Anchorage planners have long sought to connect Spenard’s Fish Creek Trail to the Coastal Trail, better integrating the neighborhood with the city’s extensive multiuse trail network. In recent years, the “Fish Creek Trail Connection” has received significant financial and institutional backing, and was tentatively poised to break ground in 2025.
The most likely plan would route the trail extension entirely on public lands owned and managed by the Alaska Railroad. Now, the Alaska Landmine has obtained documents showing that members of Anchorage’s well-known McCarrey family, several of whom own private property adjacent to the proposed trail, are attempting to preemptively lease a portion of these public lands from the Railroad in order to stymie trail construction.
According to Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions (AMATS), a public planning organization backing the trail, approval of the McCarreys’ lease application would likely halt the entire project.
The Fish Creek Trail Connection
The existing Fish Creek Trail begins at Northwood Park, near Lake Spenard, and roughly follows the creek north as it winds through Spenard’s commercial and residential areas, playgrounds, and woodlands. On a map, the northern portion of the trail system resembles an upside-down tree, with branches leading to numerous cul-de-sacs and streets in the historic mixed-income neighborhood.
In 2018, the trail was extensively renovated and several bridges were replaced, but for planners a significant issue remained: the trail’s lack of connectivity with the rest of Anchorage’s trail network.
Currently, those seeking to access the Coastal Trail from the north end of the Fish Creek Trail can continue up Barbara Street and cross Northern Lights on a pedestrian bridge into the Turnagain neighborhood. But reaching the Coastal Trail from this point requires that nonmotorized users travel on streets without sidewalks, some of which carry heavy traffic loads from nearby West High School.
As planned, the Fish Creek Trail Connection would continue north off the end of the bridge over Northern Lights and follow an Alaska Railroad easement until reaching the Fish Creek Estuary and the Coastal Trail. Numerous people familiar with the project told the Landmine that the most financially and ecologically viable route would follow the easement until nearing the Coastal Trail, at which point it would wind downhill on a gentle switchback through a Railroad-owned parcel before intersecting with the Coastal Trail.
In 2021, Anchorage voters approved a $3.95m Parks and Recreation bond that included $100,000 for the Fish Creek Connection. The federal government agreed to match the municipality’s funding at a ratio of approximately 9:1, providing over $1.1 million for the trail.
In 2022, the Municipality began soliciting bids for trail construction.
“Respectfully, I am not in favor of extending it.”
Members of the McCarrey family own an enclave of three adjoining parcels tucked between the railroad tracks, Coastal Trail, and Fish Creek Estuary. A residence, jointly owned by J.L. McCarrey III and Barbara L McCarrey, sits on a hill overlooking the estuary and Cook Inlet. The McCarrey parcels, which have a combined assessed value over $2 million, are accessed via a gated driveway that extends off of the end of Forest Park Dr and crosses the railroad tracks and easement.
According to Alaska Railroad documents, J.L. McCarrey III, Barbara McCarrey, Kristin McCarrey, and Eric Finseth applied to lease .94 acres of Railroad-owned land immediately north of their properties and south of the Coastal Trail — the same area that Fish Creek Trail Connection planning documents call for using for the S-shaped switchback needed to connect the Fish Creek Trail to the Coastal Trail.
The McCarreys’ application states that they wish to lease the land for “Personal Use Access,” and specifies a time period for the lease of “Not to exceed 95 years.”
J.L. McCarrey III, who appears to be the primary applicant on the lease, is a well-known Anchorage attorney and religious community leader. McCarry works as counsel for McKinley Capital Management, a private investment firm founded by Bob Gillam, long known as one of Alaska’s wealthiest residents. According to a website listing officers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, McCarrey served as the President of the Anchorage Temple from 2019-2022.
Reached by phone at the McKinley Capital Management office, McCarrey told the Landmine that he believed the Fish Creek Trail Connection was unnecessary because members of the public could already access the Coastal Trail via existing Turnagain roadways.
“Respectfully I am not in favor of extending [the Fish Creek Trail] to the Coastal Trail,” McCarrey said.
When asked whether he had applied for the lease in order to prevent the construction of the trail, McCarrey replied, “I believe it would be more accurate to say that we are trying to maintain the privacy that we have had for many years.”
The Landmine attempted to contact Kristin McCarrey via phone, but a message was not returned prior to publication.
Click on the thumbnail below to view the McCarreys’ lease application:
“We respectfully request that the Alaska Railroad Corporation refrain from accepting this lease”
At an August 24 meeting, AMATS Executive Director Aaron Jongenelen told participants that if the McCarreys’ lease application is approved, pursuing an alternate route for the Fish Creek Trail Connector would be “hugely impactful, and hugely expensive.” Project costs would increase by an estimated $9 million, Jongenelen said.
The AMATS Policy Committee subsequently approved and sent a letter to Andrew Donovan, the Director of Real Estate at the Alaska Railroad, protesting the proposed lease. The letter states that, if accepted, the McCarreys’ proposed lease could kill the Fish Creek Trail Connection project:
“We respectfully request that the Alaska Railroad Corporation refrain from accepting this lease as it is in direct conflict with the Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions (AMATS) active transportation project known as the Fish Creek Trail Connection. Should the proposed lease be granted, it is highly likely that the Fish Creek Trail Connection project will be unable to proceed.”
The letter argues that the Fish Creek Connection would provide provide significant public health and economic benefits to both residents and visitors. It concludes by stating that the long-term benefits of building the trail outweigh the McCarreys’ personal benefits should their lease application be approved.
Click on the thumbnail below to view the AMATS letter:
“We know that the McCarreys oppose the project. And I don’t think that’s a secret.”
In an August 24 phone call, Anchorage Parks and Recreation Director Mike Braniff told the Landmine that while he was understanding of J.L. McCarrey III’s position, the city had an obligation to serve a broad user base.
“McCarrey has a unique property out there,” Braniff said. “I think he enjoys having a secluded property. But I think it’s in the public’s interest and in our department’s mission to develop new recreational and transportation assets that serve the whole community.”
Braniff stated that he did not wish to speculate on McCarrey’s motivation for applying for the lease, but that the McCarrey family’s longstanding opposition to the Fish Creek Trail Connection project was not a secret.
Taylor Keegan, a Parks and Recreation landscape architect, added that she had met with J.L. McCarrey III many times to discuss the project. McCarrey had never explicitly vocalized opposition to the project, she said, but had continually alluded to being against it.
“This is all fairly new to us as far as the lease is concerned,” she said, “but I can’t say the project team saw it as a surprise.”
Alaska Railroad Board
In an August 24 phone call, Alaska Railroad External Affairs Director Meghan Clemens told the Landmine that she was aware the railroad had been working with the Municipality on the Fish Creek Trail Connection.
“We definitely see the benefit of putting a safely designed pedestrian trail along there,” she said, adding that the area had long been bedeviled by trespassing and safety concerns.
Clemens described land leases as a “key part of our revenue model,” but stated the Alaska Railroad had not initiated the McCarreys’ lease request and did not have a position on it.
If approved, she said, the cost of the lease would likely be 8% of the fair market value of the land per year, with adjustments made over time as needed.
Ultimately, Clemens said, the McCarreys’ request would be assessed and voted on by the Alaska Railroad Board, which would weigh the application against community concerns. Clemens said that written public comment would be accepted until September 21, prior to the Board’s meeting on the 22nd.
“I guess we’ll see how the community feels about the lease application,” she said.