The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly discussed Wednesday an ordinance that seeks to expand the borough’s anadromous stream habitat protection district to almost all anadromous streams in the borough, save for the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service area.
The ordinance, introduced by assembly member Bill Smith was met with opposition in early May by numerous recreational gold miners who felt it would severely limit access and activity on riverbeds and banks.
Currently, the Kenai River, 10 of its tributaries and 14 other streams in the area, are managed under the habitat protection. Primarily, the ordinance would protect the near-stream habitat of all anadromous streams on the Peninsula 50 feet up the bank from the ordinary high water mark. The idea is that by protecting the habitat, the safety and future of the fish are secure.
However, miners said at the last meeting that those protections might interfere with their rights.
The issue was scheduled for a final decision Tuesday, but due to budget discussions, the assembly meeting was forced to continue discussions on Wednesday, leaving many of those signed up to testify on the issue without an opportunity to do so.
The decision on the issue was ultimately postponed until the assembly’s June 21 meeting to allow for more public input, as requested in a motion from assembly member Sue McClure.
Assembly member Hal Smalley said he supported postponing the decision to allow for more discussion.
Because of where this particular ordinance fell in our agenda surrounding the budget item … it really hasn’t been fully vetted by the public and I think when that happens, it will be strongly supported,” he said. “I do strongly support (Ordinance) 2011-12. It is proactive.”
McClure also made an amendment to the ordinance based on a request from the Kenai River Center to add a new section allowing the protections to be implemented in geographical phases over the course of no more than three years.
She also contends there have been some misunderstandings in the community about the reach and severity of the protection.
“It has been pointed out that according to the existing code for anadromous habitat protection that it should not affect the miners, as they have been indicating,” she said.
Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said he supported the expansion of the stream bank protection for several reasons. Chief among them was for “consistency,” he said, noting small streams are just as important as larger streams.
“Having some streams with salmon in them with a 50 foot protection zone but then having some just on the other side of the street or in another drainage — it just doesn’t make as much sense,” he said.
“Either we’re protecting the salmon habitat or we are not.”
He also said there are economic issues at stake.
“Fish have been a substantial part of our economy for hundreds of years,” he said.
Kenai resident Tommy Thompson spoke out against the ordinance.
“We have no idea what this is going to cost in the future,” he said. “This also would seem to be an environmental mindset that brought this in that purports to know the future. What is going to happen?”
He also thinks the ordinance could have far reaching consequences.
“The miners have concerns,” he said. “It also affects fisherman in a very big way, bird watchers, wildlife photographers, berry pickers — every aspect of our enjoyment of these watersheds.”
“In my mind, the logical conclusion of where this is going to end up is we are going to be prohibited from utilizing all watersheds on the Kenai Peninsula,” he said. “That’s where we are headed.”