At Haines’ first Assembly meeting this year, disagreement and uncertainty about launch sites for guided tours on the Chilkat River delayed one business owner’s attempts to expand.
Joe Ordonez runs Rainbow Glacier Adventures. Among other tours, his company offers guided rafting on the Chilkat River. He’s asking Assembly permission to expand his permit to contract with Uncruise, a cruise company planning to visit Haines for the first time this summer.
“I want the business,” Ordonez said. “I want to work with the community, I want to educate people when they go down the river, I want to do something positive for tourism in Haines.”
But public comments and Assembly members got snagged on the commercial and environmental impacts of expanding guiding on the Chilkat — especially at the river’s launch sites.
According to the Haines Borough, four companies have permits to raft the Chilkat. The largest, Chilkat River Guides, can float up to 500 people a day. Alaska Mountain Guides can take around 40 per trip, and Haines Rafting company can take around 19 per trip. Ordonez’s company is currently allowed the smallest number, at 14 people per trip. He needs to increase that to 44 to fulfill the new contract.
Jake Eckhart, the manager for Chilkat River Guides, asked the Assembly to deny Ordonez’s request. He says his company has been guiding on the Chilkat the longest, before permitting began.
“In 2014, the Assembly approved two additional operators. That has caused crowding at the viable put ins and take outs,” he said. “I would urge you to vote no, or delay making a decision until a determination can be made about an appropriate level of carrying capacity at these locations.”
Most of the companies, including Rainbow Glacier use the popular upper launch at 14-mile. Takshanuk Watershed Council sent a letter saying existing use has already damaged the site.
And guiding companies aren’t the only ones that rely on that part of the river. Gabe Thomas summed up environmental and local use concerns in a public comment.
“The landing area at 14-mile, as most of you know or may not know, is a spawning, subsistence, and sport fishing recreation area,” he said. “Adding more traffic and congestion on the river bank in this area can deeply impact spawning grounds. Bank degradation and increased disturbances in this sensitive area will not help salmon.”
The Assembly considered amending Ordonez’s proposal. Members floated requiring him to use another launch site, or just asking him to use the 14-mile pull out as “sparingly” as possible.
Heather Lende asked about the wisdom of adding more people, no matter where they put in.
“Right now we only have a 1000 king salmon, there’s not much sockeye action on that river. It’s stressed,” she said. “I’m just wondering at the wisdom of adding more capacity to the river right now. Even inadvertently, well-meaning people might mess some things up.”
The Chilkat’s Chinook salmon are seeing record-low returns, and are in the process of being declared a stock of concern by the state.
Other Assembly members, including Stephanie Scott, pushed back, saying Ordonez’s business is exactly the kind of new economic opportunity Haines should be supporting.
“I asked why there weren’t more ships docking here. And [the cruise company] said, it’s because you don’t have enough activities for our guests,” Scott said. “I think your proposal, especially if you will prevent erosion to the bank, is absolutely necessary.”
After almost an hour of discussion, the Assembly didn’t resolve the issue. The mayor referred Ordonez’s proposal to a committee of the whole.
Ordonez is disappointed but optimistic. He plans to amend his request to use a less problematic launch site — and maybe partner with other users to build a new one.
“I want to work on the 14-and-a-half mile site,” he said. “There was some work being done on creating a metal series of steps that could go along the river to prevent bank erosion.”
In the meantime, Ordonez hopes his proposal will be approved in time to finish contract negotiations with the cruise comp
For the Assembly, protecting fish, decongesting river access, and defining the Chilkat’s raft carrying capacity are still questions on the table.