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The U.S. Forest Service is trying to find a way to fit kayakers, anglers, hunters and tourists into places in the Tongass National Forest that might be a little too popular.
Agency planners have been on the road this month to update people about a proposal that will guide recreation on the northern part of the Tongass. Juneau was the last stop on Thursday and about 20 people attended a meeting at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
The project covers 6,000 miles of shoreline from South Baranof Island to Skagway. The goal is to protect resources and find a balance between competing uses, planning team leader Bob Dalrymple said.
"That's the challenge. People have different expectations for a recreation experience," he said.
Planning started in 1998 as part of an effort to address a growing number of bear hunting guides. Since then, the scope has expanded to identify places and regulations for large commercial groups, Dalrymple said.
The agency has developed five alternatives for discussion, ranging from the status quo to placing commercial use anywhere between 5 to 50 percent of recreation capacity. Each alternative would include a different number of areas set aside for big groups. Large groups are generally more than 20 people, although the definition would vary by location, Dalrymple said.
The agency is considering two strategies for large groups, although the ideas still are being developed. One is to establish enclaves that groups could use at any time. The other is to limit use of certain spots to 15 percent of the season or roughly one day a week, Dalrymple said. Large groups likely would require boardwalk or gravel trails, needs which could be worked into restrictions, he said.
Lindblad Expeditions operates two small ships in Southeast Alaska that each carry about 70 passengers and five naturalist guides. The trips focus on educational and wilderness experiences. Expedition leader Bud Lehnhausen said he's concerned that areas his company has used in the past might not be available in the future.
"Our passengers are interested in a different experience than the big ships," he said.
The company also would like to see a variety of areas open to access, from meadows to old-growth forests, he said. Once ashore, passengers split into smaller groups of 12. Itineraries depend on passenger interests and weather conditions, he said.
Sarah Dunlap, co-owner of Alaska Fly 'n' Fish Charters, said concentrating the number of people in a wilderness area takes away what people are there to see. She'll be following the process to see where it goes and supports the effort, she said.
"I don't see any alternative. The Forest Service needs to be proactive," she said.
But Ron Dippold voiced objections to commercial activities on public land.
"They're not considering individual use at all. It's geared to commercial use. Commercial tourism is taking over Southeast and destroying everything else," he said.
The agency has detailed data from commercial operators who are required to turn in reports as part of the permitting process. Information about noncommercial use is limited although some data from cabin rentals and rangers who travel by kayak is available, Dalrymple said.
Recreation already is guided by land use designations spelled out in the Tongass Land Management Plan, Dalrymple said. The agency has been coordinating efforts with the state. Eventually, the Forest Service plans a similar analysis for the southern end of the Tongass, he added. A draft environmental impact statement should be released later this summer.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.