Last updated: July 1, 2017
Park staff in King Salmon have been reading blog posts and receiving comments from the public that are heartfelt and sincere in their concern for the welfare of brown bears and other wildlife during the upcoming Brooks River bridge and boardwalk construction project. As the superintendent of Katmai National Park and Preserve, I’d like to address some of these concerns.
First, please allow me a few lines to introduce myself. My name is Mark Sturm, and I consider it an honor and a privilege to have this opportunity to work in such a remarkable place as Katmai. This is a dream job for a guy like me. I am a career National Park Service employee with a long background in wildlife ecology and management. Here at Katmai, I am excited to work alongside many other dedicated and knowledgeable wildlife enthusiasts, and in particular with bear lovers. Like so many of you, before coming here, I had already developed a strong affinity for Katmai’s bears; I want you to know that the park takes the bears’ continued wellbeing seriously, especially as it relates to the upcoming bridge construction project.
Brooks Falls is arguably the premier bear-viewing destination in the world. The buildings at Brooks Camp, about a mile away, are on the other side of the river from the trails and viewing platforms. Currently, a floating bridge is installed every spring and removed every fall to allow visitors and park staff to cross safely. The existing floating bridge is past its life expectancy and frequently requires repairs due to damage by bears, storms, and river current.
The very presence of the floating bridge, lying as it does right at the water surface, changes fish and bear behavior. Salmon swimming upstream to spawn often hesitate to pass beneath the floating bridge. Later in the year, spawned-out fish wash downstream, and dead and dying fish get trapped alongside the bridge. This stinky bounty, that wouldn’t be present naturally at that particular spot, attracts hungry bears. The floating bridge noticeably impacts the natural movements and behavior of salmon and bears.
The solution is to replace the floating bridge with a permanent structure. It needs to be elevated well above the river and surrounding area to allow bears and fish to move freely underneath, while also helping to provide a safer, more efficient and enjoyable visitor experience. This is particularly important because, under the current configuration, the NPS currently struggles to effectively meet existing visitation needs at Brooks Falls. Additionally, the permanent bridge will provide new conduits for the safe transfer of sewage and electricity across the Brooks River—much-needed improvements to park operations.
Some comments we’ve received raise concerns about the staging of materials for the project, which is for late summer and early fall, due to the perceived potential for such activities to affect bears trying to utilize Brooks Falls area in the late season. We understand and share these concerns about the well-being of Katmai’s bears and can assure you that construction activities at the Brooks River site will begin only after the bears have left the area for the season.
This kind of construction project would be a challenging undertaking anywhere, but it is especially so here in such a remote and seasonally accessible location. Pulling it off will require the coordination of many moving parts. In order to support construction activities, materials and equipment will need to be staged in various locations remote from the actual construction site beginning in late summer, only to be brought onto the construction site itself next fall, after the bears are gone. Project staging will take place only in locations not frequented by bears, and will be the only project activity in late summer 2017.
Actual construction activities on the bridge will take place next year. In a cost-saving move, the NPS has decided to combine the two phases of the project into a single construction period. Funding has already been appropriated to build Phase I, about two-thirds of the total project, including the bridge and the approach boardwalk on the north side of Brooks River (the lodge side). Fiscal year 2018 funding will support Phase II, the south side approach boardwalk.
The selected bridge construction contractor, STG Incorporated, a subsidiary of the Calista Corporation, has experience in similar remote construction work, having built facilities at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at Portage and an elevated boardwalk at Tuntutuliak in Southwest Alaska. In the case of Katmai’s planned bridge project, to protect the bears, construction activities at the Brooks River site will only occur after bear activity has ceased, with heavy construction occurring in winter and early spring when the bears are hibernating.
Ultimately, this bridge and boardwalk construction project will help make the Brooks Camp area more manageable by addressing visitation issues the park already experiences and creating needed space for the improved movements of bears, fish, and other wildlife. Accordingly, this project will help assure the long-term protection of bears and the Brooks Falls environment while also providing for a safer and more enjoyable visitor experience. In summary, the elevated bridge and walkway project at Brooks Camp is a well-planned project that moves the Brooks Camp area in a good direction that will at once help to protect bears from people … and people from bears.