Legislators look at water access

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sorry, you know you just can’t get there from here.

For some stretches of Alaska’s most popular rivers and streams, that humorous chestnut amounts to a truism, a simple fact of life, dictated not by the natural hazards of physical topography, but by the artificial boundaries of private property.

Bills now before the Alaska House and Senate offer a way to make shorelines currently off limits available to anglers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts, provided property owners are willing. Those shorelines would specifically include the banks of the Anchor River and Deep Creek on the Kenai Peninsula.

House Bill 40, sponsored by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, and its Senate companion, SB 71, sponsored by Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, would require the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game to submit to the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources each year a list of land along specific waterways where access is impeded by private land ownership.

Besides the Anchor River and Deep Creek, the bill specifically names Montana Creek, Goose Creek, Little Willow Creek, and Willow Creek above the Parks Highway — all near Talkeetna, as well as the Salcha River off the Richardson Highway near Fairbanks.

Under the bill, the Fish and Game commissioner would solicit and review public comment and include on the annual list only land for which an owner is willing to negotiate public access. The commissioner would give priority to land leading to and along fishing waterways that is reasonably accessible, including by backcountry hiking or off-road vehicle. A priority would be put on undeveloped land that might be acquired by the state through purchase or trade.

Waterways could be added to or excluded from the list at the discretion of the Fish and Game commissioner and though the list would be public and subject to comment, the commissioner’s decision could not be appealed.

A committee amendment removed a provision that would have specifically prohibited land adjacent to the Kenai River downstream of Skilak Lake from being added to the list. Thus, the Kenai River is no longer off limits to provisions of the bill.

Nothing in the bill expands the state’s existing right of eminent domain for a public use, nor could money from the state’s public access fund be used to compensate an owner whose land is taken through eminent domain.

Land along the Anchor River where waterways are open to steelhead, salmon, Dolly Varden, or trout fishing are to be considered for the first list if the bill becomes law.

Rep. Paul Seaton said the measure was heard in the House Resources Committee in early February and sent along to Finance with a “do pass” recommendation.

“It’s permissive. It generates a list and ... if an owner is willing to negotiate a sale or easement, it does that,” Seaton said. “It’s mostly looking at private land from pre-statehood.”

Land going into private hands subsequent to statehood, he said, made accommodations for maintaining access to waterways.

If the bill becomes law, the two commissioners would be required to submit to the Legislature a plan for acquiring public access to fishing waterways through trade or purchase during the following fiscal year.

HB 40 and SB 71 are just two of a host of bills concerning fisheries now floating the halls of the state capital. Here’s a brief look at other bills:

n HB 15: An act allowing members of the Board of Fisheries to participate in decisions regarding issues before the board, even when members have financial interests in the matter by virtue of their participation in a fishery.

n HB 16: An act delaying repeal of the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission’s authority to maintain the vessel-based commercial fisheries limited entry systems for the Bering Sea Korean hair crab and weather vane scallop fisheries.

n HB 26: An act relating to geoducks and to geoduck seed transfers between certified hatcheries and aquatic farms.

n HB 74: An act banning the use of mixing zones in spawning areas.

n HB 84: An act changing the way fisheries business tax revenue is shared with municipalities.

n HB 137: An act that would amend requirements for residents 60 and older to fish, hunt or trap without a license. The measure would replace a required permanent ID card with a free temporary card good for three years and renewable without charge.

n HB 139: An act making supplemental appropriations to various programs and departments, including $2 million for expanding the Alaska Seafood Marking Institute’s national marketing campaign. Its companion is SB 83.

n HR 2: A bill establishing the House Special Committee on Fisheries. The measure has been sent to Gov. Sarah Palin.

n HJR 4: A measure requesting the Federal Subsistence Board to reconsider its decision regarding the subsistence fishery priority given to Ninilchik residents.

n SB 12: An act amending requirements for sportfishing services and sportfishing guide services.

Hal Spence can be reached at harold.spence@peninsulaclarion.com

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