Dock lacks state permit

Misty Fiords dock operated years without permission

By Leila Kheiry
Daily News Staff Writer

© 1999 Ketchikan Daily News (used by permission)

A local tourism business has been operating a floating dock in the Misty Fiords National Monument for a number of years,  without a required state permit.

Alaska Cruisesí dock at Rudyerd Bay is used to transfer passengers between the boat and planes used for the companyís cruise/fly tour of the monument.

It is against regulations to build a permanent or temporary structure within the boundaries of a national monument without a permit, said Bob Palmer, state Department of Natural Resources land management officer in Juneau.

Goldbelt Inc., the parent company of Alaska Cruises, recently contacted the state about applying for a permit, he said.

Goldbelt purchased the business on Jan. 4  from former co-owners Dale Pihlman and Cynthia McNulty, who stayed on to manage the business. Goldbelt, based in Juneau, owns various tour businesses and hotels in Alaska.

Alaska Cruises, known as Outdoor Alaska until 1993, started in 1979, said Pihlman. He first installed the floating dock about 1984, he said, and he was not aware that the dock required a state permit.

"I assumed Ö, as a temporary float, that a permit was not required," Pihlman said.

McNulty was contacted by the Daily News on Thursday and declined to comment.

When Goldbelt purchased the business, it also was under the assumption that the dock did not need a permit because it is a temporary structure, said Susan Bell, vice-president of tourism for Goldbelt. The state contacted Goldbelt about the problem about one month ago, she said.

"When it was brought to our attention, we responded immediately," Bell said. "We take it very seriously. Ö We contacted (the Department of Natural Resources) immediately and began the permit process."

Goldbelt anticipates the permit will be approved, said Bell. Company officials have not formed a plan of action in case it is denied, she said.

"It's important to us that it be issued," she said.

An average of about 50 people a day take the cruse/fly tour of Misty Fiords, said Bell. The Majestic Fiord, a 65-foot catamaran, carries up to 90 people out to the monument daily, she said. Up to eight or nine planes from Taquan Air and Promech Air shuttle passengers to and from the monument daily as part of the tour. 

The business still is operating as usual with the state's permission, said Bell. 

The state is allowing the tour package to continue for the time being because the dock does not pose a threat to the wildlife, said Palmer.

"I think if there was more proof that it was a significant environmental impact from the float itself, we would probably ask them to remove it immediately," he said. "Since the float ... is not creating any significant impact, we're going to wait and get the permit going and look at it then."

If the state finds that the float is causing damage to wildlife, it will issue cease and desist order to have the dock removed, he said.

The DNR regional manager, Ron Schonenbach, will have to decide whether back-rent will be charged to the current and/or former owners of the business. That decision will be made when a use-fee is determined, said Palmer.

The state was unaware of the dockís existence mainly due to lack of manpower, said Palmer. Only four land management officers patrol all of Southeast starting north of Yakutat. The Department of Natural Resources often relies on the public and the U.S. Forest Service for information, he said.

Rob Scherer, who operates Classic Alaska Charters Inc., and who also takes passengers to Misty Fiords, is forming a coalition in opposition to a state permit for the dock. Scherer said he is not in direct competition with Alaska Cruises, but his passengersí wilderness experience is compromised because of the dock and the number of flights in and out of the monument.

Scherer registered a complaint in 1992 with the Forest Service, he said. However, Forest Service officials said they do not have jurisdiction over the saltwater in the monument, and they did not contact the state about the dock, he said.

"The Forest Service could have jumped on this issue a while ago," Scherer said. "People just failed to make phone calls and follow up."

The Forest Service did receive Schererís complaint about the floating dock in 1992, said District Ranger for the Ketchikan Ranger District Jerry Ingersoll. Forest Service personnel contacted Pihlman about it at the time and received communication back that he would remove the structure, said Ingersoll.

