In the roughly 30 years that I've been guiding, from Alaska to upstate New York, I've seen hundreds of people a day gathered to watch bruins. Even where watchers have had to brave foul weather or foul odors at garbage dumps, they have come in droves, filling the coffers of many a gas station, store, hotel and restaurant.
Yet, as important as bears are as an economic boon, they are even more important for the glimpse they yield into the mind and "soul" of another species. Like chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants, bears are gifted with keen intelligence and aesthetic sensibilities. Each of these species occasionally uses tools; each passes knowledge from individual to individual and generation to generation.
As more and more people enjoy the fascination and thrill of watching bears "up close and personal," concerns about adverse consequences multiply. Hunters worry about losing more turf to viewers. Conservationists worry about disturbance to bears. Everyone worries about keeping bears and people safe from each other. Of these challenges, the most difficult are disturbance and safety.
Solving these problems -- through education and regulation -- will depend heavily on deeper knowledge of what really happens during bear viewing under a wide range of circumstances, and what techniques work best under each circumstance. Some of this knowledge is already available, based on centuries of collective experience by an estimated 100-plus viewing guides in Alaska alone (e.g., Larry Aumiller, John Rogers, Derek Stonorov and Chris Day), as well as studies by wildlife biologists such as Tom Smith (U.S. Geological Survey - Biological Resources Division), Terry Debruyn and Tamara Olsen (National Park Service), Lynn Rogers (formerly U.S. Forest Service) and myself. Resolving known contradictions and filling other gaps in existing knowledge will require additional research.
Where can this best be done? While some education and research can be conducted in existing government or university facilities in Anchorage and other communities, there exists no on-site facility devoted to the needs of bear viewers and the bear-viewing industry.
Indeed, so far as I know, there exists no major research and education center anywhere on the Alaska Peninsula, despite the widely recognized need by researchers worldwide. Why not? Cost and convenience.
Existing facilities, such as headquarters at Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks, are too limited and too remote to accommodate more than a few researchers, educators and students.
Worse, they are too hard -- too isolated and too expensive -- to reach and supply. We need at least one site that can be reached quickly and easily, at relatively low cost, and which provides plenty of opportunity for both professionals and students to study bear viewing and other topics.
Kamishak Bay, due west of Homer, is a virtually ideal location for several reasons. But even there, building from scratch on even a modest scale could cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not $1 million or more. Operation would also be expensive.
Does that mean we're licked? Not at all. Like a gift from Heaven, the solution may be at hand: Chenik Camp.
Resting on federal land, which will soon be transferred to state ownership, Chenik Camp is not only ideally situated, it already has a long history of sponsoring research and education -- such as its renowned "Fourth Grade Camp" -- interspersed with commercial wildlife viewing.
Instead of burning this facility, how much wiser would it be to leave it intact, continuing to support itself -- initially through commercial bear viewing, but gradually shifting its emphasis to research and education as grants are obtained from foundations and other sources?
Everything we learn about keeping the "golden goose" healthy will help sustain our local economy. Increased knowledge of safety during bear-human encounters is even more important.
What might begin as a center focused on bear viewing could expand over time to host studies on a wide range of terrestrial and marine wildlife. What an incredible boon to the University of Alaska, to our local communities, and to Alaska's prestige internationally!
The choice is ours: torch Chenik Camp, or not. With only two weeks before the dismantling is scheduled to begin, let's get on the phone to Gov. Tony Knowles, to our state legislators, and to every other influential contact we have. Let's request at least a stay of execution until next summer to give the university and state agencies time to find a way for saving Chenik Camp and gradually turn it into a permanent center for research and education on bears and other wildlife.
Stephen. Stringham conducts research on bear body language and aggression to learn better how bears and people can live in harmony, especially during close encounters. He is the founding director of the Bear Viewing Association, a new organization of guides and viewers devoted to bear conservation, human safety, and maintaining health of the bear viewing industry. He is author of "Beauty Within the Beast: Kinship With Bears in the Alaska Wilderness."