Comments from USFS Forest Supervisor Thomas Puchlerz to 
US Army Corps of Engineers regarding Floating Dock

Date: December 21, 1999

From

United States Forest Service-Department of Agriculture
Tongass National Forest, Alaska Region
648 Mission Street
Ketchikan, AK 99901
907-225-3101 FAX 907-228-6215
File Code: 2320

To

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District Regulatory Branch (I 145b)
Post Office Box 898
Anchorage, Alaska 99502

Dear Mr. Duncan:

Thank you for your letter of November 22, requesting comment on the application by Alaska Cruises for use of floating docks in Rudyerd Bay, in Misty Fiords National Monument. We appreciate the cooperative spirit under which the State of Alaska, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Alaska Cruises have worked in evaluating this proposal.

As upland land managers, we must point out that in our opinion, the level of air traffic and the floating dock associated with Alaska Cruises' proposal are not consistent with management direction under the Wilderness Act, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and the Tongass Land Management Plan.

We request that beginning in 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Tongass National Forest co-sponsor a collaborative planning effort among agencies, users, and groups with an interest in Misty Fiords. The purpose of this effort would be to evaluate opportunities for flight seeing, cruising, and semi-permanent structures.

If you find in the interim that you must approve the float at its current location, we suggest that the approval be temporary, until completion of the planning effort, and that use be capped at 1998 levels as a permit condition. Our concerns about the proposal are based on the following grounds:

Impacts of the fly/cruise operations associated with the dock on the character of the Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness, including opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, and remoteness from the sights and sounds of humans. Impacts of the fly/cruise operations associated with the dock on other users of the National Monument, including other commercial operators and their clients, and the general public.

We recommend that the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Natural Resources, and Alaska Cruises consider alternative locations for the floating dock and the flight-cruise operation, including sites outside designated wilderness or outside the Monument altogether, and pledge our cooperation toward this end. The Forest Service could support this type of development at many other areas of the Ketchikan-Misty Fiords Ranger District.

Our interest in this matter is limited to the impacts of the operation on the lands and users of the Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness. Questions of jurisdiction over submerged lands and waters are better addressed elsewhere; we recognize and support the working relationship between the State of Alaska and the Forest Service in managing lands and waters along the coastal areas. We note that the State of Alaska has traditionally taken a policy of denying permit requests for structures such as houseboats on submerged lands adjacent to conservation system units, and that this policy is reflected in the current draft of the DNR's Central Southeast Area Plan.

We also recognize that a portion of the Rudyerd float issue represents a dispute among commercial operations (some of the parties objecting to Alaska Cruises' application a-re themselves guides). We are reluctant to insert ourselves into a free-market competition between private enterprises, and we take no position for or against any particular business concern. We have had long-standing positive working relationships with all parties. Forest Service continents are limited to our concerns with the effects of the dock and associated use on resources for which we have stewardship responsibility.

I have found that in cases like this one it is often useful to articulate points of agreement. I believe all parties to the Rudyerd float issue would agree that:

  • Misty Fiords National Monument is a national treasure, a spectacular resource, and a special place which ought to be protected as wilderness for the enjoyment of future generations.
  • Wildernesses are designated as areas which are untrammeled by humans and human works.
  • The use of airplanes and motorboats within Misty Fiords for traditional activities is appropriate, within the guidance of the law.
  • Well-regulated commercial operations can provide an avenue for a wide variety of people to enjoy wilderness and public lands in a responsible manner.
  • Individual businesses involved in tourism should be treated fairly and equally.
  • The current levels of use in Rudyerd Bay do not always "provide a high degree of remoteness from the sights and sounds of humans."
  • Reasonable management and regulation of wilderness use is necessary and desirable to ensure the preservation of the values for which the wilderness was designated and the experiences of other users.
  • Clear goals and standards for management of individual areas of Misty Fiords need to be established to guide management decisions and inform users and operators.

Such goals should be established cooperatively in a public process, including the various agencies with jurisdiction, users and businesses, and interest groups. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on Alaska Cruises application and we look forward to working with you in the future on a collaborative planning effort for Misty Fiords National Monument. Should you have any questions concerning these comments, please contact Jerry Ingersoll, District Ranger of Ketchikan/Misty Fiords District Ranger at 225-2148. Our detailed comments follow.