In a letter responding to Schererís 1992 complaint, Don Fisher, Monument Manager, wrote: " Ö I contacted Dale and expressed our concern with the addition of the floats to the Rudyerd Bay area. He acknowledged that he and his staff had some misgivings regarding the floats. He told me that he would remove them at the end of the season and we would not see them again."

"That was seven years ago and there have been floats out there since then," said Ingersoll. "We certainly were aware that the operation has been continuing, and weíve contacted the state as the agency with jurisdiction."

Pihlman said on Friday there must have been some sort of misunderstanding between him and the Forest Service. He removes the dock at the end of each season, which might have been the source of the mix-up, he said.

"I donít remember the conversation," he said. "Thatís something I would remember because that would have serious implications for my business."

The Forest Service contacted state officials this spring, said Ingersoll. He said he isnít sure why Forest Service officials did not actively pursue the issue of the dock before he became district ranger six months ago.

"I think at this point the most productive thing to do is to focus on what the current situation is and what we need to do to fix it," Ingersoll said.

Goldbelt has contacted him and wants to work with the state and the Forest Service to obtain a permit, he said.

"I've told them that we've got some fairly significant concerns with the potential conflict with other users and with our obligations to manage the wilderness for primitive and remote recreational opportunities," he said. 

He read a statement from the Tongass Land Management Plan, which sums up the Forest Service's goal.

"Our goal...'is to provide a high degree of remoteness from the sites and sounds of humans and opportunities for solitude and primitive recreational activities consistent with wilderness preservation,'" he said. "I certainly have a concern that this activity might not be consistent with that goal."

When Alaska Cruises submits its application for a permit, the Forest Service will provide comments to the state about the floating dock, said Ingersoll. The comments will include the concerns mentioned above as well as the effect the business has or might have on neighboring communities and on other users of the monument, he said.

Scherer is not the only person who has complained to the Forest Service about the cruise/fly tour package. Individual users, other businesses and some cruise ship passengers also have registered complaints, said Ingersoll.

In a letter addressed to DNR, Ingersoll wrote: "... The Forest Service is concerned that the current unauthorized use of the tidelands in Rudyerd Bay by Alaska Cruises may conflict with our management of the uplands and with operations by other permitted users."

Another concern for the Forest Service is the precedent the business has set, he said. When someone is allowed to build a structure in a national monument and use it without a permit, the wrong message is sent to other businesses, especially those who have gone through the permit application process, he said.

Flight seeing tours of the monument do not require a permit unless they make a landing, said Ingersoll. Likewise, floating tours of the area also do not require a permit as long as the passengers do not disembark. Individual users do not require a permit for visiting the monument or its waters for personal recreational uses, he said.

To acquire a tideland permit, the permit application must be reviewed by Alaska Coastal Management. The Army Corp of Engineers will require a separate application. The business also will need to get a state tidelands permit, said Palmer. After that, the Department of Natural Resources will conduct a land management review.

There will be two opportunities for public comment during the application process: once during the coastal management review and once during the land management review, said Palmer. Public comment will be solicited in local and statewide publications, he said.

The public's commentary will be one of the many factors considered when the state decides whether the application should be approved, he said. Residents will have to give good reasons for or against the permit, not just "We donít like it," he said.

Other factors to be considered are the effect of the dock and the business on habitat and wildlife, how it affects the local economy and if it is in the stateís best interest to allow the business to continue, said Palmer.

As of Wednesday, DNR had not received a tideland permit application from Goldbelt, said Palmer. He said he contacted the company and was told he will have it on Friday. If the application is not received within a reasonable amount of time, the state will consider issuing a cease and desist order, he said.


More articles:

Dock lacks state permit: Misty Fiords dock operated years without permission (Ketchikan Daily News July 30, 1999)

Floating dock permit sought: Alaska Cruises files application for Misty Fiords dock (Ketchikan Daily News August, 1999)

Tourism clouds Misty Fjords: Enlarged dock stirs access conflict (Anchorage Daily News August 13, 1999)

Misty Fjords tourism debated (Southeast Empire [Juneau] September 1, 1999 Permission to reprint pending)

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