There’s a good reason, an unassailable reason really, that jet skis have been banned in the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Areas near Homer for nearly two decades. The first clue why this is so should be the words “critical habitat areas.” These are places that deserve special protections. And all the available evidence indicates jet ski recreation is an inappropriate activity in such coastal areas.
You don’t have to take my word for it. The agency that manages those critical habitat areas (CHAs)—the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (F&G)—has twice decided that jet skis should be prohibited there, first in 2001 when the ban was enacted and again in 2017, during a revision of the CHAs’ management plans.
The reason the department chose to ban jet skis (also known as personal watercraft, or PWC) is simple. To quote from a F&G memo written in May 2017, “the nature of PWC, especially the capability to execute rapid changes in speed and direction in nearshore shallow waters, continues to have a high potential to impact habitats, marine organisms, wildlife, and other traditional users groups and those [impacts] cannot be easily mitigated. . . .
“In summary, based on our review of information available since the PWC prohibition was adopted in 2001, we feel there is no new information that would warrant rescinding the prohibition, and in fact the newer information highlights most of the concerns identified when the prohibition was adopted.”
It’s also worth noting that Alaskans have supported the ban by substantial margins both during the original comment period and again in 2016-17. The point being, I suppose, that this ban was not enacted or maintained in the face of great opposition.
Case closed. Or so you’d think.
But not with Mike Dunleavy governing our state.
There are many reasons our governor is so unpopular. One is his callous disregard for public process and the rule of law, as Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper documented in a recent ADN commentary headlined “Gov. Dunleavy is failing Alaska.”
In this instance, Dunleavy met with a jet skis advocate. And lo and behold, our governor then took it upon himself to order the ban lifted, without any public process or consultation with the state biologists and managers who determined the ban was merited.
In an internal F&G memo dated Nov. 19, 2019, habitat biologist Tammy Massie gave a “heads up” to the CHA planning team that “The governor’s office has decided to repeal the PWC prohibition for Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats CHAs . . . done independently of the ongoing plan revision.”
Though the department later announced a public comment period, Massie’s memo makes clear that the ban’s repeal was essentially a done deal.
Gina Poths, the jet ski advocate (and member of the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska) who met with Dunleavy couldn’t be happier. After many years of writing hundreds letters seeking such a repeal, she finally found a rogue governor who doesn’t care about public process or what’s best for the critical habitat areas, along with the fish and wildlife and other life forms they protect. He’d rather give a narrow special interest group the right to do unnecessary damage.
While Poths and other jet ski advocates argue that this is about “equal access,” I would point out that the state places recreational restrictions on many of its lands and waters to prevent harm. To name just a few examples, consider snowmachining, trapping, hunting, and even mountain biking restrictions in parts of Chugach State Park and other state park units; or prohibitions of numerous human activities in McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, to ensure the long-term protection of its bears.
It’s simple common sense that some places cannot be opened to all manner of recreational (or other) activities. The experts—in this instance, F&G biologists and managers—say jet skis are unacceptable in these two critical habitat areas because of the damage they can do. And the public has largely understood, and agreed with, the department’s rationale.
That Dunleavy and some of his political underlings (for instance F&G special assistant Rick Green, aka radio shock jock Rick Rydell) would unilaterally repeal the exhaustive efforts of state personnel charged with managing these areas, and go against public sentiment as well, is just one more example of how out of touch—and out of control—our governor remains,, despite his recent attempts to seem a more reasonable and open-minded “leader.”
It’s also one more example of why those pushing to recall him can’t let up. Dunleavy is bad for Alaska and he’s the wrong guy to lead us Alaskans.
The public comment period was originally scheduled to end January 6, but under duress the administration moved the deadline to January 21, still a ridiculously short timeframe, especially considering it began during the holidays. Besides contacting Green (email@example.com), the point man in this repeal effort, I’d recommend that Alaskans upset by this latest example of gubernatorial overreach contact our governor and tell Dunleavy his action is not only wrong, but is unacceptably bad behavior.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.