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By DAN JOLING
ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Department of Natural Resources can limit heavy off-road vehicles that tore up a trail used by moose hunters and miners, according to a state Supreme Court decision released Friday.
The ruling said the DNR commissioner was within his rights to impose restrictions on the 50-mile Rex Trail, which crosses mostly state and federal land from the Parks Highway to the Wood River north of the Alaska Range.
The trail was established as a transportation route to mining claims and is recognized by the Alaska Legislature as an R.S. 2477 trail, named for the mining law that granted right-of-way to states over federal land. Miners still use the trail but move fuel and supplies mostly in winter when the ground is frozen, said DNR northern region manager Chris Milles.
Only the first 1.5 miles of the trail nearest the highway have been hardened.
The trail remains popular with moose hunters and traffic on the trail increased substantially in 2004 after the Board of Game authorized a hunt for antlerless moose adjacent to the trail.
By 2007, complaints were pouring in to the DNR about the trail’s condition. In some places, instead of a trail, there was only a long channel filled with water. Some users avoided ruts by creating new paths along the trail and those too became rutted.
Heavy vehicles — tracked vehicles, four-wheel drive "moose buggies" with wheels, or articulated former military vehicles — had caused ruts up to four feet deep, Milles said. Damage during moose season was followed by winter freeze-up.
"The ruts would be frozen in place and the trail would be difficult to use by dog teams and snowmachines until there’s an adequate snow cover to fill in everything," Milles said.
Natural resource manager Jeanne Proulx said ruts could tip snowmobiles or a sled. Riders could be injured if they had built up speed on smooth sections of the trail.
"You could get going pretty well, for a while, but if you picked up any speed and hit one of these extremely rutted or bumpy areas, there could be safety concerns with that," she said.
The DNR in 2008 banned vehicles weighing more than 1,500 pounds on Rex Trail from April 15 to Oct. 31, and a year later, the rule was modified. Owners of certain heavy tracked vehicles could apply for a permit to use the trail. Proulx said heavy wheeled vehicles are still banned.
Both decisions were appealed by Robert Caywood and 25 other plaintiffs, whose attorney argued that protection of public safety was a ruse and restrictions were not necessary. A Superior Court judge ruled that the state by law has authority to impose restrictions, a decision that the Supreme Court justices agreed with.
The opinion written by Senior Justice Warren Matthews said the commissioner may restrict trail use to protect the right of way and public safety if restrictions are tailored to preserve maximum access.