Locals unsure about Kasilof River improvement plan

Jun 16, 2017

The south side improvement project is aimed at expanding access while putting in some protections for the sensitive wetlands near the mouth of the Kasilof River.
Credit Alaska Department of Natural Resources

New plans for expanding access to different fisheries around the Kasilof River is raising concerns among residents.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, along with a number of other agencies, addressed some of those concerns at a recent public meeting in Soldotna.

The Kasilof River continues to grow in popularity as a favorite spot for Alaskans to get their fill of salmon each summer. But what started out as a very local personal-use fishery is turning into, by some accounts, a miniature version of the Kenai dipnetting scene — more people, more RVs, more wear and tear to the area that has little protection, either physically or legally, from misuse or overuse.

That’s one reason why the state has been working on updating the public fishing areas around the mouth of the river, on both sides. This week, a public meeting was held in Soldotna to get input on what improvements should look like on the south side. Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack was at that meeting. He says the goal is to figure out how to give access to more users while curbing some of the downsides that can come with increased use.

“We view the Kasilof River and the entire area around the mouth of the Kasilof to be very special. And we do think it's rational to think about the fact that there's going to be more demand. And the questions we have is what is the ultimate carrying capacity of the area and how should we facilitate those people who are coming either to participate in the personal-use fishery, the subsistence fishery, the sports fishery or there's a lot of commercial activity there, as well."

Improvements on the north side of the beach got underway last year, with much the same goal. A number of concerns were aired at the meeting, and a lot of it had to do with enforcement. The Kasilof River Special Use Area encompasses the mouth of the river and adjacent public lands. It's overseen by an alphabet soup of state and local agencies. So, who will be in charge? Alaska State Troopers with the Wildlife Division make occasional appearances, but up to this point, locals in Kasilof have done what they can to remind fishermen and other users where to drive, where to park, where to camp and how to try and keep the place clean. A lot of locals at the meeting, like Eric Heubsch, are worried about the unintended consequences.

"I think we're seeing that this area is already overcrowded at times, during the personal-use fisheries and that sort of thing. Building more infrastructure isn't going to solve that problem. All it does is attract more people to it. So we need to put some limits on it, we need to put some regulations on and make what we have more manageable."

The south side improvement plan includes several possible updates, mostly centered around adding big parking spaces for RVs — up to two dozen of them — installing restroom facilities and Dumpsters, putting in fencing for sand dune protection and generally making it easier for more people to get near the water in as controlled a way as possible.

"There are rules in place already in this special use area, but they're not enforceable. That's what we're up against. Everybody has the best intentions, but there's a lot of safety issues down there already. And all the different agencies tend to point fingers, 'I don't have any control over some of these safety issues, that's another department or another agency.' So there's a lot of different responsibilities and yet those agencies don't seem to be there," Heubsch says.

The public comment period for the south side improvement project will be open until the end of August. A site plan will be finalized this fall and construction, in whatever form it takes, is slated to begin next fall.