Conservation groups are going to court to restrict large jet boats in "sensitive habitat" areas of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines.
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Earthjustice, a nonprofit law office in Juneau, filed a three-party lawsuit against the state in Alaska Superior Court on Monday. It challenges Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Michael Menge's May 18 decision to deny a July 2005 appeal regarding a commercial-use permit for jet boats on the Chilkat River.
Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of Lynn Canal Conservation, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Native elder Joe Hotch. They say the twin 150-horsepower, 32-passenger jet boats are hurting the salmon population.
Nancy Berland, issues coordinator for Lynn Canal Conservation, said there is visual evidence that the high-powered boats are leading to shoreline erosion, and the groups fear the 565 trips allowed under the current permit could lead to a decline in the river's salmon.
"These aren't the normal jet boats that other people use on the river," she said. "The wakes of these boats hit the shores with 10 times the force."
Earthjustice lawyer Deirdre McDonnell said the lawsuit alleges the permit violates the legislation that established the preserve in 1982 for the purpose of protecting eagle and salmon habitat. Commercial activities must be compatible with that purpose to get a permit, she said.
Karen Hess, an owner of River Adventures in Haines, said she had not heard of the lawsuit as of Tuesday afternoon, but wasn't surprised.
"We're the only jet-boat tour and every year they file an appeal against our permit," she said.
Hess said every year the conservation groups aren't able to convince state officials of a reason to take away the permit. She said she did not have any other comments.
"The commissioner has made his decision," DNR spokesman Dan Saddler said. "The Lynn Canal (Conservation) has announced they want to appeal that decision to the Superior Court, so we'll let the court do its job."
A press release from LCC said Alaska Department of Fish and Game memos indicate that jet boats "degrade high-value rearing habitat, and potentially impact salmon eggs, rearing juvenile salmon, migrating salmon, and critical salmon spawning habitat."
Berland said the Chilkat salmon are important to many people and animals in Southeast Alaska. She said the salmon sustain the vibrant bald eagle population near Haines, but are also economically and culturally important to commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen.
"The eagle preserve is really important because we get a lot of tourism because of it, but basically the Chilkat River is our breadbasket. ... These fish are being caught throughout Southeast Alaska and if we don't protect the salmon then we are in trouble," Berland said.
McDonnell said it could take the courts six months to a year to resolve the appeal.
Berland said there has been a consistent weakening of salmon protection under the Murkowski administration, and the government could be leading Alaska salmon in a downward spiral such as what California, Oregon and Washington have experienced.
"We want to see the habitat protected, so we want to see a direction from the courts that DNR should do a better job of managing the salmon habitat," she said.