ofopening and closing of a gate on the bridge that allows ATV access to the trail, postingregulatory signs, and marking the trail corridor.As long ago as the early 1980s, refuge managers expressed concern about the habitat impacts thistrail had on the refuge wetlands; however, other than some limited field testing of trail hardeningtechniques in the late 1990’s (Higgins 2002), little has been done to address these impacts. Theimpacts can be categorized as direct habitat impacts and, the more widespread, secondaryimpacts resulting from changing water flow patterns. Direct impacts include vegetation damagesuch as root disturbance, rutting, channeling runoff and changes in vegetation, all of which affectwetlands habitats (see attached images). The potential secondary impacts are more significantand widespread, and include erosion and perhaps large scale drainage of the freshwater wetlandcomplex by facilitating the spread of tidal gut erosion and conversion to less productive mudflats(see attached images). Both the direct and secondary impacts are likely exacerbated by theillegal off-trail use of ATVs and violations of other General Permit conditions, which arecommon.A review of historic aerial photos shows that tide gut erosion has resulted in the drainage ofapproximately 0.5 square miles of open water wetlands habitat (see attached aerial images);however, it is unknown exactly what role use of the trail had in this process (Ravens 2009 andRice 2008). Likewise, it is unknown what role continued use of the trail by ATVs may have intide gut erosion but if this erosion continues (which it may regardless of ATV traffic), it couldresult in the drainage of part or all of this important wetland area. While it’s not possible toestimate the rate at which future tide gut erosion will continue, if the historic rate of 242.7feet/year continues, it could drain the next small portion of the Cottonwood Creek wetlandswithin one or two years.In addition to these habitat impacts, other management concerns include the status of the onlyaccess to the trail via a light-duty clear span bridge which has recently been condemned and is nolonger safe for public use (State Parks Report, 2011). Corrosion and vandalism havecompromised the structural integrity of the bridge and it will not be open to any use (pedestrianor ATV) starting in 2012. The Department is currently developing plans to replace the bridgewith existing refuge access funds.
While the condemned access bridge will be replaced with existing fundsand will allow continued pedestrian access to the creek and trail, the Department is looking atseveral options to address the habitat impacts of ATV use on the trail. These range from closureof the trail to ATVs, limiting trail use by ATVs, hardening the existing trail within or near itscurrent alignment, providing an alternate access site for ATV traffic, and rerouting the trail awayfrom the most sensitive habitat areas.
Suggested course of action:
The Cottonwood Creek access bridge will be replaced usingexisting funds. Of the options being assessed to address the habitat concerns, the Department isrecommending portions of the trail be hardened while other portions be rerouted away from themost sensitive areas including the area subject to tide gut erosion. Rerouting and hardening thetrail to avoid this area may require crossing the upper/mid reach of the tide gut via an additionalbridge (see attached Trail Reroute images). While an engineering assessment of this proposal isyet to be completed, if feasible we are confident it will protect the wetlands and other refugeresources consistent with our mandates in the refuge’s enabling legislation and applicableregulations (e.g. 5AAC95.505(1)(A)(ii)) while providing continued access to the refuge.
The cost to install two new bridges and harden the wettest sections of the trail has beenestimated at $300K. The Department currently has $100K (CIP and Federal Aid funding) toreplace the condemned bridge, which we hope to do during late summer 2012. We are currentlyseeking the additional $200K to reroute the trail including the potential installation of a secondbridge. Once this project is completed, user education and an increased law enforcementpresence will be needed so that refuge resources are conserved while providing continuedtraditional access to the refuge.
Higgins, Charlotte 2002. Efficacy of Trail-Hardening Treatments in Repairing Areas Damagedby Off-Road Vehicles at the Palmer Hay Flats Game Refuge. Alaska Pacific University,Anchorage, AK. 88pp.Ravens, Thomas M. 2009. Letter to Joe Meehan, Alaska Department of Fish and Game datedFebruary 17, 2009. University of Alaska Anchorage, School of Engineering. 1pp.Rice, William 2008. Technical Memorandum: Palmer Hayflats Assessment of Potential ATVImpacts Near the Mouth of Cottonwood Creek. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,Anchorage, AK. 5pp.Thomas, Cassie 2008. Cottonwood Creek Trail Options. National Park Service; Rivers, Trailsand Conservation Assistance Program. Anchorage, AK. 4pp.Vesotski, Jake 2012. Cottonwood Creek Bridge Assessment. Memorandum dated January 5,2012. Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and OutdoorRecreation, Design and Construction Section. Anchorage, AK. 4pp.
Photos showing primary impacts.Photos showing tide gut erosion.Aerial photos.Trail Reroute OptionsCitations (x4, Higgins 2002 excluded).Prepared April 2012 by:Joe Meehan, ADF&G, Division of Wildlife Conservation, Anchorage, AKComments or additional suggestions can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org