The Chilkoot River corridor faces difficult management issues addressing vehicle congestion and tourist safety as crowds visit Haines Alaska to view bears. Recently the Haines Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) convened to address the ongoing challenge of the issue of management in the Chilkoot River corridor. Complaints written to the Haines Visitor Center about the situation in the corridor were shared and aired. The issue regards the overall congestion and behavior of tourists who come to view the coastal brown bears during the salmon runs in the Chilkoot River, which is part of the Chilkoot State Park.
This has been an ongoing discussion for at least five years. A few measures have been introduced along the way towards mitigating the issue. The Haines Borough Assembly and the Chilkoot Bear Foundation have endorsed and/or provided funds to support bear monitors working with the State Park to help control the interaction between tourists and the resident bears along the Chilkoot River. In years past, two monitors have worked the corridor, though they keep regular working hours and are not present in the evening. This last year there has been one monitor only.
Bill Thomas who served Haines and community in the Alaska House of Representatives secured funding of upwards of one million dollars to provide for implementation of a management plan in the corridor that would include additional pull-outs and viewing platforms for the public to observe the bears in a safe and constrained manner. Approximately 40% of those funds have been spent in manners which have not served to address the implementation of any of the planned alternatives on the Chilkoot River.
The issues persists. The discussions continue.
Earlier this summer the Haines Borough Assembly sought to leverage the State Parks to implement a management plan for the Chilkoot River corridor by declaring a moratorium on issuing new tour permits to anyone wishing to include the Chilkoot River in their plan of operation. This measure was passed with the addendum that existing permit holders would not be able to transfer their permits in the event of the sale of their business. This was reasoned to motivate current permit holders to “get their skin in the game.” Whether the State Park would welcome the involvement of local tour operators in its development of a local management plan might be a practical question. The jurisdiction of the local borough assembly within the state park is also beyond being just suspect. The state park issues its own operator permits.
There are two main management issues within the Chilkoot River corridor. One is vehicle congestion. The other is the un-managed interaction between tourists and resident bears. The borough assembly’s moratorium on issuing tour permits does not address either of these problems.
Eliminating the issuance of further permits does nothing toward addressing the current congestion problem which helped prompt the action in the first place. There are two main culprits in this dilemma. Several tour companies currently have carte blanche to run as many tour vehicles as they want at any given time in the corridor. Many of these vehicles are large to medium sized buses. If they pull over and exit their passengers, upwards toward a hundred people could suddenly crowd the roadway and banks of the river.
The other culprit is the individual tourist vehicle. I have seen people park their vehicle in a traffic lane without any consideration toward parking off the road, and go down to the river to fish. At other times tourists who spot a bear will stop in the road to man their phone cameras, thus creating a bottleneck at best. At times I have seen traffic come to a complete standstill while cars travelling in either direction stop to view the bears, oblivious to the fact that traffic has now come to a dead halt. As a volunteer on the road one of my frequent tasks is to advise people to step to the side of the road so that vehicular traffic can proceed. Everyone seems oblivious when there is a bear to watch. I do not even trust the drivers to be watching out for the pedestrians. I often think bears are not the biggest danger in this country.
The other management issue involves the interaction between people and the resident bears and this has nothing to do with the tour companies. The issue lies with the independent travelers. With a few exceptions, the tour companies make a significant contribution to the management of people in the corridor. As Alaska DNR-trained guides manage their own groups, independent travelers are brought into line as well. Problems are more likely to arise when the guided tours are not present and un-permitted groups and other independent travelers roam the Chilkoot River corridor during the off hours. These are times when the guides and monitors have retired for the day. Without regard to posted regulations and restrictions I have repeatedly seen what amounts to a mob-mentality drive ill-considered behavior which puts ADF&G personnel in danger, themselves in danger, and ultimately the bears in danger.
Working on Solutions
What are the answers? Is there a solution? We have spent years debating the best way to proceed. Hours are spent in assembly chambers in thoughtful discussion, everyone is agreed something needs to be done. The problem persists.
- -At the recent TAB meeting I heard mention of the fact that locations like Katmai do not have such problems. People who travel to Katmai may be subject to a lottery for the privilege of viewing the bears, or spend thousands of dollars for the privilege and are regulated and supervised at all times.
- -I have heard the suggestion that we eliminate traffic along the Chilkoot River corridor. The question becomes how do people who have campgrounds at the lake access their site? How do people who want to launch their boat at the lake access the lake at the end of the road? How do fishermen take their catch to their coolers in their trucks to prevent bears from associating them with free fish? Eliminating vehicles will put more foot traffic on the road and create a greater exposure problem between people and bears.
- -Create a parking lot at the beginning of the corridor and require people to board shuttles that will control the amount of traffic and stops along the way. Personally I cannot see the practicality of this idea from any angle. Feel welcome to leave an insightful comment in the comment field at the end of this blog.
It is my personal belief that there are a few alternatives that may help the situation.
- -On the most simple level there is a need for more official presence and enforcement along the Chilkoot River corridor. If people start getting tickets for infractions of behavior with respect to parking, impeding traffic flow, or wildlife endangerment they might start thinking twice about choices and stop behaving in the most cavalier fashion.
- -Increase the number of pull-outs along the road. There are challenges in this regard with respect to archaeological sites near the existing road.
- -Increase the presence of volunteers or DNR-trained personnel who can help to manage the interactions between the public and independent travelers and the resident wildlife. There is a particular need to have official personnel present in the evening hours when most of the problems between independent travelers and wildlife put themselves, ADF&G personnel and wildlife in danger.
- -Put a limit on the number of vehicles any given tour company can have in the corridor at one time. Perhaps tie this constraint to the number of tourists a given vehicle can accommodate at full capacity.
- -There is a relic access road that goes up to the lake on the west side of the existing corridor road. The Borough or State could acquire the access rights this road would provide and create a road that connects up with the campground and the lake. If this were done, the road network could be made to be a one-way loop and that would reduce the need to create more pull-outs along the river road. It is also conceivable that with a back-side entrance to the lake, campground and boat ramp the existing corridor road next to the river could be established as a pedestrian zone. This might necessitate the installation of secure viewing areas and bear-proof containers for fishermen to put their catch.
This issue would be well served by being addressed sooner than later. (Too late already?) Currently there are approximately five brown bear sows with new cubs who are frequenting the Chilkoot River in search of their sustenance. Two summers from now those sows will force their cubs out of the den and onto their own lives. The Chilkoot River corridor will be the home to a great number of sub-adult bears who will be confused and anxious about their place in the world. To date their has been no dire interaction between bruin and man. Many maintain it is a crisis waiting to happen. It would be a good time to move beyond our debates and discussions and develop a plan that protects both visitor and residents.
This is the third of an ongoing series on the bears of the Chilkoot River. You can read the first installment at: Chilkoot River Bears
The second installment is at: The Chilkoot River Saga Continues
10/23 update: Since writing this blog, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (State Parks) has received a $1.5 million (approximately) federal grant to add to their fund for improvements in the Chilkoot River corridor. Superintendent Preston Kroes met with the Tourism Advisory Bureau and advised that work would begin on improvement in 2019. Given the extra funds received, the DNR is reevaluating its objectives for an improved road and facilities. Much is being discussed, all TBA.
Meanwhile, I have some documents to share that might be of interest. These include documents shared at the recent Tourism Advisory Board meeting of 10/23 that reviewed the short term and long term goals as part of a Master Development Plan, and a document detailing concerns, questions, and suggestions made to DNR with their responses:
I have devoted a gallery to the bears of Haines and Alaska on my Smug Mug Gallery for Bears/Wild Things.