Chenik Head: Some see destruction as part of culture war between hunters, viewers
Tom Kizzia / Anchorage Daily News / January 23, 2005
State employees burned a controversial bear viewing camp near the McNeil River to the ground this month, even as some of their fellow Department of Fish and Game biologists were negotiating with an educational group over use of the remote cabins next summer.
The Jan. 4 mission to torch the camp at Chenik Head, on the west side of Cook Inlet, removed a liability the state decided to get rid of years ago, said Fish and Game special assistant Tina Cunning. She said the burning represents the last chapter of a long dispute surrounding the private bear camp, first erected by a Homer naturalist on contested land in 1978.
But critics of the state's move say the camp's destruction is one more skirmish in the ongoing culture war between bear hunters and bear viewers. They noted that it came just weeks before the state Game Board plans to reopen the hot question of hunting in the McNeil River region for the first time in a decade.
"It's just vendetta stuff," said Homer pilot Ken Day, who runs a summer bear viewing business. "They just don't want anybody using it who might promote bears as a living breathing creature instead of a rug."
"Pitiful, tragic, unfortunate, ridiculous. Any of those adjectives will do," said Michael McBride, who built the camp and had resisted past efforts to burn it.
The Chenik camp was located on land recently added to the McNeil River State Game Refuge. The refuge lies adjacent to the world-famous bear sanctuary at the McNeil River falls, where as many as 40 grizzlies can be seen feeding at one time by visitors with permits. Smaller numbers of bears frequent the Chenik area.
Fish and Game's decision to burn the Chenik buildings came as a surprise to the department's own refuge officials.
"There was definitely a difference in interpretation of what decisions had been made," said refuge lands coordinator Joe Meehan, who heard about it after the buildings were burned. Meehan had been discussing use of the buildings with the Homer-based Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, which held a teacher-education program on bears last summer near the Chenik camp.
Cunning, however, said the decision to remove the private camp was made by the Legislature and confirmed in 2003, when the state first took over the formerly federal land. The state was given title to the buildings by McBride through a legal settlement and was waiting for the right weather and employee availability to finish the job, she said. Three Fish and Game employees were flown to Chenik to do the job, she said.
"There shouldn't have been a misunderstanding," Cunning said. She blamed the confusion on staff miscommunication.
Cunning said the state's management plan for the refuge would have to be changed through a time-consuming public process to allow a bear viewing camp in the Chenik area.
The Chenik camp was started as a tent facility on federal land by McBride, who had a one-year recreational permit. The land had been selected by the Seldovia Native Association, and McBride continued his operation with their blessing. But the state went to court to get the land and eventually won. McBride then tried to get a permit from the state, which began referring to his camp as a "trespass" operation in some memos.
In the meantime, McBride had expanded the camp to include a central building, outcabins and a sauna. He had also become active in political efforts to close more bear habitat to hunting, which drew the ire of pro-hunting groups.
In 1999, the Legislature approved adding the 23,000 acres to the McNeil game refuge but added a provision requiring removal of any commercial enterprise -- meaning McBride's camp. McBride supporters saw that as a measure of revenge exacted by his enemies. McBride eventually relinquished control, but supporters sought to preserve the camp as a state-owned educational facility.
Senior state officials, however, called the camp a liability, a maintenance headache and a potential target for vandalism. They said it was not located in an ideal place for such a facility.
McBride said the decision to burn the camp appeared tied to broader efforts to curtail bear viewing. "To the extent they got away with this, it only emboldens them," he said.
Even as McBride's pioneering toehold at Chenik Head has been pried free, the business of bear viewing has exploded. Daily flights from Homer and Kodiak take visitors to Katmai National Park, south of McNeil, while flights from Anchorage and Kenai go to Lake Clark National Park to the north.
For example, national park statistics show an increase along the Katmai coast from 1,900 tourists in 2000 to 2,975 in 2003, according to Katmai concessions chief Becky Brock.
Grizzly bear tourism showed its public relations strength in 1995 when bear viewing advocates won a pitched battle in front of the state Game Board to close hunting in the refuge adjacent to the McNeil River sanctuary. Advocates argued that bears from McNeil River, accustomed to moving close to nonthreatening human observers, would be easy prey for hunters when they rambled onto nearby state lands.
Bear hunting advocates have been wary of expanded bear viewing operations in the years since. They say the bear viewing guides, who point out bears by name and describe their personalities to visitors, threaten traditional Alaska hunting practices. Some see moves for greater bear protection as the cutting edge of a broader antihunting movement.
The two sides will square off March 4-13 in Anchorage when the state Board of Game meets to discuss hunting issues in Southcentral Alaska. Already on the agenda are proposals to open bear hunting on two strips of unprotected state land between the McNeil River sanctuary and Katmai National Park.
The board is also expected to discuss reopening the McNeil River refuge, perhaps to a limited permit-only bear hunt. Hunting had been allowed when the refuge was first created in 1991 as a buffer around a controversial, and ultimately unsuccessful, salmon enhancement project.
Former Gov. Tony Knowles pressed the Game Board in 1995 to close the refuge in the midst of national protests. Hunters expect more support from the current board, largely appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski, said Rod Arno, a hunting advocate for the Alaska Outdoor Council. The board launched a statewide effort last year to re-examine all areas closed to hunting.
"I think this administration looks at these things different," Arno said.
On the other side, bear viewing advocates are asking the board to close or cut back hunting seasons in Katmai National Preserve, where bears migrate after leaving the McNeil River sanctuary.
The debate comes as the number of grizzlies congregating at the famous McNeil River falls has dropped to its lowest number in 20 years. Biologists say weak chum salmon runs in the McNeil River are to blame.
Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or in Homer at 235-4244
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