By Jenny Neyman
Signs posted around the dunes at the mouth of the Kasilof River warning the thousands of visitors during personal-use fishing season to stay off the fragile beach grass have been about as effective as fishermen telling salmon to swim into their nets.
Just like fish swim wherever they please, the crowds during summer personal-use dipnetting and setnetting have walked, camped and driven trucks, RVs and four-wheelers wherever it is most convenient. On the south beach at the mouth of the Kasilof, that behavior has resulted in a maze of tire tracks gouged into the fragile dunes, destroying the grass that helps hold the dunes together and provides a vital estuary and habitat for migratory birds. On the north shore, beach-goers trample over beach grass and private property, using both as sites for camping, parking, fires, human waste, fish waste and other trash.
With the return of summer and salmon approaching, efforts are under way to protect the area from the annual onslaught of thousands of fisherman. But unless something happens fast, those efforts likely won’t come to fruition in time to prevent what is shaping up to be possibly the most destructive summer the beach has endured yet, with a continuing trend of increased participation in the Kasilof personal-use fisheries, and decreasing state funding for trash and bathroom facilities.
In 2009, the Kasilof setnet and dipnet fisheries saw an increase in participation and record numbers of sockeye salmon caught. Those numbers have been climbing overall for years and will likely continue to do so.
With more people come more costs for providing trash and bathroom facilities for them. At the Kenai River dipnet fishery, which also saw record participation and harvest last year, the city has footed the bill for providing bathrooms, trash service and the like, charging fishermen a fee for parking. At the Kasilof, the state Division of Mining, Land and Water has authority over the area of land utilized for the personal-use fisheries, but does not have a budget for providing services, such as campgrounds, attendants, parking lots, bathrooms and trash disposal, said Adam Smith, Southcentral regional natural resource manager for the DMLW.
In the past, the state and borough have pooled money to provide limited bathroom and trash facilities at the Kasilof, but as fishing participation has grown, the trash, trespassing, dune destruction and other problems have grown along with it.
Rick Thompson, regional land manager with DMLW, said the division will not provide funding for services this year. Last summer the borough and DMLW split a $14,000 bill for portable bathroom facilities and Dumpsters. The year before, it was a $12,000 bill split between the two.
“It is getting more expensive each year and that’s a direct hit on our operating budget, which we’re not equipped to deal with,” Smith said.
Residents of Kasilof hope to get the Legislature’s help in erecting a post-and-chain fence around the dunes and private property, similar to the barrier the city of Kenai installed around beach dunes on the north and south shores of the mouth of the Kenai River to prevent similar trespassing and grass destruction during dipnetting season.
Kasilof residents requested to have the project added to the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s wish list for legislative funding, and it’s been sent on for consideration of capital project funding as the second session of the 26th Legislature meets in Juneau through April 18.
Brent Johnson, a Kasilof commercial fisherman, suggested the idea at a community meeting held with Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey and Assemblyman Paul Fischer in November. The meeting was for the community to decide what its top-priority projects were to receive a chunk of state funding that passes through the borough to communities, and to decide what big-ticket item Kasilof wanted the borough to include on its wish list to the Legislature.
Johnson attended the meeting on behalf of the Kasilof Regional Historical Society to ask for some of the pass-through money, and jumped into the discussion about wish-list projects when talk turned to asking for money for a columbarium at the Kasilof cemetery. That project was on the borough’s wish list for state money last year and didn’t receive any funds.
“I decided on a very spur-of-the moment deal. I knew we needed to get our name in the hat, so to speak, on that money,” Johnson said. “When that issue came up the cemetery columbarium was being presented, but there had been a number of people in community that weren’t so eager to spend that kind of money on a columbarium, and I thought, ‘Man, I know of something that is a cool project that really is needed to protect the dunes down there.’ So I brought that up and the crowd kind of debated it. We batted it around a little bit. Most people are familiar with that issue and they thought, ‘Yeah, that’s something we need a lot more than a columbarium.’”
The project calls for $65,000, based on what Kenai spent to install its post-and-chain fence. Treated wood posts would be sunk into the ground with chain strung through holes drilled into the posts.