Thomas Puchlerz
Forest Supervisor 

Enclosure

 

Comments on Rudyerd Bay Float Application

I. The Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness

A. The Wilderness Act

The Wilderness Act of 1964 (P.L. 88-577) establishes wilderness areas: for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, [and] the preservation of their wilderness character... (Sec. 2(a))

The Act goes on to state: A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (See. 2(c)).

There shall be no commercial enterprise ... within any wilderness area (Sec. 4(c)).

Commercial services may be performed within the wilderness areas ... to the extent necessary for activities which are proper for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of the areas (Sec. 4(d)(6)).

B. ANIILCA

The Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness was designated through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) (P.L. 96-487). ANILCA directed the Forest Service to manage Misty Fiords to "protect objects of ecological, cultural, geological, historical, prehistorical, and scientific interest" (Sec. 503(c)). Among many other specific provisions, ANILCA provides that: The Secretary shall permit ... the use of snow machines, motorboats, airplanes, and nonmotorized surface transportation methods for traditional activities... Such use shall be subject to reasonable regulations by the Secretary to protect the natural and other values of the conservation system units ... and shall not be prohibited unless, after notice and hearing in the vicinity of the affected unit or area, the Secretary finds that such use would be detrimental to the resource values of this unit or area (Sect. I I I 0(a)).

C. TLMP

The Tongass National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (TLMP), adopted after years of planning, scientific research, and public involvement, establishes direction for management of the Tongass National Forest, including the Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness. Across the Tongass as a whole, the Forest Service goal is to:

Provide a range of recreation opportunities consistent with public demand, emphasizing locally popular recreation places and those important to the tourism industry (page 2-3).

The Tongass offers a variety of settings for different recreation experiences, ranging from visitor centers in urban settings, through remote roaded and unroaded opportunities, to wilderness, which is intended to provide the most primitive and undeveloped experiences Goals for national monument wilderness include:

To manage the Wilderness portions of ..Misty Fiords National Monument to maintain an enduring wilderness resource while providing for public access and uses... To protect and perpetuate natural biophysical and ecological conditions and processes. To provide a high degree of remoteness from the sights and sounds of humans, and opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation activities consistent with wilderness preservation (page 3-23).

D. Flight seeing and Other Commercial Tourism Operations

Since long before its establishment as a national monument in 1978, Alaskans have used float planes to access Misty Fiords. Airplanes provide public access to Forest Service recreation cabins at remote lakes, allow Forest Service administrative use, and provide access for hunters and anglers visiting the backcountry. Motorboats have long been used both to access the Misty Fiords coastline and for fishing and recreation on freshwater lakes. Such uses are appropriate under ANELCA.

In the past decade, the rise of cruise ship tourism has dramatically increased visitation and led to the growth of the flight seeing industry. Most of Misty Fiords remains primitive and remote, Rudyerd Bay, Punchbowl Cove, Big Goat Lake, and the flight corridors to and from Ketchikan are often busy with the buzz of traffic. A nice summer day might find more than fifty low-attitude over flights, twenty airplane takeoffs or landings, several smaller cruise ships and power boats, and a group of kayakers within the confines of the fjord. The Alaska Cruises operation represents a large fraction of this use, which has grown up since passage of ANILCA, and in part as a result of designation of the Misty Fiords National Monument.

This increase in use has brought the wonders of Misty Fiords to more Americans, who continue to find it a highlight of their visit to Alaska. At the same time, use -- and particularly aircraft us -- has increased to the point that some visitors are finding their experience diminished. All parties recognize that summer days within Rudyerd Bay do not always "provide a high degree of remoteness from the sights and sounds of humans." This situation has come about, not through design, but through unmanaged use.

