The Forest Service is working to increase access to an underused Southeast bear-viewing site

A small black bear walks along a large fallen log in a green forest
A black bear at Anan Wildlife Observatory. (Photo by Sage Smiley/KSTK)

The U.S. Forest Service says one of Southeast’s best bear-viewing sites has been under-utilized for decades, but the agency is updating infrastructure and re-tooling visitor permits to increase access.

Located about 30 miles south of Wrangell on the U.S. mainland, Anan Wildlife Observatory sits on Anan Creek, which hosts a large pink salmon run and a lot of fauna that rely on those fish. Black bears, brown bears, bald eagles and harbor seals all congregate around historic Lingít fish camp sites to feed.

But despite the beautiful scenery and wildlife viewing, Wrangell District Ranger Clint Kolarich says that the annual visitor capacity — which is based on sustainability studies — has never been met.

“That’s due to things outside of our control: a cruise ship gets canceled, or the weather’s bad, or a boat breaks down. Those things will always happen,” Kolarich said.

After almost two decades of data collection, the Forest Service is opening up more Anan permits to commercial outfitters or guiding services, which he says hopefully will allow more people to see Anan.

“We’re just trying to compensate a little bit for those unknowns by getting the permits into the hands of the folks that have a higher probability of getting customers down there,” he said.

In the past, 60 people had been allowed at the wildlife observatory each day during the viewing season, which runs from July 5 to Aug. 25. That total number isn’t going to change.

But recreation staff officer Tory Houser says that just under two-thirds of the permits went to commercial guiding companies.

“From our research, we found that over 80% of people came to Anan with an outfitter guide, because it’s hard to get there,” she said. “You need a boat, and not everybody has a boat and can get there. So we said ‘Well, let’s get these permits to the people who can help get folks to Anan.’”

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Anan Lagoon, looking towards Anan Bay. (Photo by Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Houser says that the new prospectus, which is open through April 14, allows new tour groups to get in on Anan guiding and current outfitter guides to expand their trips to the observatory.

“Currently, we have a group of companies that were awarded use days — or permits — for Anan, and just those companies are allowed to bring clients there at this point. So we have some more capacity; we didn’t raise our numbers that can go to Anan, but we are going to allow more of those numbers to be commercial than previously,” Houser said.

The new permit structure will open up an additional 1,354 permits to commercial guiding companies each year.

“It doesn’t take any of the days away from folks that have them currently — they keep what they have,” Houser said. “And they have an opportunity to get more.”

It’s an overbooking strategy based on visitor data going back to 2003. With the number of permits that go unused because of unforeseen circumstances, Forest Service officials say they won’t be pushing the site’s capacity limits. Twelve permits a day will still be available for members of the public who want to visit Anan on their own, without a commercial guiding service.

Restructuring the permit system isn’t the only movement on Anan Creek. The Forest Service also expects to see the fruits of an almost million-dollar contract to redo the upper observatory viewing deck.

A wooden walkway and platform in a forest
The Anan Observatory deck, which will be replaced in the coming months. The structure in the center will be moved back to allow visitors to access the guardrails over the creek. (Photo by Sage Smiley/KSTK)

This first phase of the Anan deck replacement project will make the upper observatory deck all one level and move a historic shelter away from the edge of the platform to give visitors a clearer view of the creek.

Houser says the contractors will be working on a tight timeline.

“We really want to have the entire top deck completed for our operating season that starts on July 5, and we have kind of a timeline: we’re hoping by June 15, we’ll have it done,” Houser said.

Petersburg-based Rainforest Contracting will build the new deck, hopefully starting by March 14, Houser says. That’s the same company that built the new Raven’s Roost cabin on the Petersburg Ranger District.

The Forest Service is also working to secure around $700,000 in funding for the second phase of the project, which will involve building a spiral staircase down to a new photo blind deck just above the waters of Anan Creek. It’s part of the Anan master plan, which included recent improvements to the Anan Creek Trail and the site’s outhouses, as well as a proposal for a larger, more permanent floating dock in Anan Bay.

This isn’t the first time the Anan Wildlife Observatory has been renovated. The observatory deck was first built in 1967, rebuilt and renovated in 1983, and the deck was further enlarged a decade later.

Businesses interested in applying for guiding permits at Anan Wildlife Observatory can submit proposals between March 1 and April 14 through the Wrangell Ranger District office.

KSTK - Wrangell

KSTK is our partner station in Wrangell. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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