FAIRBANKS — It was a beautiful day for a picnic at the Lower Chatanika River State Recreation Area on Saturday, and Alaska State Parks was happy to play host.
About 100 people gathered at the picnic pavilion at the Whitefish Campground to celebrate the reopening of the recreation area at 11 Mile Elliott Highway, about 20 miles north of Fairbanks.
State parks northern region superintendent Brooks Ludwig stood over two grills on the bank of the Chatanika River flipping hamburgers while state parks director Ben Ellis, who flew up from Anchorage for the occasion, mingled with the crowd.
There was a buffet table with a blue tarp tablecloth piled with chips, beans, chili, salads, hamburgers, cookies and other goodies for people to feast on.
It was the kind of scene Ludwig hopes to see more of in future years now that state parks is actively managing the recreation area.
Thanks to an outpouring of public support, which led to $715,000 in funding from the Alaska Legislature, the campground was returned to active management earlier this summer for the first time in 10 years.
While the campground and access to nearby Olnes Pond were never actually closed and the public continued to frequent the recreation area, the state had enough concerns about liability and the campground had fallen into such disrepair that Ellis proposed removing the outhouses and blocking access to Olnes Pond this summer.
On Saturday, Ellis said he was glad it never came to that.
“This is something that everybody has wanted for the last 10 years,” Ellis told the crowd assembled for the picnic.
While state parks addressed some minor issues at the campground this summer, such as cleaning and fixing up the outhouses, putting a Dumpster at Olnes Pond, imposing a speed limit for ATVs at Olnes Pond and instituting quiet hours at the pond and campground, the agency plans to have a bigger presence next year in the form of a full-time campground host and a full-time ranger to patrol the area, Ludwig said. The state also plans to install new picnic tables and fire pits.
“Next summer, you will definitely have a clean, safe place to recreate,” Ludwig told those in attendance.
The state also will come up with a plan to repair or replace outhouses at the campground and improve the access road, he said.
Ellis called the return to active management “a super, goodwill story” and said it was a result of grassroots support from the Fairbanks community. Ellis singled out Marv and Becky Hassebroek as the two most responsible for drumming up that support.
The Hassebroeks collected more than 900 signatures on petitions that were mailed to local lawmakers to keep Olnes Pond and the Whitefish Campground open.
“They stirred the pot,” Ellis said of the Hassebroeks.
Both were in attendance Saturday to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but they said there’s more work to be done.
“We’ll see how it comes out next year,” Marv Hassebroek said. “It takes awhile; it’s government.
“We started from nothing, so anything they do is good,” he said.
As a new member on state parks’ northern region advisory committee, Hassebroek said he intends to make sure the money the Legislature allocated to the recreation area is spent wisely.
John Lysen, who recently stepped down as chairman of the state parks advisory committee, was in attendance Saturday with his wife, Michele, to support the reopening of the campground.
The reason Lysen joined the advisory committee three years ago was to save the recreation area, he said. The Lysens, who have been using the area since they moved to Alaska 17 years ago, were at the campground four years ago when they were awakened by a group of campers cutting down a live spruce tree at 2 o’clock in the morning and pouring gas on it to get it to burn. One intoxicated member of the group, who was wearing a pistol on his hip, challenged Lysen to a fight.
“I went to state parks and said, ‘You’ve got a problem out there,’” Lysen recalled.
When he was told state parks was looking for advisory committee members, Lysen agreed to join and has spent the past three years trying to get the campground returned to active management. He couldn’t have been happier Saturday.
“This was my main goal for getting on the (advisory committee),” Lysen said. “I thought this place was going to be gone because it wasn’t even in the budget.”
Area legislators Bob Miller, D-Fairbanks; Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks; Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks; and Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, also were on hand Saturday to join the celebration.
All four lawmakers said it was prodding from the public in the form of petitions and public testimony that were responsible for generating funds to resurrect management for the recreation area.
“We got the message and did it,” Miller said. “It was a lot of cooperation and not a lot of screaming and hollering and gnashing of teeth. It all worked out.”
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.