A black bear at Anan Wildlife Observatory.
(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 try and increase access.

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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 Tlingit 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 says. 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: “So 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.” 

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

In the past, 60 people had been allowed at the wildlife observatory each day during the viewing season, which runs from July 5 to August 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,” Houser says. “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.’”

Houser says that the new prospectus, which is open through April 14, allows new tour groups to get in on Anan guiding, or 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 explains. 

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 clarifies, “And they have an opportunity to get more.”

Basically, it’s an overbooking strategy, based on visitor data going back to 2003, which Forest Service officials say they hope helps more people actually make it to Anan each year. 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, even with expanded commercial access. 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. 

But restructuring the permit system isn’t the only movement on Anan Creek – the Forest Service is also gearing up to see the fruits of an almost million-dollar ($989,800) contract to redo the upper observatory viewing deck. 

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. (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 allow 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 says, but she clarifies that it might be a lofty goal: “That’s a lot of work. We have to take the whole old deck out and put a whole new deck in that time period. And that’s substantial.”

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. Once the deck-building process begins, Houser says the Wrangell Ranger District will be closely observing. 

“We’re going to bring our float house down,” Houser says, “We’re going to hook up our satellite, so that there’s connection and we can have a lot of back and forth communication. And then soon, we’ll be traveling down there a couple of times a week to check it out.”

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 all part of an 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, was rebuilt and renovated in 1983, and the deck was further enlarged a decade later. The Forest Service says it hopes the new deck project and expanded permit access will allow even more visitors to experience the beauty of Anan for decades to come. 

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: call 907-874-2323 for more information. 

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.