Kenai River additions bill faces uphill battle in Senate

Posted: Friday, April 13, 2001

A bill to add thousands of acres to the state park that includes much of the Kenai River may face an uphill battle in the Senate.

House Bill 165, introduced by Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, passed the House 34-0 Tuesday, with five representatives excused and one absent. The yes votes included Lancaster, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer.

On Wednesday, the Senate leadership referred it to the Senate Resources, State Affairs and Finance committees. Multiple referrals are a common tactic for bottling up a bill, said Bob King, press secretary to Gov. Tony Knowles.

"The three referrals make it highly unlikely it will pass this session, but it still will be alive for the next session, and things can change, " he said.

Lancaster said he was disheartened by the three committee referrals.

"Generally, that kills a bill," he said. "That means they don't want it to pass. So, we've got our work cut out for us. The problem is, this is a good bill. It provides habitat for fish and access for people to go fishing or view the lakes."

He questioned the referral to Senate Finance. HB 165 never went to House Finance because the park additions would mean no immediate increase to the state budget, he said. There is no fiscal note attached to the bill.

HB 165 would add nearly 8,000 acres, including large parcels by Kenai, Trail and Cooper lakes, to the Kenai River Special Management Area of Alaska State Parks. It also would add the waters of Trail Lakes, the Trail River and state-owned portions of Quartz, Cooper, Bean, Shackleford, Daves, Crescent and Dry creeks. The additions are recommended in the state's 1997 Kenai River Comprehensive Plan and its 2000 Kenai Area Plan for state lands in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, both of which were developed with extensive public input.

Lancaster said most calls to his office have favored the bill.

"There are some that consider this a land lock-up bill, but I disagree," he said.

Many of the parcels in the bill were identified for park inclusion in 1984, he said, but they could not be added then because the state had not completed its land selections from Chugach National Forest.

The additions have been on hold since John Shively, former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, signed the Kenai River plan in 1997. Neither Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, nor former Rep. Gary Davis, R-Soldotna, whom Lancaster replaced, was willing to put them before the Legislature, Lancaster said.

"That's why I said I would," he said. "We need to bring the process started in 1995 to fruition," he said.

Neither Torgerson, who chairs Senate Resources, nor Senate Finance vice chair Jerry Ward, whose district includes Nikiski and Kenai, returned calls Thursday.

Last month, Torgerson said he worries about putting so much land in Parks control. A big addition would increase Parks' operating costs, he said.

"They can't manage everything for habitat," he added.

Torgerson said the park additions are a big issue in Moose Pass and Cooper Landing.

"Some don't mind locking it up. Some want to see planning for multiple use," he said.

King said Knowles strongly supports the proposed additions.

"It's additional protection for habitat in the Kenai River area," King said. "It's one of the primary recreation rivers in the state."

While much has been done to protect the river, doing more makes sense, he said.

"I think the phrase used in the past is that the Kenai River has been loved to death," he said. "As people have developed riverfront lots, that has encroached on fish habitat -- putting in lodges and docks."

However, he said, any measure opposed by local legislators faces a difficult battle.

Chris Degernes, Kenai area superintendent for Parks, said the proposed additions draw nowhere near as many visitors as popular fishing spots like the Russian River, and they would cost little to manage.

They do include the Snail-a-thon Beach by Kenai Lake and the Upper Trail Lake access known as the Ball Diamond, popular with Cooper Landing and Moose Pass residents. Those could use improvements, she said, but if there ever is a move to install restrooms or improve parking, Parks probably could work with the communities to do the work at little cost.

She said the Alaska Flyfishers, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, the Quartz Creek Homeowners Association and the Friends of Cooper Landing have endorsed the proposed additions. Largely in response to recommendations of community land-use plans developed by Moose Pass and Cooper Landing residents, she said, the additions recommended in the 1997 Kenai River plan are larger than those envisioned when the original river plan was adopted in 1986.

On April 3, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed a resolution 5-3, with one member absent, endorsing the proposed additions. However, assembly member Grace Merkes of Sterling called for reconsideration. The assembly will decide Tuesday whether to revisit the issue.

Degernes said the park additions have been on the radar since the early 1980s.

"If it takes a little longer to get it to where everyone is comfortable with it, that works for us," she said.

The Kenai River plan designates the proposed additions as special-use areas to be managed by Parks to protect fish, wildlife and habitat. Even if HB 165 fails, that will not change, she said.

"It doesn't have an expiration date. I'd assume it would continue until a commissioner rescinds it for another 10 years or so when the Kenai River plan is revised," she said.

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