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Recreation River Designations in the Susitna Basin: An Important Tool for Stewardship

Comment on the Draft Revision of the Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Here by March 5, 2024
 
Background

The Little Susitna, the Deshka, the Talkeetna River, Lake Creek, Talachulitna and Alexander Creek: the Susitna Basin's six Recreation Rivers have long been recognized for their unique natural features, drawing locals and visitors alike. As far back as 1985, there were high levels of recreation on each waterbody, which lead to conflicting uses and problems such as litter,  sanitation, crowding, long-term camps at popular sites and abandoned property such as cars and boats on state land. In 1988, the Alaska State Legislature signed into law the Recreation Rivers Act, establishing mile-wide river corridors to be kept in public ownership and management.

 

In 1991, the Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers plan was developed to manage the high use on these waters while preserving their important characteristics and varied recreational opportunities. The plan was a collaboration between agencies, organizations, the legislature and the public, involving a robust engagement process with thousands of individuals providing commentary and contributions to the plan. The authority of this plan only applies to state lands and waters, and does not apply to private, university, borough or federal lands.

 

The Recreation Rivers management plan, developed in 1991,  allows for better stewardship of riparian areas, including maximizing the amount of natural shoreline vegetation, preserving habitat, minimizing the degradation of upland habitat adjacent to river and lakes, and preserving water quality and quantity. These measures are all vital in preserving healthy habitats for salmon, other fish and wildlife. In addition, the plan manages public access, recreation and commercial use, and works to minimize conflicts between user groups (motorized and non-motorized boaters being one example).

 

The Recreation Rivers Management Plan in the Susitna basin is an important tool for the ongoing stewardship of the watershed, allowing for targeted management in high-use waterways. For more information, consult the Management Plan HERE.

To learn more about the plan, check out this recording of our Winter Speaker Series event from February 2022 describing what the Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Management Plan is and why it was first implemented. 

Senate Bill 97: Setting the Stage for Change

Senate Bill 97 was introduced to the Alaska state legislature in spring of 2021. This bill, if it had passed, would repeal the “establishment of recreational rivers and recreation river corridors.” The bill was not passed in the 2021 legislative session.   

In 2022, House Bill 120, a parallel bill to Senate Bill 97, was introduced in the State Legislature. The language concerning Recreation Rivers was later removed, removing the threat of Recreation Rivers designations being removed. 

While the bills did not pass, the state was directed to form a long overdue Advisory Board. This advisory board has a few roles. Voicing concerns and opinions to this board will be an important step in mitigating potential changes to the plan and keeping the plan in place.

 
 
Susitna Basin Rec Rivers Advisory Board

In November 2021 the Governor appointed 13 members representing commercial fishing; sport fishing; sport hunting; conservation; subsistence; forest products; mining; powerboat users; recreationally-oriented commercial users; other recreation users; private property owners within the Recreation River corridor; the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Planning Commission from the membership of the planning commission; and the mayor of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough or the designee of the mayor. The Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources consults with the Recreation Rivers Advisory Board in preparing, adopting, and revising the Recreation River Management Plan and regulations affecting use and management of the Recreation rivers. 

In July 2023, Governor Dunleavy fired two members from the Advisory Board that were opposed to the West Susitna Industrial Corridor.  They were removed from the Advisory Board after the Board had finished a round of meetings that then recommended proposed changes to the Management Plan. 

 
 
Scoping 

In May of 2022, the Department of Natural Resources opened up scoping for the Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Management Plan opened. As part of the scoping period, a series of in-person and virtual scoping workshops were held throughout the summer. The public was encouraged to attend and comment on their use of the waterways, their concerns, and what they hoped to see in the future. 

In the Fall of 2022, the Department of Natural Resources  announced the completion of scoping phase 1 for revision of the plan. The DNR released a fall newsletter summarizing public comments from scoping and describing the next steps in the planning process.

In early January 2024, a public notice was released initiating a review of the draft revision of the plan. The Department of Natural Resources opened up a comment period with an end date of March 5th, 2024. Submit comments here.

Why Our Community Cares

The Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Management Plan was designed as a tool for ongoing stewardship of the resources allowing targeted management in high use areas. Some of it's many purposes include:

 

  • Serving as a shoreline development guide to ensure that the projects are sited, designed and constructed to minimize degradation of water quality and impacts on recreation, navigation and fish and wildlife habitats.

 

  • Providing upland development guidelines for power-lines, pipelines, and airstrips to reduce potential safety hazards and impacts on fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, water quality and navigation.

 

  • Implementing Wildlife guidelines to reduce bear conflicts, and enhance habitat.

 

  • Providing Riparian guidelines to protect these areas from overuse and degradation.

 

The Plan’s legislatively mandated goal of maintenance and enhancement of the land and water for a variety of uses is protected using these guidelines.

 

The Recreation river process was started around 35 years ago in order to be reserved as a Special Purpose Area under the Alaska Constitution VII section 7 in response to the negative impacts occurring to those waterways. An incredible amount of thought, foresight, time, and energy was put into making this plan a reliable document for management, and the public should be aware of its benefits and reasons for change.

The Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Management Plan is still as valuable today as it was during its initial formation. A great amount of time and energy went into this plan. A close reading of the plan shows guidelines for human development that can co-exist with fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, public enjoyment, economic use, multiple use of the uplands and accommodation of access.

 

The Plan does not stop oil and gas leasing, earth material extraction, logging, or agriculture in the watershed. There are some restrictions on developments such as no new land disposals in the corridors, no dams, and no new mining claims.

 

Revising the Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Management Plan has the potential to decrease the level of fish habitat mitigation and necessary permitting required for development projects around these waterways resulting in deleterious effects on fish and wildlife habitat.

West Susitna Industrial Access Corridor Connection

The Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Management Plan is still as valuable today as it was during its initial formation due to the potential for large scale development projects, like the West Susitna Access Road. The proposed West Susitna Industrial Access Road will bisect the heart of the Susitna watershed and cut through the Recreation Rivers route to the Yentna mining district in the Alaska Range. The road, if built, would provide access to mining claims staked by Australian junior mining companies. The road poses an existential threat to fish and wildlife populations, fishing and hunting opportunities, and the Recreation values that the Recreation Rivers were designated to protect. 

 

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