With an entrance off Hedberg Road, the Nikiski Community Park spans a mile from the Kenai Spur to the water. There’s a newly installed bike track and 2.5 miles of walking trails that circle a lake and lead to the bluff.
And this summer, there was also a good deal of vandalism, said Nikiski Community Council President Jason Ross.
“One of the first things we noticed is you pull into the parking lot and you go sit down at a picnic table and there’s a sign there that says 'No tree cutting,' and then somebody just took out white paint and sprayed the 'tree cutting' part," he said. "For whatever reason. And they’re nice metal signs with material on ’em that the schools built for us.”
The Nikiski Community Council created the park in 2016 and is in charge of its upkeep. The park is mostly finished but there are some updates in the works, like a community garden.
Now, the council is adding park repairs to it’s to-do list. The damage to the park was particularly egregious this summer and fall.
“Down at the other end at the other parking lot, there’s several signs down there and they have bullet holes in them.," he said. "And then right now the tree cutting. It’s fall, coming into winter, and I know everyone wants trees, but they’ve cut down a dozen trees along one trail alone, and I don’t know how many others they’ve taken.”
“And, of course, when they cut the trees down it kind of deteriorates the view and the aesthetic of our park, as well as they’re leaving behind all the debris," he added. "There’s oil jugs and stuff like that they’ve left behind, as well.”
Tree felling and firewood collection are not permitted at the park. Neither is hunting.
Ross said he thinks the uptick in vandalism might be because the park has become more popular. It was somewhat inconspicuous for its first few years but has since seen more traffic, in part due to a Facebook page Ross started for park updates.
This summer, Ross sometimes saw 20 kids on bikes in the park at one time.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot more use out of the thing this year because we built the bike tracks," he said. "And people have been bringing their kids to go ride on the bike tracks because all summer long, the kids didn’t have anything to do.”
But he worries that kids and families won’t feel safe in the park with the downed trees and threat of people shooting near trails.
Vandalism is by no means exclusive to Nikiski Community Park. Andrew Carmichael, director of the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Department, says his department might spend $8,000 to $11,000 each year fixing anything from garbage cans lit on fire to damaged playground equipment.
The Nikiski Community Council doesn’t have that kind of money. As a nonprofit, they run on a few thousand a year and rely mostly on grants, including an annual $15,000 grant they get through the borough and split with the Nikiski Senior Center.
The park is technically private property, belonging to the council, so management falls on them. A lot of the work that went into building the park was done by volunteers.
Ross has been trying to spot vandals by going into the park whenever he can, and he’s placed rocks in the way of the paths so vehicles can’t haul wood away on the trails. But somehow, he said, the vandalism keeps happening.
Carmichael said cameras have been a help in Soldotna Creek Park, the city’s busiest park. Ross has considered cameras but doesn’t want other park goers to feel like they’re being watched. Plus, they’re expensive. He hasn’t called the Alaska State Troopers yet because he’s not sure how they could help.
He said an alternative might be a more community-based mode of policing.
“But my thing is, if we have good people driving up and down the roads and looking in the parking lots and just watching what’s going on, and then they can report to somebody — to me or the state troopers or whatever they feel is necessary — if they see something bad going on," he said. "We just want a safe place for kids to be able to come out and families to be able to go hike.”
Carmichael said this is something the Soldotna Parks and Rec Department already relies on, especially in the dog park.
You can reach the Nikiski Community Council at nikiskicc.com.