Community Winter Access Trails Reduce Cost & Risk for Isolated Alaskans

Orange juice for $19, a family pack of Oreos™ approaching $10, and a chunk of watermelon for $35 is an economic reality for people – mostly Alaska Natives  – living in communities within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) on the state’s North Slope. Essentially living on islands bounded by water and tundra, these northernmost Alaskans are cut off from the rest of the state. Prices are extreme because costs are extreme – up to 10 times what other Alaskans pay – when air freight and seasonal barges are your only options.  

Aerial photo of people driving light vehicles on the snow road at night.
Cars and pickup trucks drive the Community Winter Access Trail snow road at night. Escort vehicles typically include a low ground-pressure vehicle, such as a Steiger or a Rolligon, to assist getting cars and pickups unstuck should their wheels sink into a soft spot.

Do-it-yourself, overland trips across frozen tundra in the winter can be downright dangerous, but folks have given that a go, too. Unfortunately, this land is full of stories from those who consider themselves lucky to be alive after being stuck in the snow alone in white outs, in the middle of the tundra, in 80 below wind chills. However, the North Slope Borough is preparing for its third Community Winter Access Trails (CWAT) pilot program season to provide these isolated communities with safe, overland access to each other and the ability to transport building materials and other supplies from the state highway system.

The borough banded together with the State of Alaska, private industry, and the Bureau of Land Management a few years ago to provide these lifelines for those within or adjacent to the NPR-A that save money and the environment, as well as lives according to some. Its contractors use vehicles with wide-tracks or low-pressure tires to prepack and maintain traditional snow trails to support regular highway vehicles and trailers without breaking through the snow and damaging the tundra.  The borough installs trail markers along the routes, and occasionally uses now fencing in spots to help snow accumulate in areas where high winds typically scour it off of the tundra.

Professionally driven pilot vehicles, such as Rolligons or Steigers, lead scheduled caravans of up to 15 vehicles on different established snow trail routes when conditions permit. A trail vehicle grooms the road for the next group and is equipped to pull sliders back onto the road. 

At about 300 miles last year, the CWAT connected residents of Utqiagvik, Atqasuk, Wainwright and Nuiqsut, ending at a drill pad just east of the Colville River. Professionally guided caravans safely led nearly 70 four- and all-wheel-drive vehicles on three- to 33-hour treks across the tundra during the 2019 season that ran from early February to late April. It was not unusual for these vehicles to be towing trailers and cargo sleds full of supplies behind them, and the borough estimates 200-300 vehicles per season will eventually use the improved snow roads.

“They’re hauling in building supplies, a few boats, and other heavy, bulky things that would be expensive to ship,” said BLM Arctic District Office Manager Shelley Jones, who authorized the project. “Barge and air freight can be a large personal expense to local residents.  Now some residents are able to trade out old vehicles and transport new vehicles back home, via the CWAT.”

Photo of the Community Winter Access Trail
Community Winter Access Trails -- improved snow roads -- in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska are cheaper to build than ice roads, but they support less ground pressure and are prone to have soft spots (areas where car tires might dig into the road surface, getting the vehicle stuck).

Snow and tundra conditions were not sufficient last winter to construct the Anaktuvuk Pass route to the Dalton Highway, but that’s still the desire when conditions permit it. The CWAT follows the state standards for adequate snow cover and freeze-down to protect the different types of tundra the road crosses, according to Jones.

Readying for the next season, the BLM Arctic District Office installed remote devices at eight locations along the CWAT corridor last month to help monitor soil temperatures and snow depths.

“This is the first time we’ve authorized a snow road for public use, and it’s the first time highway vehicles have been authorized to drive on winter trails,” Jones said. “So far, we’re happy with the results, and community feedback is overwhelmingly positive.”

The plan is to continue monitoring and improving the CWAT experiment at least through winter 2022-23, when the BLM’s right-of-way grant to the North Slope Borough expires. The borough is using its experience with this pilot program to identify preferred routing for a permanent transportation corridor in the future, according to its February 2018 revised NSB Traveler Safety and Environment Plan for the project.

Jones said that if everything continues to go well with the management, then the right-of-way grant will most likely be renewed for longer increments into the future. 

North Slope residents can contact the borough to sign up, and identification is verified prior to travel to ensure only eligible Alaskans are using the program. Qualified commercial freight hauls to these communities over the snow roads are permitted separately by the BLM, according to Jones.