By Jenny Neyman
At the mouth of the Kasilof River during the summer personal-use setnet and dipnet salmon fisheries, finding something to complain about is easy enough — garbage strewn across the beach; people pitching tents, parking and lighting campfires on private property; and trucks and four-wheelers tearing up the fragile beach grass that holds the ecologically important sand dunes in place.
“I hate to be a complainer,” said Patti Curry, who lives on the north side of the Kasilof River mouth with her husband, Mike. They say they are tired of the trespassing, trash, sanitation, parking and other issues that come with the hordes of fishermen each summer.
“On one side I’m really pissed, we both are, but I don’t want the fishery to close,” Patti Curry said. “I can’t complain about the fishery. We go out and put our 60-foot net in front of the property. I love it. … I think it’s wonderful that the state would give an individual that many fish, or the right to come down and fish. But you know something, there’s got to be some kind of …”
“Regulation?” Mike Curry finished for her. “I mean, unfortunately. We’re regulated out of our pantyhose, but when they push this many people down to a small area, it’s total mayhem.”
Finding the right agency to complain to, however, is more difficult.
Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation? That’s a common assumption, but incorrect. There is state land at the mouth of the Kasilof, under the umbrella of the Department of Natural Resources. But unlike on the Kenai River, the Kasilof isn’t designated as state parkland, so Parks has no authority to make regulations regarding the area or provide or manage services like campgrounds.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough? Same problem — it’s not borough land.
The University of Alaska and Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority own parcels of land at the river mouth, but neither entity manages or enforces public use of the land.
How about Alaska State Troopers and/or Division of Alaska Wildlife Troopers? Sort of. Troopers have authority to issue citations for violations of state ordinances, including littering and trespassing, but they also have laws with much more consequence to public safety to enforce, and a much larger area to do it in than just the mouth of the Kasilof. In addition, complaints of littering or trespassing can be difficult to investigate.
“Even if we do show up and there’s litter on the beach, whose litter is it? It’s one of those types of things. We responded and you don’t find any names or anything else,” said Lt. Glenn Godfrey, with the Division of Alaska Wildlife Troopers post in Soldotna.
Wildlife troopers can cite people for nuisance offenses, just like regular troopers can, but when Wildlife troopers are at the river, they’re more focused on fishing violations, Godfrey said. And neither arm of state law enforcement makes the regulations they enforce. They can’t designate permissible and restricted camping areas, for instance, or make it illegal to disturb the beach grass.
As it is now, Lt. Godfrey said Wildlife troopers don’t cite people for driving on the dunes, because he can’t show that it’s technically illegal
“I looked it up. I thought there used to be regulatory authority on that, but I don’t think we ever found it. There wasn’t any state ordinance or regulation or anything on the signs (asking people to stay off the dunes). I know there’s been debate about that,” Godfrey said.
When the Currys got fed up with people using their property as a latrine three years ago, they called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“They’re the ones who stuffed everybody down here,” Mike Curry said. “They said, ‘You can fish here,’ but they have no facilities set up.
Fish and Game isn’t responsible for the land at the mouth of the Kasilof, either. And, technically, the face of Fish and Game that people are familiar with — the people checking for fishing violations, or the biologists in the field office in Soldotna who issue emergency orders increasing or lowering sport fish bag limits — doesn’t regulate anything. The Board of Fisheries makes the regulatory decisions, and Fish and Game personnel use the board’s guidelines to manage fisheries. But the Board of Fish doesn’t regulate recreational pursuits like camping, so Fish and Game doesn’t manage it. Personal-use fishermen pay a permit fee that’s collected by Fish and Game, but that money doesn’t go to provide services, like campgrounds, portable toilets or trash receptacles, at the Kasilof beach.
When it comes to the Kasilof, all these entities have two things in common — overall management and regulation of the areas utilized in the personal-use fisheries is not within the scope of their authority, and what authority they do have at the river mouth is challenging to carry out because of a lack of resources.
Tied hands, tight budgets
In essence, the agencies say the issues at the Kasilof are either not theirs to fix, or a lack of resources is keeping them from addressing the problems that are in their jurisdiction.
Robert Begich, management biologist for the upper Kenai Peninsula, said Fish and Game is at the Kasilof as much as possible, especially for the setnet fishery in June, and less so when dipnetting opens in July.
“We get down there as much as we can to observe the fishery and check compliance,” he said. “A lot more for the gillnet fishery than for the dipnet fishery. For the dipnet, we get down there as much as we can, but we’ve also got the Kenai going on at the same time. It’s a busy time of year.”
Fish and Game’s hands are tied when it comes to policing littering, vandalism and the like.
“We manage the fishery, and we’re not land managers,” he said. “The biggest issue at the Kasilof fishery is the land-use status and lack thereof of land-use regulations. People can go there and camp as long as they want and there’s no protection afforded to the natural areas around there through land-use regulations.”
Wildlife troopers are in a similar position, Godfrey said.
