State orders destruction of bear-watching camp

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An exclusive bear-viewing lodge on Kamishak Bay on the western shore of Cook Inlet has been closed and the state wants it burned down before winter.

Chenik Lodge, run by Michael and Diane McBride of Homer, offered bear-viewing, kayaking and other outdoor activities in a breathtaking setting.

Chenik cost about $2,000 for a week's stay and attracted internationally known wildlife photographers, political leaders and avid eco-tourists.

But by summer's end, the camp on the bay on western Cook Inlet will be gone. The McBrides have been ordered to torch the lodge and surrounding cabins, haul away everything nonburnable and reseed the ground where it once stood.

The state of Alaska is taking ownership of the land from the federal government, and it neither wants the lodge to be part of the deal nor is allowed by law to accept the land if the lodge is there.

The McBrides and other conservationists believe the state is making a mistake. Some claim the camp's destruction is merely political payback because the McBrides champion bear viewing over hunting.

Under a contract with the federal Bureau of Land Management signed by McBride in February, the camp has to be packed up by early September and its buildings burned by month's end. In fact, its destruction is scheduled to be a training exercise for a crew of BLM firefighters.

Fans of Chenik Camp say they can't make sense of it.

''I think it's tragic,'' said Art Wolfe, a Seattle-based wildlife photographer. He said the state should promote more bear-viewing lodges instead of removing one.

The facility was born in 1978 as a tent camp on federal land. Its right to exist there has been in question since an initial one-year federal recreational permit expired.

Seldovia Native Association selected the land underlying Chenik Head back in the early 1970s and assumed it would eventually own it. The association gave its blessing to the McBrides.

But the state also wanted the land, and after a long court battle, the state won.

McBride tried but could not persuade state or federal agencies to grant him permission to continue.

Over the years, the camp on Chenik Head had grown into a lodge. McBride added a 24-by-36-foot central building along with three cabins, a sauna, an observation deck and other improvements. What it lacked in amenities like running water, it more than made up for in ambience, McBride said.

The state wants the 23,000 acres it won in court. It plans to add the land to the adjoining McNeil River State Game Refuge, and it doesn't want to deal with a private lodge.

The state insists that the BLM erase the last hint of McBride's 5-acre spread.

Its reasons are twofold. On one hand, the state concluded that the lodge's location isn't so great, that the state doesn't have the money to operate a camp and that an unmaintained camp could attract vandals, said Marty Rutherford, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Natural Resources.

In addition, a law created by the Legislature in 1999 specifically to resolve this dispute says the state can't accept land within the McNeil game refuge if a private company is doing business there.

Some people say the law was aimed at McBride for his outspoken advocacy of bear protection.

About 10 years ago, he was in the thick of intense public debates over the expansion of the McNeil bear refuge and other issues dealing with bear habitat on the west side of Cook Inlet. Big-game hunters lost those arguments.

''It's pretty obvious. The reason McBride has to burn down the cabin is it's payback, clear and simple,'' said Doug Pope, former chairman of the state Board of Game and an Anchorage lawyer.

Pope is correct, said Rod Arno, one of McBride's adversaries and a hunting rights advocate. Arno is a member and former leader of the pro-hunting Alaska Outdoor Council.

''Yeah, it's payback, but it's not personal,'' he said.

Arno said McBride is in a pinch for insisting back then that bear viewing and hunting are incompatible.

While Arno and other people involved in crafting the state law may cheer the pending incineration of the Chenik Camp, Rutherford pointed out that the departments of Fish and Game and Natural Resources concluded independently that McBride's camp wasn't in the state's best interest.

''I can tell you absolutely that the reason the Department of Natural Resources told BLM we wanted the land unencumbered is simply because we have no way to deal with those facilities,'' she said.

McBride said he now feels a little like a condemned criminal trying for a last-minute reprieve. He still holds hope that he can win a compromise with the state before fall.

''They're calling for it to be burned down, and I don't have any reason to believe otherwise, other than I'm an incorrigible optimist,'' he said.

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