Empty chairs were hard to find at the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizen Advisory Board’s Sept. 14 meeting.
The park is a popular place, as evidenced by Park Ranger Roger MacCampbell’s report of thousands of visitors, but the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska’s plea to lift the ban on PWCs in the bay was the real drawing card.
Before calling the meeting to order, Chairman Paul Hueper set out the ground rules.
“We obviously have a topic of great interest to the community,” said Hueper. “I want to make it real clear that this is simply an informal meeting. We are not taking public comments. We will have a few groups that will get up and share, but there will be no hard-core decisions tonight.”
After viewing MacCampbell’s presentation on the season’s activities in the park, postponing election of officers until the Oct. 12 board meeting and agreeing more information was needed on an old-business item, Hueper again reminded the audience it was a board meeting, not a public hearing.
“(The PWC club) came to us asking if they could speak. Through the council, we felt it fair for them to bring up the issue,” said Hueper. “We’re not taking a stance.”
Then Hueper turned the floor over to Gene Gerken, president of the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska.
“Our objective is to demonstrate how manufacturers have addressed areas of concern brought forward by the public nationwide,” said Gerken. “It’s the same concerns the residents of Homer have voiced.”
Packets distributed to board members addressed noise, water pollution, safety, wildlife impacts and incompatibility with local and traditional values. Gerken said allowing personal watercraft in the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area boiled down to public opinion versus public education.
“It’s almost impossible to change public opinion, but we feel that when people actually listen, the facts speak for themselves,” said Gerken.
Urging his listeners to “put biased prejudice aside and do what is right,” Gerken introduced John Donaldson, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Association, who focused his comments on noise and water pollution attributed to PWCs.
Donaldson described noise regulations and testing processes developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers. If noise generated by a vessel exceeds the decibel limit set by individual states, speed reduction will bring it into compliance, said Donaldson. Alaska, at this time, has not established a noise standard.
Turning to pollution, Donaldson said with regard to recreation boats that generally refers to “some intermix of exhaust into the water column.” He noted similarities between outboard engines and PWC engines and pointed out that restrictions in California caused manufacturers to build all models to pass those requirements, “which is about 50 percent more stringent than the U.S EPA standard.”
Gina Poths, the club’s co-founder, said concerns about safety and compatibility with wildlife were issues of enforcement. She wrapped up the club’s presentation by describing her PWC as a boat.
“Basically, they have the same engine. Put more fiberglass around it and call it a boat or put less and call it a PWC. Everything is the same except the size,” said Poths, who said she uses her PWC for halibut fishing.
When asked by a board member why, with more than 70 percent of the world comprised of water, the club cared about Kachemak Bay, Poths said, “I should be able to take my boat anywhere in Alaska that another boat is. That’s why it’s important. It’s part of Alaska. It’s public. It doesn’t belong to the people in Homer.”
Following the stated procedure, Hueper then invited presentations by public interest groups.
Shannon McBride-Moran, speaking for the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, Cook Inletkeeper, Friends of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, and “lots of other business women and men from around town, parents, concerned citizens in the community and people that recreate and do business in the state park,” said keeping PWCs off Kachemak Bay was a quality-of-life issue.
“I am opposed largely based on safety and the fact that jet skis are not compatible with a critical habitat area. They do not belong in Kachemak Bay. It’s simple, not technical. It’s pretty straight forward,” said McBride-Moran. “I’ve ridden on them and they’re fun. There are places for them. Kachemak Bay is not one of them.”
Representing Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park, Willie Dunn pointed to the “rigorous public process” that resulted in the ban of PWCs on Kachemak Bay.
“The regulations have worked well. ... I think there’s no reason to look into changing them,” said Dunn.
Speaking for Snomads, a local snowmachine club, Phil Needham said it was hard to separate a skiff from a PWC.
“It’s the same technology, the same operators,” said Needham. Urging a decision based on “science, not discrimination,” he said the ban in personal watercraft came down to “just simply somebody that doesn’t like to see someone having fun on a PWC.”
Saying she represented the Homer Bed and Breakfast Association and the Homer Halibut Charter Association, Brenda Hays said she sided with the Snomads.
“I love this bay. I’ve worked for it, protected it from oil spills and other things and don’t feel jet skis should be given carte blanche on this bay, but I do feel the harbor should be considered a safe harbor for all vessels, including PWCs,” said Hays. “Regarding the parks, creeks, rivers, bays, beaches, wildlife areas, they should always be held in the highest respect by all mariners, so let’s come up with a new plan for all user groups.”
The last to speak, Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper asked for everyone to stand that supported the decade-long ban on PWCs on Kachemak Bay.
“I hope that gives you some idea, that you’ll consider everything that happened in 2001,” Shavelson told the advisory board as the majority of those in attendance rose to their feet.
Before adjourning, Hueper noted openings on the advisory board and urged anyone interested to attend the October meeting.
With regard to allowing PWCs in Kachemak Bay and views expressed during the meeting, Hueper said, “At some point as a board we may formulate an opinion of our own, but we don’t have the authority to change anything. We are a voice in the process.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org