By Joseph Robertia
With the ever-growing popularity of the Kasilof River personal-use fisheries, the beach is becoming increasingly recognized as an area being loved to death.
The crowds that come to fish, camp and recreate in the summer overtax the suitable parking and camping areas, and seasonal garbage and toilet facilities. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has incrementally increased services in recent years — and local efforts resulted in a fence to protect a stretch of sensitive sand dunes and beach grass on the south beach — but not enough to stem the tide of damages resulting from the flood of people each summer.
The department is stepping up its efforts on the north beach with a proposal to create a paved parking lot that can accommodate 315 vehicles, a two-way, 40-foot-wide beach access road and developed areas for seasonal Dumpsters and toilets. A 45-day public comment period began Oct. 15 and closes Nov. 30 on the site concept plan for the North Side Improvement Project planned for the Kasilof River Special Use Area.
“The issues or problems to be solved with this project include addressing degradation of sensitive coastal dunes and wetlands, unimproved parking areas, insufficient access for emergency and sanitation services and trespass onto private property,” Clark Cox, the department’s regional manager, stated by email.
So far the plan doesn’t propose instituting user fees, such as for parking or camping.
“User fees are not being proposed at this time. In order to have the ability to collect user fees for the Kasilof River Special Use Area during the personal-use fisheries at some point in the future, the department would be required to adopt a regulation through a public process,” Cox stated.
Participation in the personal-use fishery overall and at the Kasilof, in particular, has skyrocketed. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in the first year of the fishery, 1996, 14,575 permits were issued to Alaskans, and dip-netters participated on 1,300 “household days” at the Kasilof. A household day is fishing by one or more household member in a 24-hour period. For comparison, the Kenai River experienced 10,503 household days fished the same year.
In 2014, 35,989 personal-use fishing permits were issued. By last year there had been a tenfold increase in household days fished on the Kasilof, to 10,236. During the same period, the Kenai River, which still draws more people overall, more than tripled, with 36,280 household days recorded.
“The intense human use of this area during the popular personal-use fisheries has created consequences and impacts that are socially unacceptable. This project attempts to bring order to use of the state resources by creating an organized venue for the public to participate in the personal-use fisheries while protecting the resources from continued impacts,” Cox stated.
Mike Curry lives off of Kasilof Beach Road. He’s struggled with trespassing and vandalism on his property for years and welcomes the plan for expanded services.
“I’m all for it,” he said. “The (personal-use) set-netters are pretty mindful, but the dip-net fishery is a horse of another color. There’re days I can barely pull out of the driveway. They’re jam-packed camping down there, camped bumper-to-bumper down the state road, and riding four-wheelers up and down the beach 24/7.”
But he doesn’t think the proposal is perfect. Curry said it’s a good start but doesn’t protect the dunes in a manner similar to the south side, where a guardrail perimeter was implemented around the dunes to keep out motorized vehicles. The plan also doesn’t specify usage rules for the area, nor how those rules might be enforced. And he thinks that 315 parking spots are still too few.
“It’s going to be too small. I can guarantee that,” he said. Once the parking lot is full, he expects people will go back to camping where and how they always have in the area.
The site plan is not without opposition, however, including objections coming from people who initially worked to protect the area by getting it special-use status in 2010.
“The property where most of the development is planned was purchased by the Conservation Fund and donated to the state for the clearly expressed purpose of protecting wildlife and habitat,” said Brad Meiklejohn, Alaska director of the fund. “We think the development of a 315-car parking lot on the property is incompatible with the terms, conditions and intent of our donation of this important habitat area.”
Ken Tarbox, a retired Fish and Game biologist who has been involved with ecological protection issues at the Kasilof over the years, echoed Meiklejohn’s sentiments.
“The construction of a 315-site parking lot will likely do more damage to the area than the original damage we were working to stop,” he said.
Meiklejohn and Tarbox cited the importance of leaving the area in its natural state to serve the needs of migratory birds. It’s used as a monitoring site by the Kachemak Shorebird Monitoring Project and has been designated by Audubon Society as an “Important Bird Area,” a designation given to places or habitats that are essential for bird populations.
Numerous ducks, geese and shorebirds use the area. And it is the shorebirds — rock sandpipers, in particular — that are of most concern.
“We’ve counted them in really big numbers, as many 10,000 down there at one time a few years ago, which was half the world’s population at that time we made that count,” said Todd Eskelin, a biologist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The rock sandpipers and other shorebirds feed on the mud flats at low tide and at high tide retreat into the cover of grass in the dunes and marshy areas beyond. Such a large development at the river mouth would compromise this habitat, Tarbox said. And he fears that it will threaten even more.
While the department hopes to better facilitate the crowds that already come to fish at the Kasilof, Tarbox is concerned that the development will further increase participation in the Kasilof fishery.
“It’s a huge footprint already and with no limit on the growth of the personal-use fisheries — and no provision for overflow parking, and building a 40-foot road to the beach — it will have significant ecological impacts as more people camp, drive on the beach, and drive four-wheelers in the area. The activity in this area is going to skyrocket, and at a time of year when migrating birds need this critical habitat for feeding and nesting,” Tarbox said.
Tarbox said he is not opposed to addressing the problems created by the seasonal fisheries with some form of construction project, but he envisions something on a smaller scale, such as 25 to 30 day-use parking spots in a more upland area and on the south beach, rather than north, a no-camping restriction, and the area being open only during the peak months of the fishing season.
Funding for the project was approved by the Legislature in two phases of $1.4 million each to add improvements to both sides of the river. Cox stated by email that the current project is only focused on the north beach and, “projected costs are not available at this time since it is at the preliminary level of design.”
The project area also is home to several cultural resources. Preconstruction surveys conducted by the state have identified the remains of a Russian fort, the first cannery built in Cook Inlet and the site of its original “Watchman’s Cabin,” a small graveyard and other features. As with the bird habitat, better managing and facilitating the crowds that already come to the Kasilof is one thing, but encouraging more people to come could further threaten those sites.
Another concern is that the proposed plan also does not address the need for a public boat launch/recovery area. Currently, the only public boat launch and take-out ramp is eight miles up the river, north of the Sterling Highway bridge, although there are two private facilities in the lower river, primarily utilized by sportfishing guides in drift boats.
The full site plan can be viewed online at dnr.alaska.gov/mlw/kasilof/. Questions about the project or how to submit suggestions for the site concept plan should be directed to Adam Smith at 907- 269-8557 or email@example.com, or Christy Colles at 907-269-8116 or firstname.lastname@example.org.