In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the ongoing international strife, the Alaska Division of Parks on the Kenai Peninsula is poised to receive an influx of visitors next summer.
That was the message Kenai Peninsula Parks Superintendent Chris Degernes brought to business leaders at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday.
Degernes spoke about peninsula parks in general, and about the park she gives most of her attention to from the bank above it.
The Kenai River, part of the Kenai River Special Management Area, flowed bright and ice-free beneath the window of the Riverside House in Soldotna during her talk.
"I spend probably three-quarters of my time on Kenai River issues," she said. "The Kenai River is an impressive resource and important to the local economy. This is our 'golden goose,' and it's our responsibility to take care of it and manage it."
She said that while fishing is the No. 1 reason people go to the river, other activities also are popular, including float trips, bird watching, camping and picnicking.
Degernes said she thinks the role of Parks is to provide destination points for tourists, which drive much of the local economy. She also is a member of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council board.
Most of the visitors to the 40 state parks on the peninsula come from in-state. Eighty percent of the visitors are from Alaska, while the other 20 percent are from the rest of the Lower 48 and from international locations.
Promoting tourism is one of three tenants Parks follows, Degernes said. The other two are providing outdoor recreation opportunities and preserving cultural resources.
She said she believes state parks will play a larger role in tourism next summer as people from the Lower 48 turn to domestic vacations, given the current international strife.
"I think a lot of people will restructure their vacations, and we'll be here to fill that niche," she said.
Despite years of ongoing bank and habitat restoration and access work, Degernes said there are still many challenges facing the river.
"The threats to the health and integrity of the river still exist," she said. "And they're not big things, they are just small insidious straws on the camel's back."
She said drops of oil in driveways and poorly functioning septic systems cause pollution in the river. She cited high levels of fecal coliform in the river as evidence.
She said Monday's tanker truck accident near Cooper Landing was a "cold slap in the face" for those involved in managing the river. (See related story on page 1.)
"We had our canary in the mine die yesterday," she said. "Consider the implications if that truck had gone in on the river side. It would be a disaster for the economy, not only in the central peninsula, but the whole region.
"It could start a chain reaction and cause unknown ramifications in the business and visitor economy."
Terry Coval asked Degernes if she or Parks had a position on rerouting the Sterling Highway in Cooper Landing. She said it was an area of concern for her department, especially in preserving the integrity of the river.
"It's particularly complex because there are eight alternatives," she said. "And none of them are a slam-dunk. All have good and bad points, and we're refraining from taking a position and are just participating in the project."
Norm Blakeley asked if Parks is working on improving access to the Ninilchik beach for clamming.
Degernes said she was not personally involved in working on that issue, but knows that closure caused heavier use at other access points. She said her department will try to talk to folks in Ninilchik about the issue.
Marion Nelson asked about where and when park rangers are allowed to enforce laws on the river.
Degernes said her rangers have the authority to enforce all state laws on the river and in parks and have arrested people in the past for violations.
She added that one guide -- whom she did not name -- has been a particular problem with vulgar and aggressive behavior on the river, and that none of it is a clear violation.
"This particular guide has been a thorn in our side for years, and this year he just went overboard," she said. "We got a lot of complaints about him, including him telling off little old ladies. It's not fair to his clients or to others on the river."
She said Parks is looking into better defining the behavior guides should abide by and find state laws that are applicable.
Pete Sprague asked if there are any new projects in the future for Parks. Degernes said there were just a few little ones, including the last phase of restoration at Slikok Creek Park. A project scheduled for 2003 would create better access from the Sterling Highway to the beach at Deep Creek, while a 2004 project would put a pedestrian/bike path to the beach in Anchor Point.
"Right now kids on bicycles have no safe way to get to the beach except for the narrow, no-shoulder road," she said.
She said funding for the Division of Parks looks stable.
"We see it as a success if we don't get cut," she said. "Our strength is doing a lot of work with a little money."
She did say the tight budget climate does make Parks reluctant to take on larger projects, especially alone.
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