As the Mat-Su landfill expands, a popular trail system gets a surprise interruption

May 12—PALMER — A 20-acre expansion of the Mat-Su Central Landfill near Palmer has temporarily cut off access to a popular trail system and cleared a swath of forest, surprising users who say the closure came without notice.

The disruption is temporary but touches on a long-term dilemma: The trails sit on Matanuska-Susitna Borough property designated for the landfill, which is expected to eliminate trails as it expands to meet the waste disposal needs of a growing borough population.

Landfill officials said the construction affecting trails now is for a new landfill entrance and a number of service improvements, including a new composting area. The new entrance is designed to reduce traffic at the landfill's current gate, which is near a residential area at the end of 49th State Street.

The work has temporarily eliminated a roughly half-mile section of an east-west corridor that connects a trail system on the Mat-Su College campus to the borough's Crevasse-Moraine trail system, officials said. Plans call for the trail to be rerouted south of the construction zone by July, they said.

But the construction and disruption came as a shock to some users, who set out on a trail system newly dried after a winter of heavy snowfall only to discover it now dead-ends in a large landfill construction zone.

"I literally gasped and said, 'I can't believe this has happened — this is our trail,'" said Erin Kittredge, who has lived in the area for about 40 years and regularly used the now-defunct corridor. "I'm not kidding you — I stopped and cried. I couldn't believe it."

Previously surrounded by woods on the college side before crossing a powerline easement and twisting down into a brushy ravine with birch and cottonwood trees, the trail now instead abruptly ends on the edge of a work zone occupied by yellow dump trucks and earthmoving equipment. Flagging marks the area where the new trail will emerge this summer.

No signs are posted at trailheads warning about the construction or missing trail segment, or announcing the upcoming reroute plan, users said. Officials with two Mat-Su trail organizations said they received no notice from the borough that the new entrance or composting project would affect access.

Borough officials said they publicized general plans for the expansion on their website but did not share specific trail impacts with user groups. The disruption seemed minor because the trail reroute was originally scheduled to be completed this month, said borough solid waste manager Jeff Smith.

"In my view, what we're doing is we're moving a trail a few feet around — the trail is not disappearing, it's only moving," he said. "I could have done a little more information as far as who else should be notified."

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The trail disruption is a reminder of the simmering conflict between a popular system of trails in the heart of Mat-Su's most densely populated southern area and the needs of the landfill.

The hilly Crevasse-Moraine trails managed by the borough south and east of the landfill are part of a more than 30-mile network of trails winding over a 2,800-acre area known as the Matanuska Greenbelt. The system connects Crevasse-Moraine with the Matanuska Lake State Recreation Area trails and miles of wide-open farmland or wooded trails owned by the University of Alaska. The network attracts hikers and runners, mountain bikers, skiers and equestrians.

While most borough residents recognize Crevasse-Moraine only as a recreational area, the trails sit on about 620 acres of borough-owned land designated for the landfill, according to borough management plans. Roughly 200 acres are actively used for landfill operations, Smith said. The remainder are being used for trails under a temporary land-use agreement.

Plans call for the Crevasse-Moraine trail system to slowly disappear as the landfill expands to accommodate the region's growing population, according to a 2020 landfill plan. The current trail system is expected to remain as is until about 2040, when new sections will be cleared, the report states.

For now, the landfill-related trail disruption is short-term but significant.

The trail affected by the entrance construction, known as the College Connector, was the only official direct link between the college and borough trail systems. Until a fix goes in, users must instead access the Crevasse-Moraine trails via the university farm or state recreation trails to the south, or through the Crevasse-Moraine trailhead near Palmer, officials said.

Construction on the new landfill expansion began with tree removal late last year, borough officials said. Dirt work is scheduled to be completed late this month, and fencing to enclose the expanded landfill zone will go in by midsummer, they said. The entire project is slated to finish in 2025.

The construction has also caused a bump in garbage blowing off the landfill into the trail system, users said. They said there was so much loose trash on the trails near the college before a recent cleanup day that it looked like someone had dumped household garbage.

Smith said the spike in blowing trash was triggered by wind through the construction site. The work also stalled an annual post-snowmelt cleanup, he said. A crew is expected to begin collecting loose trash on the trails by the end of the month.

The current 20-acre landfill expansion project is not the first time the greenbelt system has faced challenges due to construction or management changes. In 2013, a landfill expansion plan called for the relocation of a trailhead parking lot. Those plans were ultimately abandoned.

And in 2020, the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced plans to convert an 86-acre parcel near the center of the trail system into a gravel pit. That plan was put on hold in 2022, when a coalition of trail users worked with a land conservation trust to purchase the parcel from the university system.

That purchase agreement is still pending, university officials said Wednesday.