Story last updated at 4:12 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 2002

Lodge tiff flares up
By Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

Two local owners of a popular bear-viewing lodge on Kamishak Bay have been ordered by the federal government to burn their camp to the ground.

The order is being driven by the state, which is poised to take ownership from the federal Bureau of Land Management of 23,000 acres of McNeil River State Game Refuge land on which the camp sits.

But Chenik Camp owners Michael and Diane McBride of Homer said the decision is being driven by something else -- politics at best, revenge at worst.

"It's entirely 110 percent political," Michael McBride said.

At the crux of the matter is a decades-long debate over rights to the land and whether the McBrides had permission to run the camp they have operated since 1978. The camp's right to exist has been disputed almost since the beginning.

The McBrides' efforts to get the camp's legitimacy recognized are documented in nearly a quarter-century's worth of correspondence with state and federal agencies.

But some people feel the camp was always in trespass.

"After the first year, they never actually had a permit from BLM to be there," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue.

Chenik began in 1978 as a tent camp on federal land operating under a one-year recreation permit issued by BLM. The McBrides tried to renew that permit the following year but were told that the Seldovia Native Association had selected the land under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

SNA told the McBrides they could continue operating on the property under the assumption that the land selection would go through.

"SNA held the land in an equity title," McBride said. "BLM told us to go to SNA, and for the next 20 years we had that association with them."

However, the state fought the Native group in the courts for the land, and in the late 1990s SNA relinquished its claim after spending nearly $1 million in legal fees.

In 1993, McBride said, the state began referring to Chenik Camp as being "in trespass" on the land, though the land was still owned and managed by BLM.

"At that point, SNA still had a claim to the land, and BLM still owned it," he said. "So why did the state say we were in trespass if they didn't own the land, then?"

McBride thinks he knows the answer to his own question.

In the early 1990s, the McBrides were outspoken advocates for bear protection during contentious public debates over the expansion of the McNeil refuge. Michael McBride was on the winning side, and he believes that the pro-hunting contingent of the Legislature and its supporters statewide sought retribution.

He cites a 1999 law sponsored by Sen. Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, specifically to resolve the Chenik dispute. The law prevents the state from accepting any land within the McNeil refuge on which a private company is in operation.

A spokesperson at Halford's office said the senator was unavailable for comment.

If the law's intent was to force Chenik off the land, it worked, McBride said.

Three years prior, in a 1996 finding, Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Robert Bosworth had recommended that Rue withdraw the department's opposition to issuance of a standard lease to the McBrides.

"Given the lack of agency progress I have been prepared to find some evidence that Mr. McBride has willfully trespassed at Chenik, been negligent in following necessary procedures, or dishonest in his representation of the facts," Bosworth wrote. "I did not find this evidence."

Rue acted on Bosworth's recommendation, but the 1999 law undercut his authority in the matter.

"Why did the Legislature and Rick Halford feel that they should take the power away from one of its commissioners?" asked McBride. "Rue said, 'We will concur with BLM.' He made the decision that we would get the lease, until Halford took away his ability."

McBride is not alone in his beliefs.

Doug Pope, an Anchorage attorney who was chair of the Alaska Board of Game during the McNeil refuge debates, said, "It was payback. Coming out of those meetings, the other groups hated Mike and Diane McBride. And I don't think anyone on the other side will deny that it's payback."

Rod Arno, a McBride adversary and wildlife adviser for the Alaska Outdoor Council in Board of Game issues who helped craft the 1999 law, agreed.

"Absolutely. Sure. It's payback," he said. "McBride was a bad neighbor, and it's good that he's gone. A good neighbor would have shared bear hunting and bear viewing. It's payback, but it's not personal. It's all part of the political process."

McBride himself is a former bear-hunting guide turned naturalist whose plight has turned into a cause celebre. His attempts to recognize his claims of legitimacy for Chenik were supported during a 1999 public hearing process by letters from the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy of Alaska, the Alaska Center for the Environment and the International Association for Bear Research and Management, among others.

"I'm not opposed to hunting, but there are certain times and places where it is inappropriate," said McBride.

He has traveled around the world to study endangered species and believes the dense population of brown bears could make lower Cook Inlet a World Heritage Site.

But the matter is not one of hunting versus conservation. At its heart, it's a legal matter over whether the McBrides were lawful residents or squatters.

"We did exactly what we were told to do, right from the get-go," McBride said. "We went to BLM. They sent us to SNA, and we went to SNA."

Rue disagreed.

"He never had a permit from BLM to be there after that first year," he said. "Maybe he got bad advice from BLM, but I certainly would not want to put that kind of investment in that place without a clear chain of title. He took a big risk."

Stuart Hirsh, the realty group manager for BLM in Anchorage who drafted the order to vacate the Chenik property, said the two sides of the issue are not mutually exclusive.

"Technically, it's an unauthorized use of the land," he said. "They were never issued a lease or permission to be there. Under ANILCA, BLM needed the state's concurrence, and we never got it.

"But I think it's a fair statement to say the McBrides did everything they could to legitimize their presence there," he said. "They took a calculated risk, a business risk, and it didn't pan out for them."

Chenik Camp has been closed to business for three years. While it was open, the McBrides hosted six to eight guests at a time in a main building and several surrounding outbuildings, including a sauna. The camp is rustic, with no running water or electricity.

"It's minimalist," McBride said. "It's beautiful. We only took about 50 guests a year, and it was a spiritual endeavor for us, not a cash cow. There aren't that many places left that have that kind of solitude."

Over the years, the McBrides hosted visitors ranging from amateur photographers to widely published photojournalists. "We put a lot of ourselves into that place," McBride said.

And now, the state wants the lodge to disappear. The McBrides appear to have few legal options. While the state could allow the 5 acres on which Chenik stands to remain in federal hands, leaving the possibility of a BLM lease for the McBrides, Fish and Game Commissioner Rue opposes that scenario.

"The reason I don't support it and wouldn't support it is that you'd have these 5 acres in the heart of the refuge that the state couldn't control," Rue said. "You might have a Chenik Camp for 10 years, and then you might have that private land become a large hotel or something.

"My priority is the refuge, and we have a clear choice," he said. "Do we want the land in the refuge, or do we want Chenik Camp to exist? It's a long-term risk, and that's my primary concern. I'm not willing to excise the heart of the refuge."

Under the terms of a contract signed in February with BLM, the McBrides must clean out the Chenik Camp lodge and surrounding cabins of everything non-burnable by the end of September. A BLM firefighting crew will then come in to torch the building as a practice exercise.

If the McBrides don't get the camp cleared out, the incineration will come with an $80,000 price tag.

Legal issues aside, it's a poignant moment for the couple.

"There's 130 miles of dangerous, open ocean between here and there, and we have made that trip thousands of times," McBride said. "Building it was the hardest thing I could ever imagine doing. How's it going to feel to burn it down? I'm going to cry."