Tongass sets limits for commercial guides, outfitters

Competing users of forest shoreline express concern

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2005

For the first time, Tongass National Forest officials have set specific allocations for commercial recreation, hunting and fishing guide operations along the northern reaches of the forest's shoreline.

Private outfitters like Chris Erickson, a Hoonah bear guide, were struggling Friday to understand how the decision, announced in a several-hundred-page document last week, will affect their livelihood.

"If you are running into tourism parties (on the beach) ... good-bye bear hunting," Erickson said.

Erickson's concern is shared by most outfitters and small cruise ships jockeying for space and, in some cases, competing with locals on the Tongass shoreline.

Increasing competition for space is one of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service "took the big gulp" and decided to analyze, all at once, the recreational carrying capacity of 7 million acres and 5,291 miles of shoreline along the Admiralty Island National Monument and the Juneau, Hoonah and Sitka ranger districts, said Scott Fitzwilliams, the forest's staff officer for recreation, lands, minerals and heritage.

It took 412 years for Tongass recreation staffers to complete their analysis and publish a decision.

In contrast to the Tongass timber sale program, which has its own planning division, the recreation staff was on its own.

"There's one group of (us) and that's it," Fitzwilliams said.

The shoreline decision is a critical step for the Tongass, said Aurah Landau, an outreach coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

"They need to put more resources into tourism," Landau said.

As a result of the decision, outfitters and guides likely will encounter a barrier to future expansion of their operations on the southwestern shore of Admiralty Island, Pybus Bay, Peril Strait and Point Adolphus.

Those areas appear to be reaching their maximum carrying capacity, Fitzwilliams said.

The agency evaluated several alternatives but ultimately allocated 11 percent of the national forest's estimated capacity for recreational use to commercial outfitters and guides.

The decision also:

• Allows up to 17,530 commercial groups to use the northern shoreline area in the spring, summer and fall seasons.

• Limits commercial use in the spring to 10 percent of the forest's carrying capacity "to reduce encounters and provide more opportunities for solitude," according to the decision.

• Designates 36 large-group areas (maximum of 75 people) for use in all three seasons.

• Allows groups of 100 to use the shoreline only with special permission.

The shoreline areas affected by the decision extend one-half mile inland from mean high tide.

"There's no possible way to solve the problem between someone who wants to shoot a bear and take a picture of it," Fitzwilliams said. The trick, he said, is to give everyone the space he or she needs.

Until now, he said, there was no coordinated effort within the national forest to balance those uses.

"There was no coordination. ... It frustrated the public," Fitzwilliams said.

The Tongass has published a shoreline outfitterguide decision for the Stikine area, and will soon launch a similar process for the Ketchikan and Misty Fjords area.

Tourism has increased on the Tongass in the past decade, but outfitterguide use has been set at 11 percent.

Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said in his written record of decision that it allows for "moderate growth" for tourism though it wouldn't resolve all conflicts between outfitters and guides who use the forest.

The decision, scheduled to go into effect later this year, is subject to appeal within 45 days after its publication as a legal notice on Jan. 23.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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