Taku River users push for protections

Citizens seek proposal to designate part of the river a critical habitat

Posted: Monday, January 25, 2010

A bankruptcy filing by a mine company proposing to run a hoverbarge on the Taku River laid the controversial request to rest for the time being, but fishermen and environmentalists who fought the proposal are not sitting on their heels.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File

A group of commercial fishermen joined a river conservation organization and some property owners in a request to the Juneau delegation to pursue higher protections for the river.

"There's a belief that we were a hair's breath away from permitting an experimental craft - with no formal use in any other part of the world - and that threat to habitat and rearing of salmon seems unacceptable," United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Executive Director Chris Knight said.

Knight and others approached Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, with a proposal to designate part of the river a critical habitat area but came away with a decision to further investigate which type of designation - if any - would best meet river users' concerns.

The Alaska Legislature can designate Special Use Areas for the protection of fish and wildlife habitat. The Mendenhall River State Game Refuge is a local example.

Egan said his staff would ask Legal Affairs for an opinion about which approach would best protect the river. A critical habitat designation might be one avenue but revisions to current law might also work, he said.

Ron Maas, founder of the Taku Lodge who currently owns 160 acres in the river drainage, supports higher controls on the river, especially for better fishing.

"I've been here 50 years and the fishing's going down, down, down and down even more, and if we don't do something drastic to protect the fisheries here we're not going to have any," Maas said. "Running barges and tugs up and down river isn't going to help it a bit."

Despite the mine company's financial troubles that put a stop to the hoverbarge permit application, a new proposal to move ore on the river could threaten the fish habitat in the future, Maas said.

"Gold is up around $1,100 dollars an ounce and I'm sure someone will be in there doing something," he said.

Redfern Corp., owner of the Tulsequah Chief mine just over the border in Canada, filed for bankruptcy last spring.

The mine is leaking acid into the river but the company's financial troubles mean clean-up efforts were halted.

A critical habitat designation could not force any action on the mine drainage, since the mine is in Canada and not subject to Alaska state laws. But it could set up a higher level of scrutiny for the future, proponents said.

The mine is not accessible by road, and the Native Tlingit tribe that owns property in Canada is not likely to allow one to be built, meaning the river is the probable byway for ore transport.

The Division of Habitat would oversee any area receiving critical habitat designation, but Director Carrie Howard said it is too early to tell how it might affect people who use the river.

"A lot depends on the purpose they designate it for," Howard said.

That would be outlined by a management plan, written with public input after an area is designated by the Legislature.

Egan said a meeting would be held to gather input from river users after the legal department provides more information. He did not expect to introduce legislation on the issue this session.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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