Haines tempers flare as state ponders reins on Chilkat River tours

Jet boat tours split community

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2001

On one side, an "earth goddess cult" of "enviro-Nazi assassins" allegedly is trying to stifle economic growth.

In opposition, "a selfish local minority" with "aggressive, mean-spirited tactics" supposedly shows "blatant disrespect" for wildlife and humans in order to make a buck.

That's just some of the written commentary about revising the state management plan for the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines.

In Haines, resource and development issues can be a contact sport. A teen-age girl once was struck in the face with a tomato during a demonstration against cruise ship pollution. As far back as 20 years ago, when the eagle preserve was proposed, car tires got slashed.

The latest controversy concerns large-scale motorized tours of the Chilkat River being run by local business River Adventures.

The state Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to regulate the jet boat tours by area, time of day, speed of operation and distance from sensitive habitat, said agency planner Bruce Phelps.

The existing management plan, approved in 1985, came three years after the Legislature established the preserve. Now the Legislature's intent particularly concerning "traditional uses" of the preserve is being hotly contested.

Much of the heat comes from an issue that already might be resolved.

River Adventures co-owners Duck and Karen Hess recently were barred by the state from using air-injected herring to ensure clients a close encounter with eagles. The Hesses say they were "feeding" the eagles; critics called it "baiting."

"Unfortunately, there are some very jealous tour operators in Haines that have elevated this to the level that it is at now," Karen Hess said in an e-mail message to the Empire on Tuesday. "We have had thousands of positive comments from our passengers that remarked how fantastic it was to watch an eagle come diving down and take a fish out of the water. It is very unfortunate that this will not be able to happen anymore, especially in these trying times when the American people need to have something to lift their spirits."

But Tim Shields, a biologist and conservation representative on the advisory council for the eagle preserve, said a scheduled feeding time for eagles is "fouling up" the birds' natural patterns. He called it a case of "another American symbol under attack."

That view has earned Shields a published rebuke from Haines Borough Assembly member Terry Pardee. "With the backdoor efforts of enviro-Nazis on the preserve advisory committee, the existing law is being subverted. Legislative guarantees of continued customary and traditional uses' are being abrogated by unelected bureaucrats."

DNR Commissioner Pat Pourchot has rejected River Adventures' appeal of the ban on "baiting," also saying the Legislature did not designate commercial tours as a traditional use.

"The primary purpose for establishing the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is to protect and perpetuate the Chilkat Bald Eagles and their essential habitats," according to the 1982 statute, which also provides for "other public uses consistent with the primary purpose."

Since River Adventures' business has exploded increasing from 1,200 passengers in 1996 to 13,514 in 2000 Shields and others question whether it is consistent with protecting eagles and their habitat. They say the company's jet-drive outboards create a wake that erodes river banks and smothers salmon eggs with silt.

"We do dispute that our boats have that effect," Karen Hess said, adding that there have been no studies done on the issue in the Chilkat River. "You might be interested to know that this year was one of the biggest silver returns that they have ever had. Since we have been running in this area for 11 seasons now, then obviously we have not done any damage to the fish habitat."

But Henry Jacquot, an Alaska Native who owns two federally issued Native allotments on the Chilkat River, north of Klukwan, contended in a letter to Pourchot that the River Adventures operation "interferes with my subsistence activities and creates safety risks forcing other users from enjoying preserve resources." Jacquot's attorney has broached the possibility of a lawsuit to force greater state oversight of refuge activities.

"Enforcement of permit requirements has been non-existent," Jacquot asserted.

But Shields said he's concerned that "a nasty atmosphere" at public meetings so far might intimidate DNR officials, preventing them from making science-based decisions.

Phelps of DNR acknowledged that the meetings, reportedly with up to 300 people attending, have been "quite contentious." He said it will take up to six months to revise the management plan.

Newly elected Haines Borough Mayor Jan Hill, who is continuing to serve as chairwoman of the preserve advisory council, said she expects "very little change."

"I think the current uses are in line with the traditional uses that were discussed when the plan was being considered originally," Hill said.

But Hess said the matter might not end there. "I do believe that Senate Bill 796 that prompted the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve will probably be challenged before this is all over."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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