State halts Kasilof boat landing project

  • In this June 2016 photo, dipnetters, commercial fishing vessels and seagulls all crowd the mouth of the Kasilof River at low tide in Kasilof, Alaska. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)
  • In this June 2016 photo, a guide rows clients on the Kasilof River near the confluence with Crooked Creek in Kasilof, Alaska. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

A controversial project to install a new boat ramp on the banks of the Kasilof River has been put on hold.

The project, known as the Kasilof Landing, has been in progress for the better part of a decade. Local residents had asked specifically for a boat takeout facility on the lower river — currently, boaters have to pay to haul out at the Kasilof Lodge and Cabins, float all the way to the mouth or motor back up the river to the park at the Sterling Highway bridge. The Legislature appropriated the money for a project in 2011 and 2012, specifically for a drift boat takeout facility.

In December 2016, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation unveiled plans for the facility at an open house in Kasilof. To many people’s surprise, the plans included a traditional boat ramp rather than just a cable takeout system, which could allow people to launch as well.

After receiving a large number of public comments, the Division of Parks announced on its website last week that the project would be put on hold.

“The division is putting this project on hold while its takes a comprehensive look at the multiple Kasilof River recreation access projects that are in various stages of development,” the announcement states. “We will be reaching out to stakeholders and the community before we make any further decisions.”

The landing was planned for two adjacent parcels the state bought from private owners in early 2015, known as the Trujillo property and the Kimbrough property, on the north side of the river around river mile 3.75. Cleanup on the land, including buried fuel tanks, has been ongoing since the fall, but has been put on hold as well. Planned construction on the site won’t go forward in fall 2017 as planned.

The boat retrieval is part of a larger story of infrastructure improvements on the Kasilof River. Last fall, the Division of Mining, Land and Water issued plans for improvements on the north side of the Kasilof River’s mouth, where thousands of people land for months every summer to participate in the personal use dipnet and gillnet fisheries there. The construction began Oct. 5 and is nearly finished, though the state issued a construction update Feb. 10 saying that it may not be completely finished by the opening of the personal use gillnet fishery on June 10. Work will depend on when the road conditions allow for the use of heavy equipment, according to the announcement.

The department had also planned improvements for the south side of the river mouth, but that may not happen anytime soon. DNR Commissioner Andy Mack said the department is “going back to the drawing board” on the south side improvements as well as on the Kasilof Landing project.

He said the department’s priorities should be doing a good job on the north side project, given the number of people who use the area, and to include the public’s input on the plans for the south side in the future. In stopping the Kasilof Landing project, he said the department thought it would result in a better north side project.

“We’ve stopped the (boat landing) project right now, and … we’re going to go back and rethink what we’re doing and prioritize what our efforts are,” he said. “We have limited budgets here at the state.”

One source of conflict for residents was the designation of the funding. The capital improvement funds appropriated for the project are specifically titled “Lower Kasilof River Drift Boat Takeout,” and residents who attended the meeting in December said they felt the boat ramp design — which was included in all four design options — violated that.

Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation Director Ben Ellis, who has since been fired from the position by Gov. Bill Walker, said at the time that the ramp had lower maintenance costs and he could use his director’s authority to block dipnetters from using the ramp as a launch to access the personal use fishery.

DNR spokesperson Elizabeth Bluemink said in an email neither the agency nor the governor’s office would comment on whether Ellis’s termination was connected to the funding conflict on the Kasilof Landing project because it was a personnel issue.

Mack said he has heard residents’ concerns about the funding. For now, the money will stay in an account until the department determines what to do with it, he said.

Residents of Kasilof and other users have been going back and forth on how to manage the area for several years. In 2010, when the state first began considering facilities on the lower river, discussion of how to manage the area came along with it. Currently, the area near the mouth is the Kasilof River Special Use Area, which does not allow for Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation enforcement or fees at the dipnet fishery.

The alternative is a public use area, a different type of area classification, such as the Knik River Public Use Area in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

Residents were concerned about the lack of enforcement in the dipnet fishery, where participants left trash and waste in the sand and the nearby woods and no city government existed to pay for the cleanup. Some said they thought the formation of a special use area would help bring the fishery under control through enforcement, according to previous Clarion reporting. While Alaska State Wildlife Troopers do conduct inspections and answer calls to the fishery there, there are still no park rangers or other enforcement officers on the beach.

The department is open to the option of forming a public use area, but it’s not the department’s job to initiate the process, Mack said.

That initiative has to come from the residents and go through the Legislature as law, he said.

Mack said the department plans to take a step back and consider how best to address the Kasilof River system as a whole. The state may have overlooked how large the personal use fishery would grow — with 9,334 household days fished in 2016, it’s the equivalent of a decent-sized city in Alaska, he said.

Kenai’s personal use dipnet fishery, which is approximately three times the size by household effort days, has the city’s fire and police departments for enforcement and the public works department for cleanup, none of which exist at the Kasilof, Mack said.

The Kasilof is also a much narrower river at low tide, leading to conflicts between people fishing and boats coming in and out of the river.

“We really need to talk about how we’re going to manage this area,” Mack said. “The troopers are not overfunded … one of the things that is clear is that the troopers are very busy. Asking them to provide some enforcement, they certainly will respond where they can, but they don’t have unlimited funding.”

Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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