HAINES (AP) -- A state agency has upheld an order banning a local tour operator from baiting eagles inside the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
In so doing, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Pat Pourchot emphasized the state's position that commercial tour operators aren't necessarily guaranteed traditional use rights to do business in the preserve.
Residents in Haines and Klukwan -- a Tlingit Indian village surrounded by the preserve -- were guaranteed traditional use rights to hunt, trap, fish, harvest firewood and use motorized vehicles when the preserve was founded in l982. The traditional use rights were contingent on the activity not harming eagles or their habitat.
Duck and Karen Hess, who operate River Adventures, a popular jetboat tour on the Chilkat River near Klukwan, claimed that feeding herring to eagles perched alongside the river falls into a traditional use category. Feeding the eagles helped draw them alongside their boats and close to their clients.
Pourchot ruled that while not illegal the practice is inappropriate in the eagle preserve.
''This activity may be consistent with the management intent of a zoo; it is not consistent with the management intent of lands set aside to preserve bald eagles and the natural interaction of bald eagles within their habitats,'' Pourchot wrote in the Oct. 8 decision.
Pourchot also said that traditional uses of preserve lands do not include commercial tours.
River Adventures owner Karen Hess declined comment. The company has until early next month to appeal Pourchot's decision to Alaska Superior Court.
The future of commercial tours in the 48,000-acre sanctuary is in question as state planners struggle to revise the preserve's management plan, in part to deal with a boom in preserve-based tour business.
River Adventures, the largest jetboat operator in the preserve, grew from 750 clients in l994 to 13,524 last year, according to the state Division of Parks. The company, which has operated in the preserve since 1991, draws most of its customers from cruise ship moored in Skagway.
A moratorium on new tours, and a proposed ban on future commercial motorized tours in a portion of the preserve drew angry protests from crowds who packed public hearings this summer.
While most written comments on the issue, including opinions from preserve-founding biologists and state legislators, Klukwan's village council and national environmental groups, back curtailment of commercial tours, many local residents think by doing so the state would break legal covenants guaranteeing free use of lands inside the preserve.
Many, including City of Haines Mayor Dave Black, think the proposed measures will stifle business growth. Black this week called for the state to factor economic interests into future preserve land use decisions.
''This town is on its knees, and anything we do has to take into consideration economic development,'' he said.
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