Special use for heavy use? Lower Kasilof River area could receive new designation

Posted: Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on a proposal to establish a special use area surrounding the lower Kasilof River on Wednesday.

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Photos By M. Scott Moon
Photos By M. Scott Moon
Dipnet fishers and commercial driftnet boats are seen in the mouth of the Kasilof River from the air several years ago. A draft proposal to make an section of the Kasilof River a special management area will be presented to the public Wednesday.

Officials from the Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water's Southcentral Regional Land Office will be presenting their idea to designate the area as the Kasilof River Special Use Area, possibly as soon as this winter.

The designation is an attempt by the agency to address high-pressure use issues that arise near the river mouth each summer during the personal-use fisheries.

The proposed unit would include 2,965 acres that encompass tidal and submerged lands. The boundaries would reach approximately four river miles upstream from the mouth and extend a mile north and south along the coast from the outlet, as well as west a ways into Cook Inlet.

According to Adam Smith, a natural resource manager with the agency in Anchorage, state officials been aware of the land use issues for some time, and in recent years have been able to provide limited facilities, including portable toilets and Dumpsters, in an attempt to handle litter and human waste.

This past spring, staff from the agency attended a meeting in Kasilof, organized by Kasilof Historical Society President Brent Johnson, on a proposal to install a fence to direct users away from sensitive dune areas on the beach.

According to Smith, the dialogue turned into what management solutions were available that could be implemented quickly.

"We started talking out what it would mean if it was included under the state park system or as general state land, which we're responsible for," Smith said. "The public was very interested in that avenue once we explained how that would work."

According to Richard Thompson, the Southcentral regional land manager, the management of the Kasilof would differ from that of the Kenai River Special Management Area by DNR's Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

"Were a land management agency, we manage public domain according to the principals of multi-use." Thompson said. "The main difference in what we do and what parks does is when a piece of state land becomes a park it's no longer considered to be multi-use, but instead managed primarily for recreation."

Additionally, he said a state park unit would require legislative action to establish and would likely take a longer time to get off the ground.

The current public comment period opened for the proposal on Sept. 30, and ends on Nov. 15.

Smith said the agency will then be tasked with analyzing and responding to whatever issues are raised in the comments, after which they'll issue a final special use decision, which is subject to appeal.

If the decision is not appealed, it could go into place as soon as early January.

That decision, however, would not necessarily establish any regulations or result in the dedication of added resources for the area.

Smith explained that establishing regulations would be the next step, and will require working through the Alaska Supreme Court.

Support meanwhile, will come through the state Legislature.

Smith said that while he expects there to be a limited agency presence at the river's mouth this coming summer, he didn't see the likelihood of there being dedicated personnel any earlier than July of 2012.

Smith said that if established, users probably wouldn't see too much of a change this summer.

Thompson said he would hope to see the portable toilets and Dumpster contracts continue, along with some increased signage and fencing.

"I don't know how much more we can hope to accomplish in the early part of summer," Thompson said, "But if special use takes effect before June, it will be in effect and there will be some rules and we probably won't have regulations or enforcement authority at that point."

In the longer term, what becomes of the designation is less certain, Thompson said.

"The beauty of what were proposing, I like to think, is that it's immediate," he said. "But it could stay in place for a long time."

He explained that discussions of creating a plan to include the whole river and giving it to state parks could continue.

Smith added that the area's management future in large part would be contingent on public support.

Thompson said he could not provide an estimate for what the establishment of the use area would cost.

"We don't have one figured out at this time," he said. "It's a moving target depending on what they want to do."

He said, as well, that there is discussion of establishing user fees to support the installation and upkeep of facilities, should the use area be established.

"The people who go down there and use the beaches are the beneficiaries of the facilities we put there, so were proposing that we come up with a fee system," he said, though he could not specify what those fees might amount to.

Smith and Thompson said the establishment of a special use area would not impact the ability of nearby private land owners to develop their properties.

"We think overall that it will lessen the negative impacts on private landowners," Thompson said. "It probably can't get much worse, but we think it can get better."

The proposal is welcome news to Brent Johnson, who has pushed for an agency to address the use issues at the mouth for years.

"The way I see it is it brings enforcement, and they tell me it's super fast for them," he said. "From my perspective, it wasn't so terribly fast, but if it happens in 2011 then that beats the heck out of 2020."

To the north, Jack Sinclair, the area superintendent of the Kenai River, called it a good first step, particularly in addressing use and habitat issues, but said he still had questions about specifics.

"There's questions that need to be asked and I'm not sure they know the answer to all the problems," he said. "From a park manager stand point, I have some concerns that I'll have to work on."

One he noted specifically was the possibility of building a boat launch facility on the lower Kasilof.

Smith said his agency is looking for feedback on that idea.

"Are we talking about a pullout for drift boats or one to put boats in?" Smith said. "We've received some input but we want more."

Sinclair said this is they type of issue he would hope to see more collaborative work on.

While Smith and Thompson are hoping for a good turnout at the Wednesday meeting at Tustumena Elementary School from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m,, they noted that questions or concerns aired there will not go on the public record.

They encouraged anyone interested in providing a comment to visit the proposal's website, www.dnr.alaska.gov/commis/pic/pubnotfrm.htm, at the bottom of which there are directions on how to do so.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.

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