For nearly his entire life, Atz Kilcher has been going up into the Fox River Flats to enjoy the wilderness. Soon, he may be able to bring more people with him.
The homesteader near Homer and star of the Discovery channel reality show “Alaska: The Last Frontier” applied to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for permission to construct several permanent buildings near Sheep Creek in the Fox River Flats, northeast of the Old Believer Russian Orthodox village of Kachemak Selo. The structures would be there year round but only used for about three months a year.
Some of the ranchers who graze cattle in the Fox River Flats have raised concerns about Kilcher’s proposal, however. A comment period closes Dec. 21 for people to write letters about Kilcher’s permit application. The DNR Division of Mining, Land and Water is reviewing the proposal, and has sent it to other agencies, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, for input, said Candace Snow, a natural resources specialist with DNR.
Under the Kenai Management Plan, the area has two primary uses, grazing and recreation, said Chris Rainwater, a member of the Fox River Flats Cattlemen’s Association. Rainwater questioned if a camp with permanent structures and exclusive rights would be compatible with cattle grazing.
Kilcher is a member of the Cattlemen’s Association, but did not contact the association board ahead of time about his plans. In a statement from the Cattlemen’s Association, Otto Kilcher, president, said, “The Fox River Cattlemen’s Association has not had an opportunity to review this proposal. The FRCA will meet to carefully consider the impact it may have on the grazing lease, and it expects to be very involved in the comment process.”
Otto Kilcher and Atz Kilcher are brothers.
The proposed site for the project is right next to the Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Area, but not in it. The project could not be permitted in the habitat area, Snow said.
“He’s just outside the line,” she said of Atz Kilcher’s camp.
Snow said the proposed camp is within a grazing lease area. Land uses can overlap, she said, “so long as they’re compatible uses.”
“This would be seen as a compatible use,” she said. “He’s taking up a relatively small chunk of the pie for the cattle lease area.”
The plans are still up in the air right now, Kilcher said. His vision is to be able to bring people up to the area to enjoy the wilderness and be inspired to make art, he said. He is connected to several nonprofit organizations in Homer that take young people out for activities in the wilderness around Kachemak Bay, and working with them is one possibility for the camp, he said.
“The dream as it’s unfolding, it could involve kids, youths, parents and their kids — I see it more as a writing, art retreat,” Kilcher said. “I could envision letting existing organizations use my facility, turning kids on to the wilderness.”
Between two and 10 camp participants would be there from two to seven days, working on a variety of art forms that could include singing, songwriting, poetry, painting or film, Kilcher wrote in the application. The campground would include a two-story barn, a cabin, a bunkhouse, a workshop and an outhouse.
If permitted, Kilcher would pay $1,000 a year to use the land, as well as put up a performance bond and be required to have insurance. Users would pay $2 a day per person, Snow said. As part of the state’s budget process, though, DNR is reviewing its fee schedule.
If the Discovery Channel or another video company wanted to film at Kilcher’s camp, it would have to get a state permit, Snow said. If the filming was done by Kilcher as part of his project, that could be set as a use under his permit.
The camp also would keep one or two horses, chickens, a cow and rabbits, Kilcher wrote. The site, which is away from any vehicle-accessible road, is only accessible by four-wheeler, snow machine, horseback or foot.
Kilcher wrote that campers would drive a four-wheeler to the Fox River and cross the river in a rowboat.
Kilcher could not restrict trail or river access to the area, Snow said. In his application, Kilcher asked that the camp be closed to public use except for emergencies. The Cattlemen’s Association has two shelter cabins in the Fox River Flats grazing area, Rainwater said. The cabins are temporary buildings mounted on skids.
“You can get stranded over there and get soaked and dying,” Rainwater said.
Another concern with having permanent structures in the area is that Fox River Flats is in the flood plain of the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Project. Under one model, if there was a catastrophic failure of the project, a 3-foot wall of water would flood the plain, Rainwater said. Shelter cabins in the flats have signs warning of the danger and even life jackets in the cabins.
The point is not just to bring campers out to live in the wilderness, but to allow them to be inspired by the nature around them to make art, Kilcher said.
The Fox River is a place close to his heart, he said. His father, Yule Kilcher, owned land in the area and helped to found the Fox River Cattlemen’s Association, which has had a grazing lease in the area since 1955, he said. Much of his art — baskets, wood carvings and other works — incorporates reeds, bones and stones from the head of Kachemak Bay and around the river area.
“The Fox River valley for me has been for me a fantasyland, a retreat,” Kilcher said. “I call it my sanctuary. The theme of healing, the theme of getting in touch with your higher self, of being creative, of being at your best, those kind of things are what I experienced when I was up there. It still has that magic for me.”
Although Homer has grown significantly in recent years, the Fox River valley has remained relatively undeveloped, in part because of its remoteness.
Most people who travel into it by four-wheeler stop at the Fox River, but there is much more to it that is accessible by boat or horseback, Kilcher said.
Rainwater’s family has grazed cattle in the area since 1953, Rainwater said. Horse or cattle grazing in the Fox River area may go as far back as 1905, when a Finnish agricultural colony raised hay in the area, he said.
Although the community has the right to weigh in on his application, Kilcher said the valley is so remote that most people probably will not know he is out there. In total for the summer, the camp would host about 50 people, according to the application, and with the size of the valley, it’s not likely to make a lot of noise or pollution. The only chemical planned for the site is gas for a generator and the four-wheeler; all other waste would be taken away from the camp and buried or carried out.
Kilcher is a well-known figure from his involvement in the community music and art scene, besides the Discovery reality show. However, the TV show has given him a broader audience where the crews are filming in the valley and around his homestead, he said. They do capture a select part of the reality of the family’s life but, like any TV show, incorporate drama and portray them as much more remote and subsistence-based than they are, he said.
“With this Discovery chapter in my life, they do some filming of me up there, I’ve put it all in perspective now and I’ve just got to go ‘Wow, I’ve been up there most of my life. Now I’m sharing it with a lot of people via television,’” Kilcher said.
“But when I think about what gives me pleasure, what gives people pleasure, whatever we do to feel a thrill, to feel connected, to feel alive, (the Fox River valley) is where it’s always been at for me.”
To comment on Atz Kilcher’s land use permit, LAS 30636, concerned citizens can write by 5 p.m. Dec. 21 to Division of Mining, Land and Water, 550 West 7th Ave., Anchorage, AK 99501. For more information, contact Snow at 907-269-5032 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The application is available on at https://aws.state.ak.us/OnlinePublicNotices/Notices/View.aspx?id=179142.