Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:39 PM on Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Personal watercraft group thinks greener machines make issue worth another look

Has public sentiment changed?

In March, Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska spokesperson Gina Poths of Palmer asked the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to revisit the use of personal watercraft on Kachemak Bay.

Poths' request has been granted with a spot on the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizens Advisory Board meeting Sept. 14, from 6-9 p.m. at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.

However, having been told in a recent email from the Division of Parks that what she understood to be an hour-long presentation has been reduced to 15 minutes, Poths is uncertain if the club will attend the meeting.

"Really, what can we accomplish in 15 minutes?" Poths told the Homer News.

The reason Poths said she was given for the shortened presentation was "because the opposition wants equal time."

"This meeting was for us to make a presentation about new and improved watercraft," said Poths. "They could comment on our stuff, but as far as opposition, opposition to what? New watercraft? We would like the bay opened to personal watercraft, but this was a foot-in-the-door meeting to make a presentation to see if they were willing to look at new watercraft and maybe make some amendments because of that."

In the March 24 letter to DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan, Poths said reasons for banning PWCs in the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat area, Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park were based on "conjecture, opinion and hearsay."

"There have been no valid studies done to warrant a ban on the use of personal watercraft in an area where other motorized vessels are allowed," said Poths, adding that in the past 10 years she has requested the topic be reopened in letters to the governor's office, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and DNR.

"We've been told by these agencies: (a) it costs too much money to revisit the issue, which I (interpret) that even though members of the public are asking for a review based on new information, we don't matter; (b) contact (legislators) to write a law to change it; (c) work collectively with the agencies to address social and environmental issues cited by the public and potentially allow for the reopening."

Responding to Poths' letter, Ed Fogels, DNR deputy commissioner, noted that PWCs currently being manufactured "have cleaner and quieter engines than the ones made 11 years ago."

Fogels suggested Poths request of District Ranger Roger MacCampbell that the topic be addressed at the upcoming Kachemak Bay Citizens Advisory Board meeting. Fogels also said Ben Ellis, director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, would direct MacCampbell to ensure the meeting was well publicized.

"It is possible that public sentiment in the last 11 years regarding personal watercraft has changed and we thank you for bringing this issue to our attention," Fogels wrote to Poths.

Jack Sinclair, DNR park superintendent in Soldotna, told the Homer News the advisory board is both the public's and the department's "first sounding board" for issues of importance.

"We felt it was most appropriate for any user group to bring an issue of any recreational aspect to an advisory board to say, 'This is what we want,'" said Sinclair, adding, "Yes, it's a controversial thing. We wouldn't want to create the situation, but they came to the department and said 'We want to talk about this,' and the commissioner said, 'Well, if you must, you should go to the affected area and make a presentation.'"

Sinclair pointed out that PWCs are one of several items on the agenda. He anticipated the watercraft club's presentation would take 15 minutes, followed by a question-and-answer session with the board and time for public comment.

"There's thinking out there that it's an hour presentation," said Sinclair. "That's not the way it's intended."

While public comment on any topic is included in the agenda, MacCampbell said, "This is not a public hearing. It's not something we're taking testimony on as if we're going to vote. ... Yeah, there's people that have been requesting to have a counterpoint to whatever it is (representatives of Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska) are going to say. I guess they should have expected that."

After hearing the PWC presentation, the advisory board can "either say they have nothing to say or they have a lot to say. They have a wide open opportunity to make any or no recommendations to the commissioner on this," said Sinclair. "Personally, I told the commissioner our reputation is that we give all groups at least a forum to speak. I think it's worse when you close the door on anybody. In fact, it's better when you open the door and let them speak. We're not asking anybody to agree with them, just listen."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homenews.com.