II. The Floating Docks

A. The Docks Themselves

Since 1992, Mr. Dale Pihlman has maintained floating docks more or less continuously in Rudyerd Bay. The actual physical docks have been replaced over the years, and have changed in size, purpose, and design. The float in upper Rudyerd Bay began as a 15' x 15' platform for transfers from boat to kayak. The current U-shaped float measures I 00' x 75' at its longest dimensions, and beginning in 1999 has served the 90-passenger Majestic Fjord as a transfer point for float planes. These are movable but not temporary structures, and have not typically been removed during the winter months (they were removed this winter). Winter storms have sometimes broken the docks free; the wreckage of one dock littered the beach at upper Rudyerd Bay for several years.

B. The Operators

Mr. Pihlman and the Forest Service have maintained a positive working relationship over many years, dating back to the designation of Misty Fiords National Monument. Goldbelt's involvement with the Alaska Cruises operation is more recent, but as a diversified ANCSA Native Corporation, Goldbelt has worked cooperatively with the Forest Service on a wide variety of projects throughout Southeast Alaska. These are well-run businesses and responsible operators who provide a lasting, memorable experience for their customers, and contribute to the economy of Southeast Alaska.

C. Permits

Neither the floating docks, nor the flight seeing operation, nor the Majestic Fjord itself involve direct contact with the uplands of the Misty Fiords National Monument. Passengers remain on the boat, the planes, and the dock, and do not set foot on the land or any freshwater lake at any point in their visit. Therefore, a Forest Service permit has not been required, and TLMP's limitations on commercial users in wilderness (e.g., no more than twelve people in a party; no more than 3-6 landings per site per day) have not been applied. Since many other commercial users of the area are under Forest Service permit, this can appear to create a double standard -- a different set of rules for different groups within the same small fiord.

The floating docks occupy navigable waters within the jurisdiction of the US. Army Corps of Engineers, and are anchored to submerged lands administered by the State of Alaska Department .of Natural Resources. Both agencies require a- permit prior to approving permanent floating structures. Traditionally, the State, in cooperation with the Forest Service has declined to issue permits for floating commercial facilities adjacent to wilderness areas.

The Rudyerd floats have never been permitted, and no permit was requested until this summer (1999). The rationale for the delayed permit application was that the operator assumed that as a "temporary" structure, no permit was required. However, temporary floating structures are deemed as those that do not remain in place longer than 14 days. The Rudyerd floats have been in place for seven years.

III. Impacts on Wilderness

A. Wilderness Character

Apart from any direct impacts to the plants, animals, and ecosystems of Misty Fiords, the air and boat traffic within Rudyerd Bay associated with the floating docks affect the character of the wilderness resource under our care. A wilderness is "an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which ... has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation" (Wilderness Act, Sec. 2(c)).

Both the intensity of use associated with Alaska Cruises' operation and the dock itself tend to reduce the wilderness character and solitude of Rudyerd Bay, and promote a more comfortable and developed, and less primitive and unconfined type of recreation. The same can be said of other uses and users, but the Alaska Cruises operation is the largest, and involves the greatest number of regular airplane landings within Misty Fiords. The dock is not obtrusive, or even highly visible, but it does represent a permanent improvement, and evidence of human works. The dock, the Alaska Cruises operation, and the current level of use in Rudyerd Bay represent a conflict with established goals for management of Misty Fiords Wilderness.

B. Wildlife and Direct Biological Effects

One of the most attractive features of Misty Fiords is the opportunity to encounter and observe wildlife from the land, air, and water. Brown bears, mountain goats, harbor seals, porpoises, orcas, otters, and a wide variety of birds are seen regularly in Rudyerd Bay. Low-flying aircraft, approaching boats, and even kayaks are known to disturb or temporarily displace animals, and high levels of use will cause some animals to avoid the area entirely. Harassment can lead to individual cases of mortality (e.g., a very close approach by an airplane leads a mountain goat to lose its footing and fall to its death; the approach of a boat to a seal haul-out leads pups to enter the water when orcas are nearby). However, evidence of direct effects to wildlife is primarily anecdotal, and no local studies have been conducted.

We consider it highly likely that the current levels of use in Rudyerd Bay affect local wildlife in complex, but mostly negative, ways. At the same time, we seriously doubt that use has any significant effect on the viability of populations over the broader landscape of Misty Fiords. The dock itself has no effect.

