The level of tension in the tiny Tustemena Elementary School room started at a slow simmer. Concerned citizens once again seized the opportunity to pontificate on the proposed Kasilof River Special Use Area to Department of Natural Resources officials, and as each person stood to speak their peace, they only added fuel to the fire.
The frustration finally boiled over that Saturday afternoon when a man standing in the back addressed Richard Thompson, the Southcentral regional land manager for the DNR, who stood at the front.
"You sit up there crossing your arms, shaking your head," he shouted. "It's very disrespectful to everybody in here that gets up. You've been doing it to a bunch of people. You're acting just how government should not."
At that point, the discussion rapidly disintegrated into a mlange of shouting, reprimanding, and clapping as the man stormed out, with those remaining raising their voices higher than the next person in an effort to be heard.
Sen. Thomas Wagoner, who could not make it up from Juneau due to inclement weather, arranged the public meeting so area residents could gain clarification on the DNR's proposal to designate the beaches near the Kasilof River mouth a special use area. The DNR maintains that the high usage of this small space for personal-use fishing in the summertime is causing habitat degradation and other man-made destruction.
The meeting was not official, per se, as the public comment period on the matter ended in December. Wagoner, though, wanted residents to have one last chance to ask questions of the DNR employees in charge of making the final decision.
Instead of questions, though, the DNR folks were mostly met with either anti-expansion, anti-government diatribes that retread the ground already covered in previous public meetings, or grateful thanks from residents fed up with the "zoo-like" atmosphere of the beaches in summer.
"We didn't hear anything new here," Thompson said once the meeting adjourned. "I didn't really think that we would, because we've had a lot of public interaction, so we've pretty much heard it all."
Many attendees feared that the DNR would to impose fees for use of the beaches, and that they will over-police and over-fine people for asinine reasons.
"Tell us what's going to happen and don't leave this open-ended," said Larry Lewis, "so that 10 years from now our kids can go down there without having somebody in a blue coat chase them down and fine them or shake a money bucket in front of their face."
The mini-speeches essentially became a tug-of-war, with one person standing to speak against the special use area and the next singing its praises.
"I applaud this special use area," said Ken Tarbox. "I think this gives us the regulatory framework to go forward. Yes, there's going to be fees. There should be fees; it's going to cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year to deal with this if you want that fishery.
"I find it really interesting that when we finally get a state agency to stand up and say, 'We will take responsibility; we will take this under our control and help you get these habitat issues solved' that we get a backlash."
Thompson said he hopes to have the DNR's written decision finalized in two to four weeks.
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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