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Dispelling shutdown rumors, officials insist that federal Kenai River boat landings open

Craig Medred
Stephen Nowers photo

A rumor that federal boat landings on the Kenai River had been closed because of the U.S. government shutdown spread fear and loathing among anglers across the region Friday, but it isn't true. 

"The landings are open," an official of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional law enforcement office said.

"As far as the state's concerned," added Claire LeClair, chief of field operations for the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. "It's business as usual."

The Kenai situation is a tricky one because of joint management by the state and federal government. The river itself is navigable, which puts the water under state ownership, and under the jurisdiction of parks as the Kenai River Special Management Area. But the river also runs through both the Chugach National Forest and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Outside, some refuges and more than a few national parks have been closed to the public -- or at least public access points have been closed -- because of the shutdown. But problems -- potentially deadly problems -- could arise on the Kenai if federal officials pursued that course in the 49th state. That's because the state owns the popular boat launch on the river in Cooper Landing, which means someone could get onto state waters even if the feds closed all their facilities downstream.

Much of the river downstream from that point is designated "drift only." Motors on boats are banned, so boaters need to float to the next launch or takeout. 

Sportsman's Landing, just downstream from the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers near Cooper Landing, is owned and managed by the refuge, as is Jim's Landing even farther downstream. If those landings closed, floaters on the river would be required to keep going downstream, cross Skilak Lake and continue down the river to reach another state landing.

That's a trip of days. And Skilak Lake is a notoriously large and dangerous body of water that has claimed many lives over the years. Forcing floaters to cross it could get someone killed. LeClair, reached before federal officials could be contacted, said she was hoping they wouldn't do that.

Federal officials, when eventually reached, said they hadn't. They were a little a difficult to contact, however. The federal government has linked nearly all Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service websites to a Department of the Interior website which basically has propaganda on it. That makes it difficult to find a directory with a phone number for the enforcement section of the Wildlife Service, where people are working.

Law-enforcement agents of both the Wildlife Service and the Park Service have been declared "essential personnel” and are working. When one of them was reached, he said, simply, "We didn't shut it."

LeClair said state parks had Friday heard from a number of concerned citizens unable to reach the feds. She admitted she was unaware of what the feds were doing -- they hadn't bothered to tell the state -- but state parks was telling everyone they were good to go no matter what.

"State park facilities are open," she said, "and if you have state permits (as a commercial operator), you're legal."

Officially, websites for the both the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say "closed to public access." The Bureau of Land Management has not announced a closure of its lands, but has announced closures of most of its Alaska facilities, though there is no way of closing most of them. 

What exactly any of this means is hard to say because there is no one to answer questions. Some officials in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Friday they've been told by acquaintances in federal agencies that they are under orders to order all Alaskans except "federally qualified subsistence users" off of federal lands.

What that means is also unclear as is what happens if someone simply says "no." There does not appear to have been any regulatory action taken to order a wholesale closure of pubic lands in the 49th state.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com