Panhandle wildlife gets new scrutiny on state coastal trail

Posted: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage is now a precedent-setting wildlife viewing trail.

The Alaska Coastal Wildlife View Trail, unveiled Tuesday, is the first marine-based trail in the United States, state officials said.

The trail will eventually encompass the rest of state ferry-accessible coastal Alaska. Its creation is driven by the "powerful economic engine" of wildlife viewing in Alaska, said state Department of Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell.

The trail project isn't just a name designation.

Over the last couple of years, state employees and volunteers have visited coastal communities, developing an 82-page wildlife guide and nine glossy brochures devoted to Southeast coastal towns. The publications, also unveiled Tuesday, are designed to help travelers plan wildlife viewing trips and pinpoint the region's sometimes-elusive critters.

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"Planning for wildlife viewing can be a challenge ... timing is very important to be a successful wildlife watcher," said Matt Robus, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's wildlife conservation division.

The "Wildlife Viewing Guide" for Southeast Alaska is now on sale at area bookstores. Among its details: The best time of year to look for mountain goats or snow geese along the Stikine River. Illustrations include diagrams of whale feeding and diving patterns. One section of the book describes the unique natural features of 11 different marine routes connecting the Inside

Passage's coastal towns.

The guide is already leaping off the shelves at Juneau's Hearthside Books, said store owner Susan Hickey.

"It's selling briskly. It seems especially popular with cruise directors on the smaller cruise ships," said Hickey, who has already made several orders to keep the book in stock.

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The nine glossy brochures are each devoted to three or four days worth of wildlife-related excursions in Southeast Alaska communities along the major ferry routes. The brochures haven't yet arrived at town visitor bureaus, state ferries or public land information kiosks, but they are on the way, state officials said. They also can be downloaded from the state's new Web site,

"We're looking forward to receiving them in the mail," said Carol Rushmore, economic director for the city of Wrangell.

Wrangell has limited money to market itself to tourists, so the new brochure featuring wildlife viewing options may give the town more visibility and more in-depth appeal to independent travelers. "It may seal the fate for them coming here," Rushmore said.

The Alaska Coastal Wildlife Viewing Trail will eventually encompass Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula, and other towns in Southwest Alaska reached by the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Wildlife viewing in Alaska generated nearly $800 million and created 13,000 jobs in Alaska in 2001, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service study. That study is now being updated, state officials said Tuesday.

Nationally, wildlife viewing trails are being used as a marketing strategy to get visitors to spend more time in communities, at different periods during the year, such as fall and spring bird migrations. Roughly $38 billion is spent annually in the United States on wildlife viewing, according to the same federal 2001 study.

The U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Game partnered in publishing the brochures and the wildlife viewing guide. Two grants totaling $55,000 assisted the project, which began two years ago, said Karla Hart, program coordinator for Fish and Game's Watchable Wildlife Program.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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