People fancy it as "The Great Land," but Alaska is starting to look rather small.
Becky Brock, concessions management specialist for the National Park Service in Anchorage, said there soon could be limits on the number of businesses permitted to operate in Katmai National Park.
"I've never seen the Kenai River when it's shoulder-to-shoulder, but that's where we're going in Katmai," Brock said.
However, limits are several years away, and their form is far from certain, said Kevin Apgar, concessions manager for the regional Park Service office in Anchorage.
"It could be limits on the number of companies, limits on the number of trips per company. It could be a host of things," he said.
Brock visited the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday to speak about concessions available within Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula, and Alagnak Wild River in Southwest Alaska.
Soldotna's Jim Fisher raised the question of crowding.
"Down south, the National Park Service has had some considerable concern over the huge numbers of people," he said. "What is the threat for loving our parks to death up here in Alaska?"
Brock said the Park Service cannot ignore that issue.
"We do have that threat here, also," she said. "I get a lot of complaints from commercial operators about the impacts on the areas that they are operating in, especially in Katmai," she said. "I don't get any comments about Lake Clark, but Katmai is getting pounded ... "
At Moraine Creek, a popular Katmai fishing spot, some commercial operators say 50 percent of the trout bear scars from snagging, she said later.
"There's a high population of bears there, but we don't know if the bears are being displaced," she said. "We haven't done the studies on the fish."
The Alagnak Wild River, managed by Katmai National Park, is another hot spot, she said.
The surrounding land is a checkerboard of Park Service, state, Native corporation and private holdings. The Park Service just began a three-year project to work with other land owners to identify problems and solutions.
Brock said national parks allow three kinds of concessions. Operations with gross revenues of more than $500,000 per year require long-term contracts. The only such contract in Katmai, Lake Clark and Aniakchak is with Katmai Land, which manages the Brooks Camp lodge, and Katmai food service, boat rentals and bus tours.
For operations that gross less than $500,000 per year, the Park Service awards limited concession permits by competitive bid with contracts of five years or less. The boat storage and hunting guide concessions coming up for bid in Katmai, Lake Clark and Aniakchak fall in that category.
The largest number of concessions fall under a third category -- incidental business permits, which must be renewed annually. Numerous air taxi operators, fishing guides, and hiking and ski tour operators fall in that category.
The Park Service has issued 77 incidental business permits for Lake Clark, 140 for Katmai and 30 for Aniakchak. Brock said 11 central Kenai Peninsula businesses, 11 Homer businesses, two Anchor Point businesses and one Seward business hold incidental permits for Katmai and Lake Clark.
The Park Service has not yet limited total numbers of incidental business permits. However, the 1998 National Park Service Concessions Management Act bans it from authorizing more concessions than are consistent with the preservation and proper management of park resources and values. Regulations to implement the law should be on the books next year, Apgar said.
That would include public participation and discussion of what limits there should be on backcountry businesses.
"We don't want to limit visitors. We want them to come," Brock said. "But why come if your experience is ruined because its crowded."
From a manager's point of view, Brock said, she favors a cap at some point on the total number of Katmai incidental business permits.
"Operators that are bad businessmen -- who violate permit stipulations or don't pay their fees on time -- they're out the door. That's what I'm going to suggest to my boss," she said. "I don't want people who do sloppy business."
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