Burning Chenik Lodge accomplishes nothing; state should reconsider

Posted: Tuesday, July 30, 2002

It's no secret that some of the rules governments must follow -- often rules they set for themselves -- can range from perplexing to downright nonsensical.

A perfect example is now under way on Cook Inlet.

After a long legal battle, the state will be taking ownership of a tract of land on western Cook Inlet from the federal government. The problem? That land houses the popular Kamishak Bay bear-viewing lodge called Chenik Lodge, an exclusive operation that has attracted internationally known wildlife photographers, political leaders and eco-tourists. Because state law prohibits the state from taking over land with a private business on the property, the government has ordered it closed, burned to the ground and all traces that the five-acre spread ever existed removed by the end of September. The property is part of the 23,000 acres the state won in court, which it plans to add to the McNeil River State Game Refuge.

The state says it doesn't have the money to operate or maintain such a camp, and state law prohibits it from taking over the land with a private business operating. So this well-known bear-viewing locale, which has been in operation in some form since 1978, will be no more.

Some who oppose the camp's destruction say the state is doling out political payback since the owners of the business, Michael and Diane McBride of Homer, have long championed bear viewing over bear hunting. Whether or not that is true, the law that is forcing the issue now is one the state Legislature specifically created in 1999 to deal with this dispute. It says the state cannot accept land within the McNeil game refuge if a private business is doing business there.

While the state's reasons for wanting the lodge destroyed may sound valid -- officials say the costs of maintenance are too high and the dangers of an empty facility are many -- this certainly seems a shortsighted action. Visitors were willing to pay in the neighborhood of $2,000 a week to visit the bear-viewing lodge -- quite a price considering it had few amenities beyond its scenic views and no running water.

Isn't it possible state officials could have found a way to take advantage of that revenue-raising potential? And if the state law was all that prevented the continuation of the lodge, then the Legislature surely could change it. After all, the Legislature created it in the first place.

At the very least, the state should look at this property not as a liability, but as an asset. Deciding to raze the lodge is a unfortunate and short-sighted decision. It's a shame state officials and legislators seem to have missed the benefits and possibilities that may well exist for Chenik Lodge.

-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

July 25

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