State officials have some big changes in store for Eagle Beach, a picnic and bird-viewing spot generations of Juneau residents have loved and abused.
The beach, about 27 miles north of downtown, will become the second location in Southeast Alaska where the state will charge a $5-per-vehicle day use fee.
The first day-use fee in the region was established a few years ago, next door at the Eagle River Recreation Area.
In recent weeks, state park caretaker Joy Baker has been notifying beach visitors about the upcoming fee.
"The locals are not happy," she reported.
When a new fee station is set up at the beach later this summer, "I think they will be really upset," she said.
About 1,500 people visit the beach yearly to grill out or watch the antics of migrating shorebirds, sea lions and seals and whales against a backdrop of dot-sized islands, Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Mountains.
Others sneak in late at night to light fires in the beach's bathrooms or on picnic tables.
"They don't realize that it takes manpower to clean that up," Baker said.
Baker said the fees are just a sign of the times. She said public demand and vandalism means that "someone has to come after them and clean up the garbage."
"We're going to operate (the beach) at a little higher level," said park ranger Paul Zahasky. "It's pretty much the trend statewide."
The new fee will go into effect as soon as improvements at the beach, including paving its short access road, are concluded, Zahasky said.
Beach users can avoid the daily vehicle fee at either the river or the beach by purchasing a $40 annual pass redeemable at all state-run parks in Alaska, he said.
Longtime Juneau trail promoter and conservationist Mary Lou King is troubled by the new fee.
She fears that people who now flock to Eagle Beach on sunny days will disperse to other city beaches that have no amenities and no one to clean up their messes.
"I think this is going to be a sad thing for our community," King said. "I think we ought to be able to figure out some way to not charge people to go there."
Southeast Alaska Region Parks Superintendent Mike Eberhardt said recreation fees are becoming more common and are prevalent in the Anchorage area.
The fees may help generate more public respect for the beach and show the Alaska Legislature that the parks division is helping generate revenue, Eberhardt said.
"When people pay a fee, they expect a higher level of service and have a higher level of respect when they use it," Eberhardt said.
At this time, state recreation fees do not go directly back to paying for the facilities where they were collected.
Recreation fees go to the state's general fund, where they must be reallocated to the parks by the Legislature.
In advance of the new fee, the state plans to improve amenities at the beach, Zahasky said.
The state will replace the beach's picnic tables and fire pits, pave the gravel access road to the beach and create a designated area for road-side parking.
Baker, the state caretaker, said that while Juneau residents are displeased about the new fee, out-of-town visitors she's informed don't question it.
"They are used to paying for parks down south," she said.
Baker shares King's fear that residents will disperse to beaches without bathrooms, fire pits or tables in order to avoid paying the fee.
She's noticed that recreational vehicle owners and campers avoid fees at established campgrounds by settling alongside the road in the city's Auke Village Recreation Center or more remote spots.
Some campers even set up at a remote spot of Eagle Beach, where camping is no longer allowed.
"They are leaving a lot of garbage," she said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com
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