Anchorage Daily News   4/19/99

Private-land shortage has some eyeing water

By Natalie Phillips

Anchorage Daily News Reporter

With so little private land to develop in Prince William Sound, and the promise of mobs of tourists when the new road to Whittier opens next spring, entrepreneurs are scrambling for toeholds, even if it means bobbing slightly offshore.

Plans in the works include a 200-seat, private floating restaurant in Esther Bay, about 40 miles east of Whittier, on an island thick with salmon streams that draws the commercial fishing fleet . In the same bay, another tourist operator wants to moor a permanent floating lodge that could bunk 25 and cater to kayakers, hikers, anglers, and back-country skiers. Farther east, a Valdez businessman wants to operate a seasonal floating convenience and liquor store in Snug Corner Cove, near Tatitlek, a Native village that has banned alcohol.

The number of queries about possible business sites has been on the rise since work began in earnest on the Whittier road in the summer of 1997, according to Kim Kruse, a land manager with the state Division of Lands. Nobody knows how many visitors the new road will draw to Whittier, but estimates run as high as 1.4 million annually. Whittier is scrambling to figure out what to do with all those people, while commercial operators are gearing up for what they hope is a boom.

The developers are up against a long and complicated permitting process and are competing for the limited space designated by the state and federal governments as suitable for floating commercial operations in the Sound.

"It's been a hell of an education," said Brad von Wichman, whose family business has applied for the permit for the lodge. "But I think it is good. It seems that all this bureaucracy kind of protects the Sound from somebody throwing up a gas station overnight."

Von Wichman said the biggest opposition he has encountered has come from people who fear tourist businesses will lead to personal watercraft zooming in what is now a pristine wilderness.

"That was most surprising," he said. "I think it dovetails with all the attention on snowmobiles this winter. We're absolutely not going to be operating as a Jet Ski base."

The sudden business interest in the Sound also has some agencies concerned.

In commenting on one of the proposals, the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that it may need to turn to headquarters in Washington, D.C., before signing off on any development plan. The agency expressed concerns about bird habitat, fuel spills and loss of submerged marine aquatic habitat.

"It's emerging policy," Kruse said.

Most permit application reviews are handled by he Army Corps of Engineers and the state office of the Governmental Coordination. But a long list of other state and federal agencies are involved, such as the state Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

While the Sound has miles and miles of undeveloped coast, most of it is part of Chugach National Forest, in marine parks or owned by Native corporations. Much is wetlands, rocky or steep. That leaves few sites to set up shop, giving rise to interest in floating facilities. But only certain areas in the western Sound are open to that.

Most of the western Prince William Sound is designated as a national forest Wilderness Study Area and must be managed as a designated wilderness area, according to Doug Stockdale, Forest Service spokesman. The agency has identified its lands in the area of Latouche Island as suitable for commerce.

The state doesn't own much land in the Sound that's not in parks. But its 1998 land-use plan for the Sound identified Esther Bay and Growler Island as sites where floating businesses might be acceptable.

The Growler Island site has been developed by Stan Stephens Charters, which operates kayak and glacier-viewing trips. It has platform tents for overnight guests. Last year, Stephens sold the business to Cook Inlet Region, Inc.

The proposal for a 200-seat restaurant was submitted by Alaska Heritage Tourist, Inc., a division of CIRI. Scott Torrison, CIRI manager of corporate development, said it would be more like a day lodge: anchoring a 46-foot-by-180-foot barge in the bay for the summer months. The barge would house a restaurant that serves only tourists brought to the barge by AHTI cruise ships.

"We're looking for a way for people to get off the boat, some place to have lunch and get back on the boat," Torrison said.

A year ago, Daniel McCabe submitted an application to anchor a 24-foot-by-20-foot floating platform in Snug Corner Cove, about 10 miles from Tatitlek. McCabe wants to construct a seasonal convenience and liquor store on the platform.

He could not be reached for comment. The state received letters objecting to the proposal from Tatitlek. A decision on his plan is expected in the next couple of weeks, according to Jennifer Wing, a project review coordinator with the state.

Von Wichman's family businesses, Alexandra Inc. and Babkin Charters, submitted the proposal to anchor a roughly 46-by-25-foot barge near the shore in Esther Bay, with possible bunks for up to 25. The von Wichmans plan to use the lodge as a base for outdoor recreation. A caretaker would live there year-round, von Wichman said. Two or three onshore platform tents would house clients shuttled ashore by skiff.

Von Wichman said his family businesses were started in the early 1980s. They carry clients by boat from Whittier. With the floating lodge, they could fly in customers from Girdwood and Anchorage.

"This kind of dovetails with our way of doing things," von Wichman said. "We want to run a small, personalized operation. We're in no hurry. We want to do it right."

Reporter Natalie Phillips can be .reached at

Anchorage Daily News

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