State officials received an emotional response that at times reflected prevailing anti-expansion sentiments of government to their proposal to designate the lower Kasilof River as a special use area as soon as this winter.
Employees from the Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water were at Tustumena Elementary School in Kasilof on Wednesday night to discuss their idea that would establish the area around the mouth of the river as the Kasilof River Special Use Area.
The move, which was announced at the end of September, comes as a response from the state to address the pressures of a burgeoning personal-use fishery there.
Meeting goers had questions about a number of different elements of the proposal, but the most controversial was the potential establishment of user fees.
Diane McClure, who said she moved to Kasilof from Outside several years ago, was one of those people.
"I left the East Coast and the Lower 48 to get away from the socialistic life that's going on down there," she said. "I intentionally bought land and a house, my property butts up to state land, so I could explore the beaches."
She went on to say she uses the beach sometimes as much as twice a day.
"I'm not paying to walk on the beach," she said. "That should be a right and a freedom."
McClure was not alone in her concern.
"I'm just sick and tired of the bureaucracy," said Myron Maki. "The government is in our pockets so damn deep they're down to my toes I think. I'm sick of it."
Agency staff said they were considering, as part of the proposal, to institute user fees to pay for facilities and improvements, but could not specify what they might amount to or how they would be charged.
Dianne MacRae spoke animatedly about how fast the process was moving.
"So you can put in a special use area immediately, really quick, we've got to do that because it's going to save us," she said, sarcastically, "But a park would take time, people might get organized, people might stand up, people might band together."
She was also critical of the fact that the agency held its first public meeting in Anchorage.
"Anchorage had it first, they were going to help us! We probably should be invited by them for their local area, don't you think?" she said, her feigned concern garnering laughs from the audience.
She said, however, that the beaches did need protection, but pointed at the Department of Fish and Game officials who were also at the meeting and said, "Do your job."
While the DNR presenters heading the proposal plead with the crowd to refrain from commenting on personal-use fishery issues as it was out of their agency's control, meeting goers still opened up on the issue.
"The beaches, we've never had a problem like this before," said George Pierce, of Kasilof. "If you lived here in the 90s there was never a problem like that until this fishery happened."
He called for the personal-use fishery's expansion to nearby beaches.
"We're jammed into a two-mile area. You can only put so many sardines in a can," he said, getting a rise of laughter from the crowd.
He criticized the Department of Natural Resources as being willing to spend untold amounts of money to address the crowding when he said he saw a simpler fix.
"You go right to the fish board and you demand they open up our public beaches to where we can fish," he said.
Meeting goers also had questions about the size of the area, how the designation would impact private land owners with adjacent properties, how it would affect the usage of the beach outside the fishing season, impacts to the commercial fishery and what would happen to the area in the long term.
Not everyone at the meeting was skeptical about the proposal.
Several representatives or organizations that signed onto a letter sent to Gov. Sean Parnell last winter urging the state take action to address issues at the Kasilof, spoke in support of the move.
Those included people like Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, and Paul Shadura II, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association, two groups that rarely find themselves on the same page in fishery related issues.
Shadura said his organization had not reached an official position on the proposal but did say, "This isn't about us as users, this is about the habitat and the future of that river system."
Gease pointed to the City of Kenai's approach to managing high use at the mouth of the Kenai River on city beaches as a good example of what should be considered in Kasilof.
"They charge fees, those fees have offset porta-potties, they've offset waste management, they've offset the cost of putting up fencing and they have a budget that's going that's sustainable," Gease said. "That fishery is a lot better managed now in terms of habitat protection and conservation of the beach dunes."
Brent Johnson, president of the Kasilof Historical Society, the organization that has spearheaded conservation efforts around the mouth of the Kasilof, as well as a newly elected assembly member for that area, also spoke in support of the proposal.
"We definitely need a special use area," he said. "There's a lot of things that we're not going to like about fences and special use areas, there's no doubt about that, but if we don't save the habitat then there's going to be other things we don't like."
Following the meeting, Richard Thompson, the Southcentral regional land manager with the division, and one of the evening's presenters, said the reaction was much as he would have anticipated.
"It's pretty typical," he said, "I mean it's a lot of passion and you know as long it's channeled in a positive direction, then that's what we came here for."
The official comment period on the proposal will close on Nov. 15. Statements made at the Wednesday meeting will not be included in the public record, but Thompson said he hopes that it will spur input.
For more information on commenting visit the proposal's website, www.dnr.alaska.gov/commis/pic/pubnotfrm.htm. Directions for commenting can be found at the bottom of the page.
Dante Petri can be reached at email@example.com.
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