Don't fence me in -- but is there a better solution?

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2010

Like many Alaskans, I'm no fan of more rules or red tape than what we already have on the books, which is why I have mixed feelings about the developing plan to protect the degrading beach dunes at the mouth of the Kasilof River.

The dunes hold the mouth of the river in place and prevent saltwater flooding of lowland areas. They also serve as a vital estuary and habitat for anadromous fish and migratory birds.

With no local governmental organization to protect this area in the way that the Kenai City Council protected the dunes at the mouth of the Kenai River, the charge is now being led by the Kasilof Regional Historical Association.

They're working with the Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies to erect a post-and-chain fence around the dunes. The goal is not to restrict use of the area, but rather to channel it properly, particularly in the case of congested crowds and motorized vehicles.

Most of the trouble begins with the onset of the personal-use setnet fishery and the dipnet fishery that follows it. I have participated in both these fisheries for years, so don't get me wrong, this isn't a thinly veiled attempt to attack these fisheries.

Rather, as a participant in them, and as a year-round resident living roughly a mile from the river mouth, I have seen firsthand the need to protect this area, and by more means than just a fence.

The setnet fishery always brings massive numbers of people who, due to the nature of the regulations with this fishery, are essentially required to live on the beach 24 hours a day to guard their claim. As such, they pitch their tents and build campfires on the dunes, drive over them to gain quicker access to their campsites, and of course, use this area as a latrine.

Some make a home for the week, so they will bring old couches and chairs down to the beach, which are then burned after the fishery is over. This leaves behind springs, nails and staples for other people, their pets and native wildlife to be injured on.

With few Dumpsters in the area, and many campers not having a "leave no trace" ethic to their campsites, there are also numerous piles of broken beer bottles and crushed cans that must be avoided when walking or driving on the beach, at least until the next extreme high tide cycle washes this and the other pollution into the inlet.

The dipnet fishery on the Kasilof River has been growing exponentially in recent years, drawing in people from all over the state, so these problems continue, but on an even larger scale. I don't think it would be an overestimate to say there were several thousand participants last year, so try to imagine all the broken glass, feces and waded-up toilet paper that I and other Kasilof-Cohoe residents have seen left behind.

All of this would be bad enough in itself, but there are also those who have come from more urban areas, such as Anchorage, and think of the dunes as remote wilderness. They drive four-wheelers and dune-buggies throughout the dunes for recreation, causing even more degradation than those simply driving through them from point A to point B.

In an odd juxtaposition, my father lives in a coastal area in south Florida, and the Sunshine State doesn't allow camping, campfires, dogs, motorized vehicles or glass bottles on the beach. People are only allowed to come enjoy the surf and sand with a camp chair or towel, and only during the daylight hours.

After my last visit, I remember thinking how lucky we had it here compared to the beach-goers there. We have so much freedom in Alaska, but we are giving our freedom away when we trash, or allow others to trash, our precious natural resources like the beach dunes at the mouth of the Kasilof River.

The proposed post-and-chain fence is a necessary step to protect this fragile area, but it is also the first step toward losing the recreational freedoms that make Alaska so unique and wonderful.

The Great Land can only stay great if we keep it that way. Will we acknowledge this fact and start acting more responsibly on our own, or will we continue our current trend and force others to make more rules and put up more fences to protect us from ourselves?

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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