Conservation groups question Jet Ski regulation process in letter

Environmentalists allege Jet Ski ban repeal was tarnished, ask do over

Several Homer and Alaska environmental groups have written a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy questioning the process for how his administration made a rule change allowing personal watercraft, also called Jet Skis, in the Fox River Flats and Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Areas.

That rule change became effective this year and overturned a decades-long prohibition against operating Jet Skis in the critical habitat areas. Kachemak Bay State Park waters and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park waters currently remain closed to the fast, sit-on-top boats that are steered with handlebars like a motorcycle.

Management plans for the parks are being reviewed and revised by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. As part of that process, rules for Jet Ski use may change.

In a March 2 letter to Dunleavy written by Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper, on behalf of the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition, the Kachemak Bay Consevation Society and the Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park, Shavelson cites public records requests that “show your Administration engaged in a series of private communications and meetings — while ignoring an established public process — in an illegitimate effort to overturn the ban on personal watercraft, jet skis and other ‘thrillcraft’ (jet skis) in the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area.”

Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for Dunleavy, acknowledged that the governor’s office had received the letter, but has not yet made a response.

When asked if the next step would be to file a lawsuit against the state seeking to overturn the rule change, Shavelson said, “I think we want to see how the governor responds and all options are on the table.”

“We are developing a response now, just pushing back with greater detail on some matters,” said Penelope Haas, a board member of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society.

Haas filed a public records request seeking emails and correspondence between state officials and members of the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska. Shavelson alleged that correspondence showed Dunleavy’s administration “helped jet ski proponents draft letters and devise strategies to ignore the carefully-crafted KBCHA management planning process,” he wrote in the letter.

“They’ve taken a lot of liberties with a lot of things in that letter,” said Rick Green, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game special assistant who managed the rule change process.

Green admitted he helped Gina Poths, president of the Personal Watercraft Club, write a letter to Dunleavy.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to say I helped them craft the letter, but I don’t think that rises to collusion,” Green said. “… That’s not out of the realm of my job.”

Green said he corresponded and spoke with Shavelson, conservation society president Roberta Highland, Haas and representatives from birder groups.

“I had conversations with groups on both sides,” he said.

Haas said she didn’t have a problem with Green talking to personal watercraft advocates. She and Shavelson said their issue is with how the process unfolded.

“You don’t make a decision and go out and justify it,” she said. “You propose a new rule and weigh the comments that come in. … Consider the science. Consider the opinions from the experts in Fish and Game’s own agency that recommend against this.”

Shavelson wrote that repealing or keeping the ban on Jet Skis from the critical habitat area should have gone through the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Management plan revision process. He wrote that in more than a dozen meetings to revise the plan, state, federal and local agency experts chose not to undo it “because, among other reasons, such action would conflict with the state statute protecting Critical Habitat Areas.”

Shavelson called the rule change “a purely political decision.” He said the critical habitat management plan process has been a concerted effort to keep Kachemak Bay a special place.

“There are a lot of people and businesses that rely on the unique quality of Kachemak Bay. They didn’t rely on turning Kachemak Bay into a race track,” he said.

Haas said throughout the process the conservation society had been following the management plan review process. At an October 2019 meeting, she said officials said the Personal Watercraft Club might sue the state because of the Jet Ski ban. Green was on the phone with representatives of the club and proposed repealing the ban, Haas said.

An email to Green on April 17, 2019, from Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska President Gina Poths summarized Jet Ski proponents’ arguments for repealing the ban. She wrote that her group sought access to use the bay like other boats.

“I don’t think it’s right or really fair because we should be able to go where all boats go, but at this time in the game if we need to compromise, to at least have access to public launch ramps in Homer to enjoy the bay and be able to go to Seldovia and beyond is the most important thing,” she wrote.

Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said that because the harbor is outside the critical habitat area, even before the ban it was legal for Jet Skis to launch from the load-launch ramp as long as they paid the launch fee. The area around the Deep Water Dock also is outside the critical habitat area. Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said the city doesn’t enforce critical habitat regulations.

In emails in the public records request, Jet Ski user groups argued that personal watercraft are like any other boat. They should be regulated as an activity and not a user group. If a behavior damages habitat, that should be regulated, not a specific kind of watercraft.

Haas said any rule change should be evidence based.

“I would expect the rule to have a process that precedes it and expecting it follows statute, which is protection of fish and wildlife and the prohibition of any activity that goes against it,” she said.

The governor should come clean about what Haas called a tarnished process, “and to acknowledge that the upper levels of Fish and Game were having backroom meeting with a special interest group that were outside the normal channels, and they devised a rule change outside the standards we expect of Fish and Game without evidence,” she said.

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Gina Poth’s name.