“Our primary thing is fishery stuff. That’s what most calls and problems are,” he said. “We do regularly patrol, especially during the setnet fishery. It’s the first of the season, so we try to get down there prior to opening and try to get things in order for the first day, if we can,” he said.
Godfrey said Wildlife troopers patrol the Kasilof setnet fishery daily, or at least every other day, and spent about 90 hours overall at the Kasilof this personal-use fishing season. When July hits, especially when the Kenai opens to dipnetting, priorities and resources shift. Area Wildlife troopers cover from the Russian River to Ninilchik, with one officer in Anchor Point for the southern peninsula, one in Cooper Landing and generally six in Soldotna, though this year it was only five because of training, Godfrey said. In July, it’s difficult to dispatch a Wildlife trooper to the Kasilof, especially with more fishermen on the Kenai and — as was the case this year — when the Kasilof sockeye salmon run made escapement, but the Kenai’s numbers were low.
“If we’re in the area, we deal with it. But when you call, we can be on the other end of the world, you know?” he said. “You just have to prioritize. We have to enforce the commercial fishery, sport fishery and the dipnet fishery side of it. I need to start thinking about where to put my people where we get the best use for it. It’d be nice if we could station guys down there 24-seven, but it’s just not going to happen with manpower issues. In July, this whole state’s busy.”
So who’s left? In the Bermuda Triangle of management authority that is the mouth of the Kasilof River, what agency can step into the regulatory void left by the restricted jurisdictions of the other players on the beach?
Meet Adam Smith, the Southcentral regional natural resource manager for the state Division of Mining, Land and Water.
If Smith or his division sound unfamiliar to folks on the peninsula, it’s with good reason. He’s based in Anchorage, and the Division of Mining, Land and Water doesn’t even have a field office on the peninsula. But since the Kasilof is not a state park and not under the auspices of the Division of Forestry or any other state agency with a local presence, it falls to the Division of Mining, Land and Water to manage it.
The biggest problem for Mining, Land and Water is just that — they’ve got a big area to cover, of which the Kasilof is only a tiny fraction. The Southcentral region is 64 million acres, and has 34 people to manage all of it, Smith said.
Smith said he realizes that there’s a problem at the Kasilof, and he’s doing what he can to address it. For the last few years, Mining, Land and Water has pooled money with the Kenai Peninsula Borough — $7,000 apiece — to provide and service portable toilets and Dumpsters at the mouth of the Kasilof.
The borough pitched in because of the complaints it was receiving about the “wanton, unsanitary situation and the refuse that was strewn about,” said Gary Williams, coordinator of the borough’s Coastal Management Program.
“The borough just stepped up and said, ‘We’ll do something,’” Williams said. “It’s never quite enough, but the situation has been much ameliorated. The refuse containers and Porta-Potties are mere stopgap measures and are insufficient in itself. A more comprehensive, long-term solution is required. Every decision-maker in the process recognizes that we need to do something much more than what we’re doing, including protecting the dunes, which are nearly destroyed.”
Smith said he agrees that more action is needed, but just coming up with $7,000 to help pay for the toilets and Dumpsters is a stretch for his department.
“One of biggest issues is we have been scabbing together money to try and lessen the impacts from all the use,” Smith said. “That’s money that we’re not funded for. … It’s been a struggle and become even more of a struggle each year. Our budget doesn’t reflect what we need to effectively manage state land. The bottom line is we have considerable financial struggles to do what we’re mandated to do, and, unfortunately, Kasilof is not high on that list. But it’s been something we’ve felt strongly about.”
Smith said he grew up in Alaska and has participated in personal-use fisheries, and that his division has spent what time and money it has on the Kasilof because he does recognize the situation there is significant.
“This is a very important issue to me, and certainly it’s an area that needs a lot of management attention,” Smith said. “People collect their food on a personal-use basis and, on the management side of it, just being able to affect that in hopefully a positive way, even though we’re struggling to do that, I get a tremendous satisfaction out of that, personally. So I definitely think it is worthwhile.”
Even so, it looks to be a long while before anything more is done at the Kasilof.
Solution long time in coming
Trash, trespassing, dune destruction and the other issues that occur during the Kasilof personal-use fisheries are not new, nor are they restricted to just June and July, although that’s when most of the damage occurs. But the beach can be treated with disregard year-round, said Pat Murray, of Kasilof. In 2006, he launched a crusade to stop junk cars from being dumped at the north beach, reporting the issue to troopers, testifying about it to the Legislature, and eventually taking it upon himself and his tractor to haul off one of the derelict vehicles himself before the tides claimed it for good.
The Kasilof River has been recognized as an area needing better protection since at least the 1980s, when a plan began to be formed to establish the Kasilof as an “Area Meriting Special Attention,” which sets goals, priorities and protections, and manages uses for the area. A detailed AMSA plan draft, put together by the borough, went out to public review in 1992.
