An online meeting last Thursday organized by the Alaska Division of Parks and Recreation provided an update on one aspect of a bill moving through the Alaska Legislature that could add almost 270 acres to the north shore of Kachemak State Park. Introduced by Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, House Bill 52 also would remove about 170 acres around the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery from the park to resolve a land disposal issue that would not allow the hatchery to continue if it remained part of the park.
This week, the Homer News looks at the Cottonwood-Eastland area of Kachemak Bay State Park and how that could be developed as a new trail system with parking, public use cabins and a campground. Next week we will look at the hatchery and HB 52.
At the meeting held online on Oct. 28, with about 30 attending virtually and Vance and some citizens attending at the Legislative Information Office, Jack Blackwell, Superintendent of Parks for the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound, said the meeting was to focus on plans for the Cottonwood-Eastland area.
“We’re not here to talk about hatcheries,” he said. “…This discussion is not about the merits of fish hatcheries.”
While most people think of Kachemak Bay State Park as the trails and cabins across the bay, almost 3,000 acres lie on the north shore east of McNeil Canyon and south of East End Road near Mile 17 to 18. HB 52 would add two large parcels on the coast and a smaller parcel near Mile 17. A small campground and latrine that’s part of the Kachemak Bay Water Trail is the only developed area in the Cottonwood-Eastland area.
A draft management plan that Blackwell said the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and State Parks intends to adopt proposes trail development, a trailhead, cabins and a campground at the small parcel on East End Road in the Cottonwood-Eastland area. HB 52 does not include funding for any of that development, Vance said at last Thursday’s meeting.
“One of the things unique about this parcel is it’s accessible from the road system,” Blackwell said.
What Blackwell called scouting trails do exist off Elmer’s Way, a Kenai Peninsula Borough road maintained by landowners in the area that connects to East End Road from Ratone Road near Mile 17. There also are some marked snowshoe trails. The trails wind through birch, aspen, cottonwood and spruce forest, with views of the Kenai Mountains across the bay. Parks did allow volunteers to do some preliminary scouting and brushing of those trails.
“These are preliminary routes for scouting,” Blackwell said. “We have not issued any permits for construction.”
At the meeting, Mile 17 homeowners spoke of increased use of those trails, with as many as seven cars parked in a day along the road. There’s a small parking area at the corner of Ratone Road and Elmer’s Way.
“It’s very frustrating to local residents,” said one Mile 17 homeowner, Jeanie Roche, at the meeting. “… Right now there’s not really good public safety on these social trails.”
“We’re getting a lot of traffic, a lot of foot traffic,” added Meg Cicciarella, another Mile 17 homeowner. “…We’re really concerned in the neighborhood about folks continuing to access the area. There aren’t any designated trails in the park. … Word of mouth has spread.”
Blackwell said that when State Parks gets closer to development in the area, discussions would go through the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizens Advisory Board.
The Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park, a citizen’s advocacy group for the park, has applied and paid the application fee for an Interagency Land Management Agreement, or ILMA, to put under parks management what’s called Area A in HB 52. Area A and the other two areas, B and C, proposed to be added to Kachemak Bay State Park are now classified as general state land.
Blackwell said that even if HB 52 isn’t passed, parks would still seek to bring those properties under parks administrative management. It takes an act of the Legislature to put land into a state park — and also take it out. Blackwell said land under parks administrative management can also be taken out of such management.
If Area A comes under park management, it would connect the Cottonwood-Eastland area to East End Road. Area A was part of a larger state parcel, some of which was transferred to the Kenai Peninsula Borough. A sliver of borough land between Area A is just west of Ratone Road. A cleared area on that parcel left over from firefighting during the Mile 17 wildfire could provide parking for about 10 vehicles. Blackwell said the borough also has authorized light brush clearing to connect its lot to Kachemak Bay State Park. He said the state is committed to working with neighbors to address their concerns about park use.
“This may be an opportunity for us to provide access to the park outside of the subdivision roads,” he said of the borough parcel. “That may be a good option for us until we get management authority in some capacity for this unit.”
The two large parcels, B and C, proposed in HB 52 already have deed restrictions limiting them to conservation use. One parcel was acquired using Exxon Valdez Oil Spill settlement funds.
In response to a question by Vance as to the advantage of adding them to Kachemak Bay State Park, Blackwell said, “Really, it’s more of a boundary clean up and clarification. I think it adds maybe a greater element of protection to the property, but really, there’s deed restrictions and conservation easements on those properties.”
There’s also a private inholding within the Cottonwood-Eastland area that is surrounded by park land. Alan Parks asked if land like that would fall under state parks statutes if acquired. Blackwell said that would be the case. Parcels B and C abut, but are not enclosed by the park, and thus wouldn’t fall under park statutes.
However, if the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery land was removed from the state park, it would not fall under park statutes even if it was enclosed by Kachemak Bay State Park, Blackwell said.
Alan Parks also asked Vance if HB 52 could be split into two companion bills, with one putting the Cottonwood-Eastland parcels into Kachemak Bay State Park and the other addressing the hatchery issue. Vance said she would entertain that idea.
“It’s something I would consider,” Vance said. “I’m not going to give a final decision at this time without considering the final implications of what that would look like.”
Next week: How HB 52 would work and what’s next for the hatchery.