Win Gruening: When is a road considered a trail?



The latest debate over a commercial use permit in Juneau to use city land for a bike tour seems overblown.  The permit request is for a locally established company, iRide, to operate limited e-bike tours on a remote city-owned road.  The road, officially known as the “West Douglas Pioneer Road”, is part of a decades-old effort by the City and Borough of Juneau to open the far side of Douglas Island to development.  The gravel road, completed in 2017, is 3.5 miles long.

Most people believe that roads should be used for vehicular traffic but according to opponents of the permit, commercial use would be hazardous to other users and infringe on locals now using it as a trail.  Since the road is not yet built to highway standards, it is closed to motorized traffic but has been used recreationally by bikers, hikers, and skiers since it opened.

Kim Metcalfe, a frequent critic of the cruise industry, has long decried impacts of visiting ship passengers on downtown Juneau and local neighborhoods and recently testified against granting the permit. However, recreational venues such as this would serve to mitigate those impacts by spreading visitors out more widely and lessening congestion in downtown Juneau.

In this case, the fact a road is being used temporarily as a trail shouldn’t prevent commercial use on it.

The city also wrestled with the definition of “motorized vehicle.”  Depending on whether a battery assisted e-bike is defined as such could affect the permit approval. Yet, it is hard to see why it should be classified the same as an automobile, ATV, or motorcycle.  It makes no noise and is operated in exactly the same way as a regular bicycle.  In fact, thirty-seven states have already passed legislation classifying e-bikes as non-motorized vehicles and similar legislation is now pending in the Alaska Legislature.

Apparently, most Juneau Assembly members agree and an enabling draft ordinance will likely be formally introduced during the Assembly’s next regular meeting.

Beyond the road vs. trail issue, some Assembly members correctly see this discussion in the larger context of economic development.  Cruise tourism is a major (and critical) component of Juneau’s economy and that is not going to change anytime soon. According to a 2017 McDowell Economic Impact Study, the visitor industry contributed as much as $218 million in direct spending, 2,800 full and part-time jobs, and $109 million in labor income which resulted in $13.5 million in municipal sales and property tax revenue. These numbers will undoubtedly be significantly higher this season.  In addition, $21.5 million in marine passenger fees and docks and harbor fees are projected to flow directly into city coffers this next year.

Efforts to severely regulate cruise ships in Juneau have been unsuccessful, most recently in 2021 when a proposed initiative to limit cruise ship size and hours in port failed to garner sufficient signatures to qualify for the ballot. However, more reasonable measures such as a city task force recommendation for a five large-ship limit and ban on “hot-berthing” seem acceptable to most Juneauites.

Cruise tourism impacts can be managed in a way that balances the trade-offs inherent in any large-scale activity in a town of Juneau’s size. The Assembly can achieve this without discouraging investment in new attractions/venues that will add to city revenues and alleviate congestion in other areas.  Besides the proposed e-bike tour, the city is moving ahead on the Eaglecrest gondola project, and studying the proposed Aak’w Landing dock project at the subport property.

The industry and city officials have done a creditable job in managing visitor industry impacts in Juneau to date.  In a December 2022 Tourism Survey by McKinley Research Group, 87% respondents felt the industry either had no impact, a positive or neutral impact, or more positive impacts than negative impacts.  (This is an increase over the 2019 season survey that reported 80%).

With higher numbers of visitors expected this season, the cruise industry’s Tourism Best Management Practices program will continue to be instrumental in moderating impacts.

Instead of getting bogged down in road vs. trail issues, it’s gratifying to see that the Assembly believes their time is better spent looking at the bigger picture of essential economic development.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

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  1. Ya kinda lost me here. The Pioneer Road is a road to nowhere at present.
    I support reasonable expansion of venues for tourists, but this comes with several questions.

    -who runs them? CBJ? Sealaska? Goldbelt? Private enterprise?
    -what’s in it for us? We have plenty of empty venues 7 months a year. Do we need more?

    Unless there is a plan, both how to and long term development, we’ll end up with a mix of empty storefronts and roads to nowhere. So far our Assembly hasn’t shown an ability to think beyond drag show venues and higher taxes.

