A former governor and five former state commissioners joined a petition Monday asking the state of Alaska to reverse its decision to let jet boat operators take tourists on the upper Chilkat River during a critical salmon spawning and rearing period.
Earlier this summer, the state Division of Parks granted a permit to Chilkat River Adventures, owned by Haines residents Duck and Karen Hess, removing seasonal limits on their tour operation.
In doing so, the Parks Division overturned a prior decision by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, whose staff biologists say they are worried about harm to salmon habitat from jet boat tours after Sept. 1.
The Hesses say the seasonal limit is unnecessary, and the Department of Natural Resources agreed with them.
"The purpose of the petition is to call on the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to look very carefully and defer to Fish and Game ... to protect this important resource," said Pat Pourchot, former Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources during the Knowles administration.
The petition sent to the state parks division Monday was spearheaded by Lynn Canal Conservation, a Haines environmental group, which also filed an July 5 appeal of the tour boat permit.
Among the petitioners are Audubon Alaska, former Fish and Game commissioners Carl Rosier, Jim Brooks, Don Collinsworth and Frank Rue, the Alaska Trollers Association, the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters and several other Alaska conservation groups.
Senator Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said the tug-of-war over the permit is the result of the Murkowski administration's decision to take away Fish and Game's ability to set rules for fish habitat.
Shortly after he took office, Gov. Frank Murkowski passed that responsibility to the Department of Natural Resources, whose traditional role is regulating development.
DNR spokesman Dan Sadler declined to comment on the petition, saying it would be improper to do so while the department is reviewing the group's appeal. The department oversees the parks division.
Duck Hess says the petition is a ploy by radical environmentalists to keep him out of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
"It's easy to sign something," he said, of the petition's signatures from the former state leaders, including former Gov. Jay Hammond, who created the eagle preserve.
"They don't get around to these areas," he said, saying natural erosion in the river is taking a toll greater than his boats.
Pourchot recalled "contentious discussions" during his tenure about how to balance the economic benefits of the jet boat tours with fish habitat protection during his tenure.
The decision to set a time window for the tours between June 1 and Sept. 1 "seemed at the time to satisfy everybody," he said.
The Parks division is required by statute to respond to the appeal in 30 days. The deadline will fall on Sept. 1, the date that Fish and Game had previously closed down the Chilkat tours.
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