ANCHORAGE - A Sitka group has an unusual idea for a couple of former wastewater treatment tanks at the former Sitka pulp mill: turn them into a tourist attraction featuring problem bears.
Les Kinnear, heading the Kootznahoo, Fortress of the Bear Project, envisions the tanks as a refuge for wild Southeast Alaska bears that have become used to humans and their garbage. The group aims to charge tourists to take a look.
"The bears would otherwise be destroyed," said Kinnear, a bear hunting guide who manages a lodge near Sitka.
The cylindrical tanks are 192 feet in diameter - one is 14 feet high and the other 12 feet, according to the state - and would be set up with water and vegetation to simulate the bears' natural habitat.
The concept doesn't sit well with Sitka conservation groups.
"I think it's a moral question," said Carrie Bosman of Sitka, the Alaska program coordinator for the Center For Biological Diversity, a national environmental group. "For me, it is unfair to take a bear that is wild and used to large open spaces and isolate it in a confined tank."
The center will sue, if necessary, to stop the Fortress of the Bear Project, she said.
But the City and Borough of Sitka is in favor of the idea. The Sitka Assembly has given the project a $25,000 startup grant from a pot of federal money the city received in the 1990s for economic development.
The city, which owns the land at the old pulp mill, has also approved a 10-year lease with Kootznahoo.
City leaders of Sitka, a town of almost 9,000 on a rugged island 100 miles southwest of Juneau, say it is part of a long-running effort to get tenants for the pulp mill site.
"I don't see a downside, really," Marko Dapcevich, a Sitka assemblyman, told the Anchorage Daily News.
Kootznahoo, which recently formed as a nonprofit company, says it can succeed. But it will need to win state permission, secure a lot more financing and fight the conservation groups that are lining up in opposition.
Kinnear has decided to raise pigs to meet the requirement and plans to start doing so soon. Pigs are essentially omnivores, like bears, and have some similar nutritional needs, Kinnear said. And like bears, they are powerful enough to escape if their handlers do not take care, he said.