In 2011, the Legislature appropriated $10 million to study the feasibility of a hydro project on Chikuminuk. But when Nuvista sought a permit to conduct its studies, the officials would only allow activities consistent with wilderness, said Ben Ellis, the state parks director. That allowed for animal and fish population studies and stream gaging, but not drilling, seismic tests and helicopter landings.
Ellis said the first protection for the area was established in 1903, during the administration of Teddy Roosevelt, when the federal government set it aside as a fishery reserve. (About 20 percent of Bristol Bay's salmon are believed to originate in the park, the state says.)
The Legislature, in creating Wood-Tikchik State Park in 1978, said it was primarily seeking "to protect the area's fish and wildlife breeding and support systems and to preserve the continued use of the area for subsistence and recreational activities. The state park is also created to protect the area's recreational and scenic resources."
Two lakes were identified in the legislation for which hydroelectric sites would be compatible: Lake Elva and Grant Lake. The law created a seven-member management council with representatives from four local village and city councils, the Bristol Bay Native Association, and two state agencies. It charged them with creating a plan for the park.
The current plan, approved in 2002, includes Chikuminuk Lake in the wilderness portion of the park where all motorized activity is banned except for float planes.
Guy, the Calista head, said Chikuminuk Lake was picked for a hydro project because it has no salmon population -- a large waterfall on the Allen River prevents salmon from migrating there. But opponents of the project said the dam would cause a disruption of water flow into rich salmon streams.
McGuire's original bill had only three key words: it added "or Chikuminuk Lake" to the other two lakes where hydro projects were permitted.
McGuire didn't return messages left at her Juneau office and on her cell phone. In her three-paragraph sponsor statement, she said the park "may house a clean, cost effective solution to the rising cost of energy in the Calista region." Her bill, she said, would allow that determination to be made.
At a hearing at the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee last week, some supporters from Bethel-area villages testified that affordable power was desperately needed while some opponents from Bristol Bay described the area as like "no place on Earth."
At the end of the hearing, the committee amended the bill to allow Nuvista to conduct full feasibility studies -- including mechanized geologic work -- but not a hydro project itself. The committee passed the bill on to the Finance Committee, with Resources Chairman Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna and two others, Sens. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage and Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, recommending passage. Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, gave no recommendation.
Micciche said he struggled with the issue, but in the end decided that the feasibility study was a "low-impact exercise to determine if this project can be a reality or not."
Giessel said that if the project was feasible, "and we have the option to safely create more jobs and economic opportunities for folks that want to live in rural Alaska, then we need to look at that."
Ellis, the state's park director, said the Legislature has the final word.
"If the Legislature tells me to manage the park differently, I salute and execute their wishes. Then the management plan or regulations would need to be modified to fit within a new direction," he said.
Paul Liedberg, a Dillingham resident who recently retired as manager of the neighboring Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, said the $10 million feasibility grant in itself was an issue because it involved development work in wilderness.
"Does designation of these areas endure over time, from one period to the next, when we have different individuals or different Legislatures in charge?" Liedberg said. Moving the hydro project forward "does call that into question," he said.