The Haines Borough Assembly denied a request Tuesday from former bear monitor Shannon Donahue to begin small-scale bear-viewing tours along the Chilkoot River.
The assembly split 3-3 on the decision to deny the permit proposed by Donahue. Assembly members Joanne Waterman, Steve Vick and Jerry Lapp voted to award the permit; Debra Schnabel, Dave Berry and Norm Smith were opposed.
Donahue worked as the state’s bear monitor on the river two seasons before leaving the job last season. She is currently the executive director of the Montana-based Great Bear Foundation, a non-profit organization interested in conserving bears and their habitats worldwide.
Assembly members and members of the public cited river corridor congestion for denying the request. Tour operator Dan Egolf, who gives commercial bear-viewing tours, said while he respects Donahue’s work, he couldn’t support the permit.
“I support Shannon completely as our bear monitor – she was one of the best ones that we’ve had – but I can’t agree that it would be better for the bears or the existing operators to add another operator,” Egolf said.
Smith said he could not support the permit until a management plan for the area is in place. “We’re getting the tour ahead of the plan. And it’s easier to plan and do the tour than it is to take the tour away.”
Schnabel cited ongoing overcrowding issues, specifically involving vehicles, but said commercial tours aren’t solely to blame. “Congestion is not simply about commercial tours. The congestion also is individuals. So part of the congestion issue might be limiting vehicles of individuals also.”
In an interview this week, Donahue stressed that her “ecologically-sensitive, low-impact” tours would consist of groups of no more than seven people and would target individuals who would otherwise visit the river independently. Tours would focus primarily on educating clients about bear ecology, behavior and safety, and would be priced so as not to undercut or compete with current tour operators, she said.
Profits from the tours would fund the Great Bear Foundation’s “bigger picture” objectives in Haines, including bear education programs, informational materials, and other free services geared toward making residents and visitors more knowledgeable about bear ecology and human-bear interactions, Donahue told the assembly.
“As the former bear monitor, I am acutely aware of problem behavior on the river, and this tour is an attempt to prevent those behaviors,” Donahue said.
Pam Randles, president of the Chilkoot Bear Foundation, wrote a letter to the assembly supporting the issuance of the permit. Randles said the issue of congestion and putting limits on the number of tours, vehicles or visitors in the area is separate from Donahue’s request for a permit, a sentiment assembly member Steve Vick echoed.
“There’s been a lot of talk about (limits), but as far as I know it has never been addressed. And to say that (Donahue) does or does not have a tour I don’t think is going to solve the problem. So while I support her particular tour, if the assembly chooses not to support that, I still think we need to deal with the issue of limits out there,” Randles said.
State park ranger Preston Kroes in an interview this week said he supported Donahue’s permit and thought not only would it not add to the issues in the corridor, but her presence would help mitigate problem behavior on the river.
“I don’t really see it at all being any sort of detriment. It’s going to be barely noticeable,” Kroes said.
Donahue also volunteered to hold safety talks at the campground once a week, Kroes said.
Resident Jerry Erny supported the request. “I totally support giving her a permit. Why does the government get to pick the winners?… If she’s qualified, she has the proper policies in place (and) she wants to go into business in our community. My goodness, let her go into business in our community.”
Berry said during the meeting he had “no problem” giving Donahue a tour permit, but did not want to give her tax-exempt status, which she was also applying for through a separate agenda item. Scott pointed out the two were separate items for the assembly to vote on, but Berry still voted against issuing the permit.
The assembly postponed discussion about whether to grant the Great Bear Foundation tax exempt status pending a report from chief fiscal officer Jila Stuart.