By Naomi Klouda
Manufacturers of personal water crafts reengineered the machines for energy efficiency and noise control to a degree that has gone beyond traditional boats.
That was the message brought to the Kachemak State Park board of directors Sept. 14 at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Personal Water Crafts of Alaska President Gene Gerken gave a presentation to the board in its request to allow jet skis to use the Bay for recreation. The crafts have been banned since 2000 due to the Bay’s multilayers of designated Critical Habitat Areas to protect endangered beluga whales and other marine and bird life.
The meeting itself was overflowing with attendants, though the board moved it to the center’s large auditorium to accommodate the public, most of them against lifting the PWC ban in the Bay. The board’s regularly scheduled business meeting held on its agenda a spot for a half-hour presentation by the PWC group. It was not scheduled as a debate, Board Director Paul Heuper warned those assembled.
“The bottom line about the topic of whether to allow Kachemak Bay, including lagoons and side bays is this step toward public education,” PWC advocate-Gerken said. “We feel that facts speak for themselves. If the public ignores facts, that’s when we appeal to our governing board. Kachemak Bay belongs to all Alaskans.”
Gerken concluded that the time has come to lift the ban. “It’s time to put aside biases, and talk to Attorney General John Burns et al, and let them know it is time to lift the ban.”
The next person to talk was the American Water Craft Association’s John Donaldson, who gave a presentation on behalf of the manufacturers of PWCs. He said that in the past, the number one objection to PWCs everywhere was their noise.
“That has been a challenging issue to all forms of recreation. The PWC industry has been making strides in this area. When current regulations were put in place 10 years ago, the industry was substantially different from how they are today,” he said.
Two standards apply to boats for regulating decibel levels, known as J2005 and J1970. One measures the idling sound of a pleasure boat and the other measures the decibel level of a boat from the shore. The goal for each is between 75-82 decibels. In certain states, measurements in excess of those are citeable offenses, he said.
“Boats on the water are substantially quieter today than they were 10 years ago,” he said. Manufacturers also targeted emissions, and have cut hydrocarbons and nitrous oxide by 90 percent.
Gina Poths, the secretary and co-founder of the Alaska group, said she would like to use her personal water craft in Kachemak Bay because it is one of Alaska’s most beautiful waterways.
“A lot of you decided you didn’t like us. This is the opportunity to present new facts to you …. The Critical Habitat Area is not a related topic to PWC. It’s a boat or it’s a PWC, and the only difference is that you sit on one and you sit in the other one. There are laws that take care of issues when someone does something illegal,” Poths said. The Marine Mammal Act already spells out that people must stay a specified distance from whales. They aren’t supposed to be less than three miles from a rockery, Poths said. She uses her own craft for transportation and she fishes from it.
The Kachemak Bay State Park Advisory Board’s role in such matters is only to make recommendations to the state agencies such as the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. It doesn’t have the power to lift the ban. At the end of Poth’s presentation, Chair Paul Hueper asked her why did the group want to recreate in Kachemak Bay.
“You already have access to 82 percent of Alaska’s waterways – why do you care so much about Kachemak Bay?” Hueper asked.
“It’s on principle. I love Alaska, all of Alaska. We have a boat, but it’s hard to trailer it here. Halibut are elusive out of Prince William Sound. I would like to come here to fish,” Poths answered. Visits from people such as herself would make economic sense because they buy food and rent hotels. “I should be able to take my boat any where I’d like to go. It (Kachemak Bay) belongs to the public – not to the people in Homer.” A group who had traveled from Anchorage for the talk applauded Poths’ answer.
Since the agenda included just the presentation without public testimony, the board had to figure out how to handle the substantial number of Homer residents clamoring to speak up. Chairman Hueper announced that only those representing groups could take a turn at the microphone.
Shannon McBride Morin spoke on behalf of a large coalition in Cook InletKeeper and the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society. She was born and raised in China Poot Bay and helps operate the family business at Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge.
“We are opposed on the grounds of safety to wildlife. Jet skies are not compatible with Critical Habitat Areas. It’s simple. It’s not complicated in a Critical habitat,” Morin said. In 1999 when the state park opened the same topic for public comment, more than 70 percent were against it.
“There are a lot of us who like the status quo. It is working – more people are out in the bay now. It is a beautiful mecca for non-motorized water sports.”
PWCs would adversely affect the Bay by undermining the wilderness that makes the area unique, disrupting and perhaps endangering fish and wildlife, whales, seals and sea otters. “They (water craft users) already have easy access to thousands of acres of waters. They have all of the upper Cook Inlet, Seward and Prince William Sound. Numerous other areas are off limit because these craft are driven in a way that conflicts with traditional uses,” Morin said.
Phil Needham, representing the Snomads’ 1,000 members on the Kenai Peninsula, said that organization supports opening the Bay to PWCs. “Any decision should be based on science and not on discrimination and bias, as in someone who doesn’t like to see people having fun on a PWC,” Needham said.
Brenda Hays introduced herself as a 38-year resident and member of several organizations like the Homer Bed and Breakfast Association, the Halibut Charter Association and Snomads.
“From what I’ve heard tonight, we are putting a stop to tourism in Homer… I feel we can compromise and reconsider this issue that has been tabled. The Homer Harbor should be considered a safe haven for all vessels, including PWCs. They have a right to seek food, shelter, fuel or medical attention or to tour our city.”
At a time when the halibut charter industry is targeted for losses, encouraging new tourism through PWC users could help the local economy, Hays said. The crafts would add to the search-and-rescue capabilities.
Cook InletKeeper Executive Director, Bob Shavelson also spoke, warning against an outdoor lobbying group that works on opening wilderness to access just on the principle without regard for sensitive habitat issues.
“The fundamental facts and science stand behind the one or two years of hearings that had already taken place in 2000, when the ban went into place,” he said. “Now it doesn’t come down to what is new in this technology so much as how these are driven.”
The Alaska Outdoor Council is involved in this effort to help lobby for the Personal Water Craft Organization of Alaska, Shavelson told the group.
“We have watched them take aim at things they don’t like and it’s habitat protection, driving an ATV through a spawning salmon stream, which was never legal. They struck this law down. They probably have more of an agenda to make sure they can open any public lands in the state and it’s on principle, to say ‘Let’s open Kachemak Bay’.”
The next step now, Poths said, is to take direction from the advisory board. “I’ll be writing a follow-up letter thanking them for their time and asking what our next options are,” she said Monday.
But they aren’t holding their breath. The Homer reception was frosty to the visiting PWC users. One of the PWC officials was told he and his wife should “leave town as soon as possible.”
“When we were done, the only question a board member asked was why is Kachemak Bay important. It was more like a personal opinion question,” Poths said. “We weren’t there for the general public, we were there to address the board. But the board wasn’t really interested. You could tell.”
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