PALMER — About 100 miles northeast of Anchorage, off a two-lane highway and nestled between two mountain ranges, the Matanuska Glacier, a 27-mile-long expanse of white and blue ice, offers a jaw-dropping view. The ice rises low against the landscape, a winding blanket of curves and edges.
A large brown sign directs those seeking glacier access down a steep and potholed dirt road. But instead of driving into a state or federal park, visitors encounter a private company that charges an access fee as high as $100 per person and requires a glacier tour guide.
In a region that an estimated 400,000 tourists visited annually before the coronavirus pandemic, that private control can be a surprise and a source of controversy.
"It is something that comes up on every tour, and if it doesn't come up on its own . . . I don't mind bringing it up," said Nick Jenkins, who has guided thousands of visitors on the Matanuska Glacier since 2011 for Nova, a tour company based a few miles west of the access road. "Some people assume it's a public access point. And so they ask, 'Is this state park access?' Or they ask, 'What kind of a park is this?' And the answer typically surprises them that it's a private park."
The Matanuska is widely considered the state's most visitor-friendly glacier because of its proximity to the highway and the walkable approach off a parking lot at the end of the private dirt road. It stretches down from Chugach State Park and into a narrow river valley between the Chugach and Talkeetna mountain ranges. Although it is one of about 25,000 glaciers in Alaska, only a small number of those are visible from a road.
Like most Alaskan glaciers, the Matanuska is melting faster than new ice forms. It is thinning an estimated 12 inches per year and retreating about 665 feet. Geologists generally agree that climate change has increased the rate at which glaciers such as the Matanuska are disappearing.
Tourists and Alaskans alike are eager to explore the Matanuska, but while most of it sits on state-owned land, the state controls no ready road entrances or usable public-access easements. Although the glacier can be accessed via boat, plane, helicopter, snow machine or a variety of challenging, days-long hikes, most visitors use the private road, then pass through the fee station and go to a parking area managed by longtime resident Bill Stevenson.
To create that access, Stevenson's Matanuska Glacier Park leverages a patchwork of private land. That includes property originally settled through homesteading; a road easement that is the subject of a lawsuit neighbor Mark Wayson filed against Stevenson that contends, in part, that the entrance road is unsafe for the thousands of visitors who use it every year; and land leased from the Anchorage-based Cook Inlet Region Inc. (CIRI), established through the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, a federal law that returned land to Alaska Natives via business entities known as native corporations.
Stevenson said that the simplest way to get to the glacier is via private property.
"Not everybody has the ability to pioneer their own route in the wilderness," he said. "The takeaway is that the glaciers are wild and free. This is one you can go to easily. You don't have to spend a lifetime figuring out how to get around it. You hire somebody that does."
Glaciers are fraught with hazards that range from slips on ice to falls down sinkholes called a moulins. Stevenson requires all but the most experienced glacier trekkers to be accompanied by tour guides, a rule he put in place early this year to help ensure safety.
Each Glacier Park client is issued a bright orange helmet and a pair of microspikes, a set of metal teeth that slip over the bottom of shoes for stability on the ice. Guides from the park lead groups of as many as 25 people through the glacial silt and mud at the glacier's toe, over the rocky moraine and onto the white ice.
Glacier Park charges most local users $35 per person and non-Alaskans $100 per person, and guide tips are expected. Other companies offer a variety of smaller and longer tours and ice climbing or glacier camping adventures. Users who visit by road through one of those pay tour prices set by those businesses, plus an access fee to Stevenson. The park is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., depending on the season and holidays.
The tours are a steady business, and despite coronavirus concerns and restrictions, more visitors flocked to the glacier in 2020 and 2021 than ever before. Stevenson said he has had about 40,000 visits this year, with about 30,000 of those Alaska residents and the rest out-of-state tourists. Several other nearby glacier tour companies, including Nova, also reported their busiest years ever but did not provide specific numbers.
Stevenson leases a portion of the parking lot and the glacier land for his tours from CIRI for about $55,000 a year, according to court documents filed as part of the road lawsuit and provided by Wayson, the neighbor. CIRI officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Lease information for the other land used by the park was not available.
It is Stevenson's control of and rules for access that create the ongoing conundrum, said Mark Fleenor, who owns the nearby Sheep Mountain Lodge. Most guests who stay in his 13 cabins or eat at his restaurant come to the area to see the glacier. Fleenor, a longtime pilot, bought a helicopter in early 2020 and sells flight-seeing tours with glacier landings.
But not all visitors can afford to or want to fly onto the glacier. And that means that if Stevenson decides to cut off access for any reason or close the park without warning even for a day, Fleenor's business could quickly be in trouble.
"I am completely reliant on the glacier for people to recreate here," he said. "And I mean, yes, I've got a helicopter, and I can do what I want. But my guests far extend beyond that. . . . If glacier access was managed in a consistent and reasonable manner, it would be a huge benefit to the community."
The state does have a glacier viewing area several miles from Stevenson's fee station, but it does not provide access. Although Fleenor hopes the state will leverage an existing public easement and create its own access, it is unlikely to do so, because of the cost, said Stuart Leidner, the state park superintendent for the area that includes the Matanuska Glacier.
"To be honest, do I need to acquire any more lands by any stretch of the imagination? We do not need to be managing any more — we can't manage what we have," he said. "That's a budget issue."
The state parks budget has taken a major hit during the ongoing state budget crisis, which started in 2016 and was caused, in part, by plummeting oil revenue. For example, in 2012, unrestricted general funding for park operations — money not designated to be reinvested in specific services — was about $3.5 million. That funding hit a low of $53,000 in 2020 and is now $447,000 for fiscal 2022.
Instead of viewing easy glacier access as a public right, Nova's Jenkins, who also owns land and a small cabin nearby off the Matanuska River, said he is grateful for the service that Stevenson's business allows. Without it, he said, that private property would simply remain private and the glacier would be inaccessible to all but the most adventurous or well-funded visitors.
"I really appreciate the service of access that he brings," he said. "And I really appreciate the fact that I'm able to walk on that glacier and bring people from around the world onto that glacier. And the accessibility on that glacier means that I can show people from all around the world of all different abilities this absolutely incredible depleting resource. And they don't have to pay hundreds of dollars for a helicopter. We can drive right up to it and walk right onto it. And that access is second to none."