Almost thunderous in their impact, voices from the Kenai River’s prehistoric past have risen and stopped a state trail project in its tracks.
As of last week, all work on trail and stair projects at Slikok Creek State Park and Kenai Peninsula College has been suspended “pending review of potential impacts of the projects on Dena’ina Indian cultural sites by the Kenaitze Tribe and the State Historic Preservation Office,” according to Denby Lloyd, Department of Fish and Game commissioner.
Controversy arose after several area residents pointed out a number of cultural heritage sites along the path of a trail leading from the college parking lot to Kenai River fishing access at Slikok Creek.
The heritage sites include earthen hearth pits where Natives once cooked and prepared fish along the mouth of the creek, cache storage pits farther up from the mouth and actual house pits where a village is believed to have once existed even farther up the creek.
College officials became concerned about severe damage being caused by salmon fishermen parking in the college parking lot and climbing down the bluff behind the college to get to the river. Some went so far as to tie ropes to trees atop the bluff and repel down to the river.
At first, the college considered building a series of metal stairways down the bluff and a metal fishwalk below on the riverbank. That project would have benefited the college-run Kenai River Fishing Academy. The idea, however, was nixed a couple years ago over concerns expressed by state Parks Department officials.
The idea was replaced by a project designed to stop bluff and bank erosion, and build a new trail that would steer anglers upriver toward Slikok Creek Recreation Site. In the summer of 2005, the college closed the area to fishing and installed landscape fencing along the bluff.
Signs were posted on the bluff and at the river’s edge, directing fishermen to access the river through the state park.
KPC Director Gary Turner said some anglers cut the fencing repeatedly and continued down the trail and bank. Much of the traffic, however, was diverted away from the river bluff to where a new trail resulted from foot traffic.
The college applied for federal funding through the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Program and the project to slow erosion and enhance salmon habitat was selected. Federal funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was directed to the project through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
To slow the erosion rates along the river, cabled spruce trees were installed and native grasses and willows were planted along the bank last summer, according to Turner. Salmon habitat was improved as a result.
“I’m pleased to say that these efforts resulted in vegetation that took root and flourished over the summer,” he said.
The new trail that resulted from the foot traffic above the bluff was improved and now awaits being covered with wood chips, according to Turner.
From the upriver end of the new trail, a stairway is needed for fishermen to get down to the river. There’s the rub.
The path of the proposed stairway, actually on park land, crosses right through a cluster of important cultural heritage sites.
Another improved trail the Boyd Schaffer Trail exists about 50 feet back from the river, but its rather circuitous route to the Slikok Creek point at the river makes it unappealing to anglers. The winding route to the fishing spot also is about 300 feet longer than the bluff trail.
In order to minimize the impact on subsurface soils, the contractor for the stairs proposed moving equipment in now, while the ground is frozen.
The flurry of e-mail and talk-radio protests, however, caught the attention of state officials.
Some opponents have alleged the project will destroy a local archaeological site, some have said the project is useless because the Boyd Schaffer Trail already exists and some have questioned the spending of federal funds for fishing access under the guise of sustaining salmon runs.
The allegations prompted Lloyd’s suspension order.
On Monday, Chris Degernes, Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation field operations chief, said she believes her department is at fault for not being more involved in the project at a higher level.
She also said the state historic preservation officer, Judith Bittner, became aware last spring that part of the federal criteria was not followed, namely a National Historic and Preservation Act Section 106 review.
In January, Dr. Charles M. Mobley and Associates, an Anchorage-based archaeological testing firm, reported to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that: “The undertaking as proposed is judged to have no adverse effects (on the cultural site) so long as mitigation measures built into the project are employed.”
“Two and a half weeks ago we started getting e-mails,” said Degernes. “There is significant concern in the community.”
“We’ve called a time out to evaluate the project,” she said.
Parks designs its parking lots in proportion to the amount of fishing access afforded in areas such as at Slikok Creek, Degernes said, and the large parking lot of the college puts too many anglers at the creek, but she said she does not believe the situation creates a problem the Parks division cannot solve.
“If we give people an appropriate and easy route, they will use it,” she said.
She also said the Parks division would prefer having fishermen come through the state recreation site so they can be educated about their impacts on natural and cultural features of the area.
“This is not just a few cache pits, it’s a village site,” Degernes said. “It’s appropriate for the Kenaitze group to comment.
“I don’t think we’ve always been sensitive (to cultural issues) in our park sites,” she said. “This wasn’t just a simple angler access project.”
Degernes said it will be the Parks division’s call as to how the land is to be managed, and added, “It probably needs a closer look from (the state historic preservation officer) and NOAA.
“It seems appropriate to take the time to look closely,” she said.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at email@example.com.
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