April 19, 2012 | Vol.42 No. 16

'Priority list' sought for Chilkoot

Residents got a look at the first round of the state’s thinking about improvements along the Chilkoot River corridor at a meeting Tuesday with officials from several agencies involved in planning.

State archaeologist, biologists, landscapers, planners and state Division of Parks employees hosted the meeting, attended also by Ben Ellis, the division’s director. State Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, who secured $900,000 last year for construction of a bear-viewing platform there, made opening remarks.

Thomas said the idea for the platform came from the late Norm Blank of Haines, a longtime conservationist. Residents are being asked to weigh in on platform design and Tuesday’s meeting included a variety of designs used at other places.

The structure is intended to reduce risks on a short section of road where more than a dozen bears mix each fall with anglers, campers, photographers and others. The platform is intended to concentrate bear-watchers, leaving open corridors for bears to move around. Platform funding must be spent in four years.

Other improvements along the corridor haven’t been decided, but state officials this week said issues go beyond the need for a bear-viewing station. The meeting laid out potential short-term and long-term “strategies.”

“These are strategies that could be pursued. Our intent is to explore them and see what works and what doesn’t. It’s a work in progress. This is what we’ve come up with for now,” said Monica Alvarez, a planner with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Improving management of people at the site is the first priority, she said.

Short-term strategies included: locating the platform upstream of Deer Rock; increasing vehicle parking and tour bus unloading; instituting “no parking” zones at the fish weir and viewing platform; restricting areas of streambank access near the platform; building new restrooms; moving fish-cleaning tables into deeper water; placing barriers to prohibit shoulder parking and improving bear-monitoring practices.

Long-term strategies included: building additional viewing platforms at Lutak bridge or Chilkoot Lake; conducting a comprehensive cultural resource study; prohibiting parking along the roadway; adding more staff for enforcement and safety; landscaping to encourage bears to use specific routes; and adaptive “no parking” zones that would change with changes in bear activities.

Strategies lists will be posted around town and on the Internet, planners said.

“Seeing how the public reacts to our priority list will give us a better idea of what to include in a (final) list,” said Mike Eberhardt, Southeast parks superintendent. “The biggest thing is having agreement on a list of things to do (on which to base future funding requests,” he said.

As only platform construction is funded, other projects would require additional funding or creative partnerships between agencies, he said.

Platform design, starting an inventory of cultural resources and initial environmental work are planned for the coming summer.

State officials said consideration of archaeological remains could determine locations of expanded parking and other improvements. The riverside area is the location of a historic Chilkoot Indian village and fish camp and is one of the valley’s richest archaeological sites, state archaeologist Dave McMahan said in an interview.

House sites and graveyards line the road’s west side and structures once stood in the area of the campground parking lot, and on the lakeshore opposite the parking lot, on the east side of the river.

Tour operator Joe Ordonez said there are so many considerations, the state should look first at options that would have the least impact, including adding a pedestrian walkway parallel to the Lutak bridge.

“The structure’s already there. At first glance, that’s my first alternative. It would cost less and minimize impacts. I’d like to see that idea explored in the short term (strategies),” Ordonez said. “That’s maybe a good starting point but it doesn’t address long-term issues like congestion. It’s a tough, complex issue. There’s no way to do anything out there without making some people mad.”