    Regarding Pioneer: I love the idea of opening west Douglas, but more as a solution to lack of housing than turn it over to tourism.

    We’re gonna have to have a second bridge, by the way.

  2. Kim lives in a magical world where there are no tourists and somehow our economy doesn’t collapse.

    What she is asking for is Wrangell. A once thriving community destroyed by the ban of logging.

    • Art, having a long time association with the Metcalfe Clan , and having had numerous conversations with Old Vern himself, I offer the following explanation regarding Kim.

      Vern , Kim’s Father was an old school , Harry Truman, JFK Democrat, a good fellow. Kim grew up in a Democrat household and remains a staunch Democrat.

      My thinking regarding your comment is that it’s not so much that Kim is a public nuisance as it is illustrative of where the Democrat Party has gone , just within our lifetime.

      BTW, it has been my pleasure to have known the Metcalfe family. Political differences notwithstanding.

      • I know her only in her capacity as an Alaska State Employees’ Association representative and as a community activist. In both roles, she was a public nuisance.

  3. You have it wrong Win. What we should be doing is everything possible to contain those cruise ship passengers in the downtown area. That way they will only be a nuisance to the government types who work downtown and the carpetbaggers who prey on the cruise passengers.

  4. “When is a road considered a trail?……..”
    When is a man considered a woman? We’ve been repeatedly told that our power is in our beliefs and proclamations. Make it so simply by proclaiming it.

  5. The adopted minimum safety codes adopted by the state of Alaska and ratified by municipalities might answer your mystical question in dreamland where dreams come true if you are a white man.
    Not so much for native women thougbt, rigbt? NO we get phoney land prayers at public meetings. Federal participating foreign corporations masquerading as someone’s “agent (God know who, now China probably – post Geo dismantler Boooosh) have designs to accommodate turning radiuses for tourists because taxpayers have no rights in Alaska. Isn’t this fun. Thank God for imbeciles.

  6. It would be nice to be able to go somewhere in Juneau and not have a tour taking place. The next time they run a campaign to limit tourism they need to do it sometime between October and April. The opposition will be almost zero as the majority of the tour people are down south for the year. Before you say im wrong… how many of those tour folks do you run into over the winter? How many do you see supporting a local sports event in January? Do you see them shopping downtown for Christmas? No you don’t. They show up in April and put in their extra tuffs and preach how tourism keeps the town together and Juneau would disappear without them. Tourism would disappear without them. Downtown seasonal restaurants and gift shops would disappear. Buses would disappear. Life would go on in Juneau just like it does everyday…. North of the bridge

    • As you often tell others. Move.

      Your claims are devoid of reality and common sense. Not to mention we recently had a referendum slapping down that nonsense voted on by rejected by locals.

  7. It’s funny to me how some people think having streets full of foreign jewelry/trinket outlets, bus loads of gawking tourists, dozens of high speed big wake whale watching boats screaming through favorite fishing holes, bike and walking tours cluttering narrow roads and trails, kayak tours clogging up boat launch facilities, river rafts invading resident’s back yard landscapes, helicopters and float planes constantly buzzing like huge mosquitos, city government that prioritizes visitors over local residents, scads of seasonal pink-haired people with no community connection, severe housing shortages, etc… etc… is “good.” With all the so-called progress the tourism industry has brought, it has destroyed many of the things that made Juneau a great place to live. There are already too many people in this town; do we really have to keep continuously expanding the tourism economy? Someone commented that limiting tourism impacts is like turning Juneau into Wrangell. There are a lot of summer days I’d take Wrangell over Juneau!

    • Go to Wrangell and find a job. Especially one that pays Juneau wages.

      Gonna be hard, as Wrangell has no supporting industry.

      • Actually, there are quite a few decent jobs in Wrangell right now, so don’t knock it. Google it.
        My point is that tourism, like any major industry, will have negative impacts if it is allowed to expand into every corner. Some of us who have lived here forever (and others who spend time away from their computer screens) can see how some things have changed for the worse as tourism has grown. Not too many real Alaskans want to live in an amusement park where everything is for sale to visitors who spend less than a day in town. I can see the dark future for this place and am working on my exit strategy – maybe it will be Wrangell.

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