Fort Wainwright, Nordic Ski Club partner to maintain trails on Birch Hill

By CourtesyOctober 14, 2020

Birch Hill is a popular spot for many forms of recreation throughout the year. What is unique about this recreational area, from a land management perspective, is that half of it falls under the control of Fort Wainwright, and is considered military land, while the other half is situated in the civilian community. Fort Wainwright, the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks and the Parks Department of the Fairbanks North Star Borough formed a partnership for managing the land that has been going strong for more than 45 years.

The club built and maintains the cross-country ski trails located on both sides of Birch Hill, sourcing the majority of its maintenance funding through its members and club activities, while the Borough has helped pay for some of the facilities constructed on the civilian side, according to Chris Puchner, club president.

The Borough and the club have also facilitated the installation of lighting on 11 kilometers of trails on both the military and civilian sides, so skiers can enjoy the trails during the extended hours of winter darkness. Fort Wainwright contributes to the partnership by providing access to military land, including a winter biathlon course and inspecting the trails on the military side for safety.

This collaborative work by civilian entities on Fort Wainwright is made possible by a land use license signed by the garrison commander that “gives them the right to put up signage and construct ski trails” on military land, said Kate Siftar, chief of the Master Planning Division in the Fort Wainwright Department of Public Works. “The license doesn’t grant land ownership, just use,” and is reviewed for renewal every five years.

The license is similar to the one granted to any group that wants to come onto military property and use a training area or range for things like rifle and hunter training, law enforcement training, educational field studies and youth leadership or sporting activities, but it is unique for its length of term and the regular renewal.

“The garrison and the community, at the same time, have access to 37 kilometers of ski trails. It’s a pretty good arrangement for both,” said Eric Chun, lead realty planning specialist for DPW.

The non-motorized trails constructed by the club on both sides of the hill are open to the general public. There is no fee to use the trails on either side of the hill, though the club does encourage regular trail users to donate money toward the trail maintenance fund, according to Puchner.

Civilians who wish to cross over to the military side of the trail network on skis or on foot are required to have a government issued ID on them at all times. Should civilian users wish to access the parking area on the military side of the hill or to use the downhill ski area, they need to obtain a day-use pass from the Visitor Center at the main gate. Under current pandemic health precautions, however, members of the general public are not permitted to access the post without a mission essential purpose and an exception letter signed by the garrison commander. Once conditions improve, after careful review, access will be restored.

Additions to the trail network on the Fort Wainwright side in the last few years include the Sonot Connector, White Bear and Sunnyside trails. The Connector facilitates the annual Sonot Kkaazoot 50-kilometer ski race, a course that starts in downtown Fairbanks, passes through Fort Wainwright along the Chena River and proceeds up Birch Hill on the military side to the civilian trail network. It also eliminates the potential for a clash between alpine and Nordic skiers on the military side of Birch Hill by keeping the Nordic skiers on a dedicated path through the trees.

“The goal has been to create a multi-use trail system jointly managed by the Borough, military and ski club,” said Bruce Jamieson, special projects director for the club, “for non-motorized activities, like mountain biking, Frisbee golf, hiking, cross-country running, skiing and snowshoeing.”