Taking center stage at Tuesday night's Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting was testimony from area winter sports enthusiasts who accused proposed changes to the Chugach National Forest's Resource Management Plan of trying to pit user groups against each other. They said they fear the Forest Service will follow through with a recommendation to close areas now open to the public.
The plan, going through a required periodic revision, covers a wide range of forest-related subjects and is in the public comment phase, which ends Dec. 14.
"This should be an issue of public access to public lands," said Christine Kraus, of Soldotna. "It should not be pitting groups against each other."
Others echoed testimony given by Kraus.
"The big picture is that they're shutting down the area," said Lane Geisler, of Kenai. "We're being pitted against skiers."
Geisler said the Forest Service was being pressured by interest groups outside Alaska.
"Your help is desperately needed," Eric Wilcox told the assembly.
In response to similar comments from some 200 attendees at a recent public meeting held by the Forest Service, assembly member Grace Merkes introduced "a resolution supporting leaving all existing trails in the Chugach National Forest open for existing recreational uses, supporting improvements to and maintenance of trails and parking lots and supporting building new cross-country ski trails."
"These people are concerned with losing their winter recreational opportunities," Merkes told the assembly.
Assembly member Ron Long said he had attended Forest Service and user group meetings. He urged those testifying Tuesday to submit their comments to the Forest Service before the deadline.
"Get your opinions in writing," Long said. "Verbal opinion does not count."
Assembly president Tim Navarre said the resolution "was an easy one for me to vote on and support."
"It disturbs me a little bit that (the federal government) had a meeting and public testimony didn't count," Navarre said. "If they've drawn up the plan that, as some people thought, is already predetermined, then they're not listening. That's when the borough has to speak."
Enthusiastic applause from the audience erupted when the assembly gave their unanimous consent to the resolution.
Far from being an easy decision for the assembly was a request from borough Mayor Dale Bagley that the assembly confirm the appointment of Sherman C. "Red" Smith to the Cooper Landing Advisory Planning Commission.
"I've considered and agonized over this decision," Long said.
It is the second time Bagley appointed Smith to that position and, in the end, was the second time the assembly denied Smith's confirmation.
The Cooper Landing resident currently has two lawsuits filed against current and former borough employees and officials. Legal counsel in these actions is being paid for by the borough, according to borough attorney Colette Thompson.
Reasons both for and against Smith's confirmation were discussed.
Jack Brown, assembly member from Nikiski, characterized Smith as "a man of his word" and credited him for his community participation.
"The mayor is not trying to shove me down the throat of the environmental community," Smith said. He added that the commission needs "someone that will speak for industry."
A 6-to-3 vote brought the matter to a close. Navarre, Long, Pete Sprague, Chris Moss, Bill Popp and Milli Martin voted against the confirmation; Brown, Merkes and Paul Fischer voted in favor.
Receiving considerable attention by the assembly was an ordinance introduced by Bagley, which would authorize the emergency harvest of spruce bark beetle killed timber that represent a forest fire hazard. It also would amend borough code to provide for over-the-counter disposal of forest resources when no qualifying proposals result from requests for proposals for bids.
"There's going to be a major fire," said James Baisden, fire marshal for the city of Kenai, referring to the risk posed by trees that have become the beetles' victims. He urged the assembly to be proactive.
Cooper Landing resident Carrie Williams also encouraged the assembly to take action.
"It is imperative that the spruce bark beetle killed trees be dealt with," she said. "We are at threat of losing homes, business and God forbid lives."
Red Smith testified for the need for action, reminding the assembly of plans made by the Forest Service for a 1,300-acre burn.
Amendments to the ordinance and clarification between identified parcel numbers and maps provided by the borough caused the assembly to postpone action until the next meeting Dec. 12.
Scheduled for a hearing at that meeting is Ordinance 2000-59, authorizing the borough to negotiate an agreement with the state of Alaska to operate a 800- to 1,000-bed prison facility and to publicly solicit bids or proposals for the land, design, construction and operation of the facility, to be financed with municipal revenue bonds.
During the assembly's legislative committee meeting Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, said he anticipated being named chair of the Corrections subcommittee. Saying the state-approved prison facility at Fort Greeley was "not going forward," Ward stressed the importance presenting a plan to Gov. Tony Knowles and Department of Corrections Commissioner Mar-garet Pugh as soon as possible.
"I have been assured they are not turning a deaf ear," Ward said of Knowles' and Pugh's reaction to having a prison facility built in the borough.
"I am very pleased the Kenai Peninsula is being considered."
Receiving unanimous appro-val, but requiring some explanation from borough finance director Jeff Sinz, were changes to property tax due dates and the rate of penalties and interest on delinquent taxes. Borough property owners will now be given the option of equally splitting payment of their taxes between Sept. 15 and Nov. 15 or making one payment Oct. 15.
A penalty of 5 percent, rather than 12 percent, will be added to delinquent taxes the day they become delinquent and an additional 5 percent of the taxes due, rather than 12 percent, will be added to any tax more than 30 days delinquent. An interest rate of 10 percent a year, instead of 12 percent, will accrue upon all delinquent unpaid taxes, not including penalties from the due date until paid in full.
The ordinance takes effect Jan. 1. However, the change in interest rates became effective Nov. 15.
"Does this mean rebates are possible?" Fischer asked.
"Yes," said Sinz, who assured Fischer his department was responsible for following up on that.
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