The plan noted that, “The Kasilof River is the second largest salmon producer in the borough. Salmon stocks utilize the Kasilof River during their run to Tustumena Lake and upstream spawning and rearing areas. The intensive wetlands are important in maintaining water quality, nutrient enrichment and natural retention of floodwaters and are prime habitat for waterfowl and moose.” And that, “improper development in or adjacent to the Kasilof River wetlands could adversely impact the wildlife habitat, recreational and scenic resources important to the economy, public use and quality of life of this area.”
But the AMSA plan never got off the ground. Williams, the current coordinator of the Coastal Management Program, said the plan hasn’t been discussed since he’s been in his position.
“It was proposed and it was thorough. It was drawn up, it just never got legs,” he said.
Glenda Landua, now with the borough’s Office of Emergency Management, said the plan was dead even before she worked in the Planning Department in the mid-1990s. She said she doesn’t know why the plan got shelved, but suspects it may have had something to do with the vastness of the area the proposed AMSA plan would cover, which included the whole of the Kasilof River and all of Tustumena Lake.
Another idea that’s been around for a while is designating the mouth of the Kasilof as a state park and transferring its management to the Parks department. The idea is referenced in the AMSA plan, and the Department of Natural Resources’ Kenai Area Plan from 2001 proposes establishing a Kasilof River Special Management Area, similar to the Kenai River Special Management Area, with a local advisory board to propose and consider regulations, and local Parks rangers to enforce them.
“The biggest thing is the problem with the dunes and the wetlands near the mouth where you have kind of, I wouldn’t call it completely unmanaged crowds, but largely unmanaged,” said Jack Sinclair, Kenai area Parks superintendent. “That would bring some more direct control, as far as enforcement. You’d see an active management, and hopefully some protection of, the natural resources in the area.”
Establishing the area as a park would require legislative action, and Sinclair said that it’s not his place to promote the idea. If it were to happen, though, his department would need more resources to manage the Kasilof, he said.
“This is something that’s really got to be driven by the people that use this area and how they want to see their lands area managed, and letting their representatives know,” he said. “… If they were to give that to the Division of Parks, the division would need some help from the Legislature on funding, because we’re stretched so much thinner than when we started with the division back in the late ’70s.”
Smith said that any action at the Kasilof is going to have come from the involved agencies working together.
“This is a kind of management issue that’s going to have to be a cooperative solution. It can’t come from one agency, because no one agency is going to have the money or funding to do this alone,” he said.
Mining, Land and Water is considering setting up a concession situation at the Kasilof, where an independent contractor operates a campground at the river mouth, collecting fees for camping and parking, and using them to pay for facilities and maintenance.
“The concession idea, at least if we were going to have to deal with it on our own, is probably our best solution for Mining, Land and Water — trying to get somebody that will come in and actually run it with the incentive of hopefully making some money, as well, to motivate them to want to come in and do that,” Smith said.
He’s floated the idea with the borough, he said, but that’s about as far as it’s gone.
“The decision now has to be, what’s the best ideas, and we probably should evaluate all our options before we maybe go down any one road. But I think we’re at the initial stages of needing to probably reassess the problem and define what some of the solutions are,” Smith said.
Translation: This will take time. As in years.
“As far as hard deadlines, it’s hard to say because it’s going to take a considerable amount of time and effort just dealing with this, just to move along, and I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that I have that time and can give it my undivided attention at this point with all the things we’re dealing with,” Smith said.
In the meantime, Smith said it would be helpful if people speak up about their concerns.
“I think it’s hard to get the word out there. My job isn’t to go out and lobby, so I’m not advertising like the general public could. The borough mayor’s office is definitely aware of it, and so are all the agencies. This is not a new issue. The general public is not beating our door down for a solution yet, and I hope it doesn’t take that. It shouldn’t have to take that. But a lot of time the management solutions are driven by the public concerns. That’s sometimes how it works,” Smith said.
Of the personal-use fishermen and area residents contacted for this story, not one knew that the Division of Mining, Land and Water was the agency responsible for the Kasilof River mouth, and that — as Smith said — they should be sharing their concerns with him. But how are people who are concerned with the situation supposed to beat the door down demanding action, if they don’t know whose door to turn to?
Smith said the contractor that empties the Dumpsters and toilets got tired of listening to people’s complaints about trash and lack of services, and asked if they could post a sign with Smith’s name and contact information, inviting people to share their comments, concerns and complaints with him. Smith agreed.
“I tell you what, I got some calls. But what was neat was I actually had five or six actual positive responses, as well thank-yous, for putting the money in,” Smith said.
The sign was posted on a Porta-Potty.
The Currys, living on the north beach, said they’re so fed up with the situation that they are willing to sell the state some of their land to make a campground if it would help resolve the problems at the beach.
“We’d be happy to sit down with someone from the state and talk about it,” Patti Curry said.
They didn’t know who to talk to about it. They didn’t see the sign on the Porta-Potty.
Mike Curry did exclaim something that’s usually in a Porta-Potty before concluding, “Nobody knows who’s in charge of the whole thing.”