“Exactly like they have in Kenai. It seems to be working there. I have heard nothing but good reports from it and it seems to be guiding traffic away from sensitive vegetation and what not, and that is exactly what we’re looking to do in Kasilof,” Johnson said. “This fence is something you could step over and under, it just helps people know that, ‘Hey, over here is sensitive, don’t go here. Over here’s OK.’”
He said he envisions fencing off the dunes on the south beach first, and then attempting to do a similar project on the north side the next year. Access to the river mouth for dipnetting would still be available along the shoreline in the sand below the dunes, where people are supposed to drive anyway.
“It’s a fairly high price tag but, then, it’s a sensitive habit area. You’re either going to protect it or you’re going to do nothing, which is what’s gone on until now,” Johnson said.
License to fund
Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-District Q, which includes Kenai and Kasilof, said he’d like to go a step further than just funding a post-and-chain fencing project for the mouth of the Kasilof, as included in the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s wish list for state capital funding.
Sen. Wagoner said that he has spoken with the commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety and suggested that state residents wanting to participate in a personal-use fishery no longer be required to purchase a sportfishing license, as they are now. Instead, Fish and Game would create a new personal-use license. Money from those license sales could be used to fund habitat protection projects, facilities construction and upkeep projects, and fund additional enforcement efforts during personal-use fisheries.
“If you’re just going to dipnet salmon, you shouldn’t be forced into purchasing a sportfishing license. That skews the state statistics on sportfishing, number one,” Sen. Wagoner said. “So I think each person that participates in that dipnet fishery should have to buy a permit for dipnetting. I’m not talking about an exorbitant price — maybe $5 or $6 or $8 or something like that. But then use that money to do these types of projects, to increase the enforcement on the fisheries and things of that nature.”
Two students from Nikiski High School are also focusing on the Kasilof River dunes, and adopted a plan to install fencing for their Caring for the Kenai project. Melinda Hampton and Dylan Holloway contacted Ken Federico, with the South-Central Alaska Dipnetters Association, who has expressed an interest in the organization helping fence off the sensitive dune area, but had not yet procured fencing material.
The students discussed the idea with their science teacher, Phil Morin, who participated in the very first Kasilof River dipnet fishery and has watched in frustration as the area has been trashed more and more each year since, he said. As a member of the city of Kenai’s Harbor Commission, which regularly deals with issues regarding the dipnet fishery in Kenai, he suggested the students contact the city of Kenai about fencing options.
The students decided the project would be a good one to tackle, and contacted the city of Kenai to ask about the temporary orange plastic fencing and fence posts the city had used to keep people off the Kenai dunes before the post-and-chain fence was installed. The city agreed to offer up the fencing for the students’ project, which the students hoped to install this spring, before dipnetting season.
However, their project has hit the same roadblock the post-and-chain fencing will — the need for state approval.
Hurdles to clear
Thompson, with DMLW, said he’s not opposed to the idea of fencing off the dunes, but offered some cautions to consider. First, the project will have to go through a land-use permitting process, including a public comment period, as well as a coastal zone review.
In an e-mail to Cora Campbell, special assistant to Gov. Sean Parnell, whom the Nikiski students contacted to help them navigate the governmental hoops and red tape ensnaring their project, Thompson explains that installing fencing at the mouth of the Kasilof isn’t a simple rubber-stamp proposition.
“Placing fencing materials on state land to protect our commonly owned resources is certainly a good idea, but it must be done through a process that includes an assessment of the resource values at risk (done by the Department of Fish and Game), and development of a fencing plan that achieves our resource protection goals while preserving, to the maximum extent possible, traditional access methods and means (done by the South Central Regional Land Office),” Thompson stated.
If the project is relatively uncontroversial, permitting could take two to three months. But Thompson said the project has potential for complexity.
“Whenever we deal with trying to limit someone’s access on state land, that’s, I guess, a permanent red flag,” Thompson said. “We are by law required to protect traditional uses. When there’s resource damage we can zero in on that a little bit and take care of it. It’s tough to prove damage and link values of the resource to something meant to protect it. It’s not impossible, but if it involves blocking off access points or trails that would have been traditionally used, that would be an issue.”