IV. Impacts on Other Users

The floating docks and the Alaska Cruises operation are located in the heart of the most popular destination in Misty Fiords. Cruise ships, pleasure boats, kayaks, and float planes, both private and commercial, pass each other within the narrow confines of the @ord. Most Rudyerd Bay visitors take advantage of commercial services like those provided by Alaska Cruises and its competitors, but many do not. As Alaska Cruises has expanded its operation, the Forest Service has began to receive complaints from other users, who find their experience diminished by the large number of aircraft landing and taking off from the float in a concentrated period. We also hear from groups and individuals who now avoid Rudyerd Bay in search of a more primitive, less crowded wilderness experience.

Through its location at the head of Rudyerd Bay, the Alaska Cruises operation tends to monopolize the most popular site in Misty Fiords, to the detriment of other users and commercial operations. By any reckoning, there is a limited capacity for such floats and operations in such a narrow fjord. Even if such an operation were appropriate, competing operators would maintain that it should not be awarded to any particular firm on the basis of recent, un-permitted use.

The Forest Service provides a wide range of recreational experiences for the diverse needs and tastes of the American people, including developed (e.g., ski areas, visitor centers, campgrounds) and semi-primitive (e.g., all terrain vehicle or mountain bike trails) areas. Wildernesses are designated to represent the most primitive and undeveloped end of the scale The capacity of an area to accommodate recreational use depends, not only on the physical and biological setting, but on the type and level of recreational experience desired. The operation associated with the floating dock at Rudyerd Bay, and its expansion over the years, reflects the general trend of this area toward a more developed recreation experience and away from the intent of the Wilderness Act.

V. Principles

We suggest the following two principles guide consideration of Alaska Cruises' permit request:

Balance -- Wilderness is preserved to limit human impacts and provide solitude. In the wide variety of recreational opportunities on the Tongass, wilderness represents the most primitive end of the spectrum. But wilderness is also set aside for public use and enjoyment. On areas of multiple jurisdictions at the edge of wilderness, the picture is most complicated. A sound interagency approach would balance the need to provide public access to Misty Fiords with the need to protect the wilderness resource that the public comes to visit.

Fairness -- A wide variety of commercial businesses provide services in Misty Fiords. They should receive equal and fair treatment from the variety of government agencies they must deal with, and be subject to reasonable rules and regulations. Use in violation of these guidelines should involve reasonable consequences, and should not be rewarded.

VI. Alternatives

We suggest that Alaska Cruises, the Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Natural Resources consider possible alternative locations for flight-cruise operations which might minimize or avoid impacts to wilderness. We pledge our cooperation in identifying appropriate locations outside wilderness.

VII. Conclusion

The operation at Rudyerd Bay is not consistent with goals established under the Wilderness Act, ANMCA, and TLMP. While we support public access and enjoyment of Misty Fiords, and continuation of traditional uses, we are also concerned with the precedent this permit could establish for other uses and users of submerged lands which would be inconsistent with wilderness management principles. A comprehensive, open, and public collaborative planning effort is urgently needed to settle such questions, and to provide a template for future use of the Misty Fiords National Monument in ways which will ensure that the wilderness resource is preserved. We look forward to getting planning underway, and to working with you closely during that process.

 

Correspondence list

The Presidential Proclamation establishing Misty Fiords 

Letter from Rob Scherer to Misty Fiords Ranger Don Fisher regarding the  un-permitted floating dock in Rudyerd Bay, and other issues (September 29, 1992)

Letter from US Forest Service Ketchikan District Ranger to Rob Scherer responding to concerns about the un-permitted floating dock in Rudyerd Bay and other issues (December 12, 1992)

Department of Natural Resources management direction for tide and submerged lands (agency review draft, June 1999)

Excerpt from e-mail message from Jeremiah Ingersoll, Ketchikan District Ranger (July, 1999)

Letter from US Forest Service Ketchikan District Ranger to Alaska Department of Natural Resources regarding complaints about the un-permitted floating dock in Rudyerd Bay (July 20, 1999)

E-mail message from Rob Scherer to agencies and news media (August, 1999)

Letter to the Editor of the Ketchikan Daily News (September 13, 1999)

Comments to the US Army Corps of Engineers about the floating docks (December 1999)

US Forest Service

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council

Mike Stanley

 


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