Chilkoot Lake Road was transferred this week from the State Department of Transportation to the State Department of Natural Resources. That exchange has been years in the making. Now that the popular recreation area is under DNR Parks’ control, renovations to the road that include bear-viewing platforms could happen in time for summer, 2017.
Southeast Parks Superintendent Mike Eberhardt announced the big news by phone at a Haines Commerce Committee meeting Tuesday. DOT is no longer in the picture, he said. As of February 1, DNR Parks is the new manager of the Chilkoot Road.
That’s good news for the Chilkoot River Corridor Project, which was funded by the state about four years ago, but stalled because of issues with DOT.
“So up until basically now it’s been up in the air as to when we would be able to move forward with that project,” Eberhardt said. “And now it’s no longer up in the air that we’re able to move forward with that project.”
But it’s still going to take longer than some locals hoped.
“As far as the improvements go on the road, the last I heard was they’re postponed ’til next year,” Eberhardt said.
“We funded that four years ago, Albert [Kookesh] and I. That don’t sound right to us,” said Haines Borough lobbyist and former state representative Bill Thomas. He called into the meeting, along with former state senator Kookesh. They and others at the meeting were annoyed at yet another delay in the road improvements.
DNR Chief of Design and Construction Rys Miranda said Wednesday that because of the delay in the road transfer, other projects were prioritized by the department. He said the earliest the Chilkoot improvements could happen is probably spring of 2017. So, not in time for the 2016 tourism rush.
Commerce Committee Chair George Campbell asked Eberhardt if DNR owning the corridor would lead to road closures.
“Under what circumstances would this road be closed down and how do we avoid that from happening?” Campbell asked.
“The situation is going to be just like a state trooper closing down a state highway,” Eberhardt said. “If a state trooper feels the need to close a highway, he better make sure there’s a good reason for it.”
Congestion with bears, bear viewers, fishermen and all of their vehicles is an ongoing safety problem on Chilkoot Road. Campbell asked whether crowding would be a big enough concern to close the road.
“I just don’t know, until we get into [those] situations,” said Eberhardt. “I’ve seen it a little bit unsafe there, with bears standing on cars, but I don’t know if closing the gates would’ve assisted in those situations.”
One thing that could help in those situations is a monitor to educate visitors about safe bear-viewing. Great Bear Foundation Director Shannon Donahue asked about staffing at Chilkoot.
“Are you planning on staffing the corridor with a bear monitor this summer? And assuming these platforms get built, we may have increased visitation, is there any hope for increasing the staffing after that?” she asked.
“No,” Eberhardt said. “There’s no increased funding for this project within the division other than to build the project, so the staffing that was there last year is basically what you’ll see this year.”
The staffing includes one state parks ranger, Travis Russell, his technicians and local volunteers. Russell divides his time between Chilkoot and other State Parks land in Haines. At the meeting, he said he plans to ‘reprioritize’ this summer and spend more time at Chilkoot.
Tour business owner Sean Gaffney said he and others are interested in putting together local funding for a monitor on the corridor.
For now, Gaffney said he is happy the jurisdiction struggle is over and DNR is handling the road.
“It’s been swatted around for 15 years. And they solved it,” he said. “I mean, DOT has been holding [Chilkoot Lake Road] hostage forever and they finally…Parks said they’d take it.”
Overall, Eberhardt assured the community members that management would not look much different under DNR. He said, this summer, his department might install an information kiosk and parking signs to help with safety.