Smith said that private property owners would need to give their OK in the permitting process for a barrier to be installed adjacent to their land, and it may be difficult to figure out where, exactly, those lines are.
“Detecting those property boundaries isn’t always easy. We would want to make sure they aren’t accidentally putting it on somebody’s property. It’s not as obvious as a lot of people think it should be,” Smith said.
Whichever agency or entity applies for the permits will need to post a bond and provide insurance coverage, Thompson said.
“Fencing on state land, particularly in a high-use area such as this, creates some liability for the state, and we need to identify a responsible party who is committed to proper installation, maintenance, and upkeep of the fencing materials,” Thompson wrote in his message to Campbell.
Beyond those concerns, Thompson commented on a need for prioritization of projects. Fencing to protect dunes may not be a bad idea, but he recommended efforts go toward dealing with human waste and trash first, especially since DMLW won’t be contributing to those services this summer.
“From my experience with groups doing these kinds of things, you get the legislators’ attention once in a while, because they have a lot on their plate. If this is what the community wants, this is what they’ll work on. But, meanwhile, you’ve got this other problem that’s not being addressed. It’s a question of priorities,” Thompson said.
Johnson said Kasilof residents would like to see more done at the mouth of the Kasilof than just a single chain barrier, but at least it’s a start.
“There are people who want to do quite a bit more than just put up this post and chain to guide traffic. They want bathrooms and trash cans and on-site people. I’m all in favor of all of that, but at least we got this application in,” he said.
There is an effort under way to address the larger scope of the issues at the Kasilof River. The South-Central Alaska Dipnetters Association, Kenai Watershed Forum and other organizations are coordinating an effort to address dune destruction and water quality issues, primarily stemming from human waste and trash problems.
Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said a letter is being drafted and circulated soliciting support from organizations and agencies with a stake in the Kasilof River mouth. The goal is to get everyone on the same page in focusing on water quality and the dunes, and in coming up with a specific plan for addressing those issues.
“People want to use these types of issues to advance other agenda items, and that gets very frustrating. So what we’re doing is we’ve written a letter asking if they’re willing to set aside all those ancillary issues and just focus directly on the habitat destruction and water quality issues. Those are both real issues that everybody should agree to working on,” Ruffner said.
“People are throwing out ideas for different things that would affect those issues, but nobody’s coming together with, ‘Here’s what needs to happen.’ They’re not doing any planning and, similar to what we see in the Kenai River, the various state agencies just point the finger at the other state agencies and say, ‘Well, they ought to be the ones to deal with that,’” he said.
Ruffner said he’d like representatives from all the state agencies involved at the Kasilof to sit down with representatives of other organizations involved, including the Watershed Forum and dipnetters association, and settle on a plan for dealing with the issues that arise from the Kasilof fishery.
“We really want the state to figure out who’s responsible for the issues that are occurring down there and what are they going to do about it?” he said.
The last time the Kenai Watershed Forum requested action at the Kasilof was when John Shively was the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources “and we’ve had a couple commissioners since then, and nothing has changed, except for we’ve continued to tear things up down there, to the point that we’re moving historical buildings out of the way. It seems very odd to me that we’re not addressing the infrastructure needs we need to support,” Ruffner said.
Ruffner has been coordinating with the Nikiski students, and said fencing, whether it’s the temporary orange barrier or a more permanent post-and-chain affair, is a start, but not a solution.
“The immediate projects are all kind of Band-Aids that are going to quickly get ripped off if we don’t come up with a management strategy or management plan with the agencies responsible for this area, and that’s where we’re really lacking,” he said. “We shouldn’t be going to the state every year saying, ‘Oh, will you please give us $8,000 so we can spend $8,000 of borough tax money to put up a Dumpster and bathroom.’ That’s silly, given the volume of people across the entire state that come to that area.
“The state is going have to put forward a realistic budget to do what needs to be done. If they’re going to have these kinds of fisheries that are this popular, they need to support infrastructure to pull them off where it doesn’t degrade the environment.”