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Conservationists want a Superior Court judge to decide whether large, motorized commercial tours should be allowed in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
Lynn Canal Conservation and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council claim the Department of Natural Resources violated the intent of the l982 law that established the preserve by recently adopting a new preserve management plan that manages growth of jetboat tours in the Upper Chilkat River.
The groups filed a lawsuit Oct. 14 after an administrative appeal was denied Sept. 11 by DNR Commissioner Pat Pourchot.
The section of the river used by tour operator River Adventures since l991 is designated for large-scale motorized tours. The locally owned company draws most of its clients from Skagway-docked cruise ships.
The new management plan allows up to three times as many tours to be conducted in upcoming years as in 2000, when River Adventures took more than 13,000 clients through the preserve.
The state regulates tour routes, times and volume of traffic, depending on river-water levels and season. DNR plans to use results of a just-completed study of jetboat wakes, plus data from state biologists, to regulate future tours.
Conservationists claim that the jetboats damage valuable Chilkat coho salmon habitat. Industry supporters, pointing to consecutive record coho runs, maintain the tours do no damage.
In their appeal, the conservation groups claim DNR improperly interpreted the preserve's founding legislation. "The department violated (state law) by...authorizing large-scale motorized commercial tours that are inconsistent with preserve purposes and damage salmon-rearing and spawning habitat."
The groups cite state statute to show the Legislature intended to close the preserve to motorized tours. The statute reads: "Establishment of the (preserve) is determined to represent a proper balance between the reservation of state public domain lands and water for bald eagle preserve purposes and state land more appropriate for multiple use."
"The Legislature created the preserve to protect the eagles and the salmon that sustain them. The last place we should weaken that protection is in the preserve," said SEACC executive director Jeremy Anderson.
"The (previous) plan makes it perfectly clear that these types of commercial activity are not meant to occur within the preserve. Any legitimizing of these tours in the new plan is in conflict with preserve purposes, preserve statutes and the legislative intent creating the preserve," LCC president Scott Carey wrote when the final plan was released last summer.