Pavement isn't the answer for heritage or dipnetting at the mouth of the Kasilof

With the rise of personal use salmon fishing at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, we who live here can expect the convoys of dipnetters to break camp in Anchorage and the Valley and head south in July. With dipnets strapped on top of motor homes, SUVs and VW Beetles they come, whole families and couples on dates, to harvest red salmon for their freezer.

The Kenai River mouth is within the City of Kenai and police and regulatory actions have done a good job managing the situation considering the influx of people. But Kasilof is unincorporated and only a state special management area controls its use. The Kasilof mouth is only a few miles from where I live and from time to time I go down to watch the action; it's quite a circus.

The issues are largely on the north side of the river. On the south side vehicles are confined to a coastal strip by a used but effective guardrail fence scrounged from DOT and built by Kasilof residents to protect the grass flats at virtually no taxpayer cost. (Recognition, awards, a pat on the back?)

On the north side are two problems. First, people parking willy-nilly on the grass flats and dunes denude the vegetation, which, in turn, impacts natural habitat. A related issue is children of all ages hotrodding their four-wheelers throughout the grass flats.

In addition to shorebirds, migratory birds and wetlands, the area is the location of some of the most significant archaeological and historic sites in Alaska. The river mouth has Riverine and Dena'ina prehistoric sites; an 18th century Russian fort, Georgievisk Redoubt (although its exact location is not known); and the remains of the second cannery built in Alaska and the first in Cook Inlet. At this one place we can visualize at least four of the most important historic eras of Alaska — Riverine and Dena'ina salmon cultures, Russian occupation and salmon canneries. All but the brief Russian presence were shaped by harvesting salmon.

The Legislature provided more than $2 million for DNR to come up with a solution on the north side of the Kasilof. DNR's solution to protect these important resources is to put in paved roads and more than 300 paved RV parking locations. In effect, they are going to destroy the area with a parking lot to keep the grass flats from being destroyed. Somebody needs to circulate more oxygen in the DNR office building.

DNR's website claims that "developed areas will encase archaeological features to prevent degredation." Does anyone actually think that 6 feet of gravel and pavement is going to be removed so some archaeologist can do an excavation any time within the next, say, hundred years?


Paving over a very important historic area seals the voices of history in a bitumen crypt and robs Alaska of a little bit of its soul. Alaska does not need its historic and prehistoric information locked away in asphalt vaults; it needs excavation to tell the rich history of this state. With enough archaeology and historical research we can tell the very old and complex story of humans adapting technologically, socially and spiritually to this magnificent landscape.

What is known of the history at the mouth of the Kasilof is not a feel-good, third grade Pilgrims-meet-the-Indians-for-dinner story. It is a story where shots are fired, men are killed and women raped. It is the story of greed and exploitation of human labor. But it is also the story of noble acts, alliance making, sustainability and creating a good product at a fair price. The story can be told to visitors and ourselves alike looking over grass flats largely unchanged from earliest times, or it can be told looking over a sea of campers while dodging kids on four-wheelers with no clue about their heritage.

So what's the answer? Two possibilities are better than DNR's "pave paradise" proposal.

• Build a campground on the uplands and shuttle dipnetters from there. Or widen and guardrail the Kalifornsky Beach road shoulder onto the ridiculously wide Enstar gas line right of way for dipnetter parking. Or both.

• Build coastal fish traps, Dena'ina-style, and 1900s style-canneries and give, at cost, salmon to Alaskans who come to the Kasilof with a fishing license. Twenty fish per person is plenty. Extra fish go to school lunch programs.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.