The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly took action Tuesday to add thousands of area streams to the anadromous stream habitat protection district.
At its regular Tuesday meeting, the assembly approved, 7-2, ordinance 2011-12, which will expand the borough’s anadromous stream habitat protection district to include 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.
Residents who own property bordering the river also spoke out against the measure, citing concerns about their property rights and future rights to develop or modify land near streams.
Currently, the Kenai River, 10 of its tributaries and 14 other streams in the area, are managed under 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, advocates of the measure said.
However, several residents testified stating those protections would interfere with their rights.
Kasilof resident Paul Bunch said he was “tired” of adding restrictions on streams “so we don’t have nothing” and “you can’t even enjoy anything anymore.”
“You take, and take and take and now you want to take all these streams and put restrictions on them so we can’t do anything,” he said Tuesday. “We have federal restrictions, we have state restrictions, now we have the borough wanting to make restrictions on these streams.”
However, Natasha Ala, a member of the Kenai Watershed Forum’s Board of Directors, testified in favor of the ordinance citing its future importance to maintaining the area’s lifestyle and economy.
“This ordinance is also important because it protects the smaller streams,” Ala said. “It is in the smaller streams where the young salmon will spend up to three years before they go out and leave the watershed and head out to open waters and protecting those smaller streams is really, really important to protecting our stock of salmon that we have here.”
She urged the assembly to pass the ordinance “for our children, for our grandchildren and hopefully we will have great-grandchildren that will be commercial fishing, dip netting and sportfishing.”
Smith advocated for the bill by stating there would be ways to “deal with resource development and protect our fish habitat” at the same time.
“By trying to establish rules for behavior early on before development occurs, people can develop their property and not lose their rights, but that will provide some early protection so that we will have a long-term fishery,” he said.
Joe Demaree, State Director of the Gold Prospectors Association of America, testified that he thinks damaged habitats aren’t solely to blame for perceived declines in fish returns.
“You keep talking about habitat and I don’t think habitat has that much to do with the fish, I just think that it is over-fished,” he said.
“You say you are protecting the habitat and you want to stop people from disturbing the habitat within 50 feet of the high water mark,” Demaree said. “OK, what is the habitat? Habitat is the grass, weeds … so all these fisherman that are up here fishing are disturbing the habitat. So are you going to stop these people from fishing?”
Assembly member Charlie Pierce said he didn’t think there was a person in the assembly chambers that didn’t want to protect salmon returns.
However, Pierce, who with assembly president Gary Knopp voted against the measure, said he was “torn” on the ordinance, citing a need for balance on the issue.
He said the ordinance is “missing the mark” and instead the borough should focus on what he considered over-fishing instead of “adding another level” of government.
Knopp agreed, adding he was concerned about the cost of administering the added stream protections, the assembly having not “vetted all of the consequences,” and the ordinance simply not being the right “tool.”
“I guess my belief is that the habitat degradation isn’t the primary cause of our problem today and by enacting this legislation, you can’t fix the wrongs of the past,” he said.
Assembly member Brent Johnson said he had heard the cost of administering the ordinance would be “somewhere around $150,000.” He compared that number to the estimate that fishing on the Peninsula is a “$1 billion a year industry.”
“Comparing $900 million or $1 billion to an addition of $150,000 — that’s not only a bargain, that’s a responsibility,” he said.
He said “imitating nature is dang hard to do,” and what the assembly should do, “dramatically, is to protect nature and protect the fish in the streams.”
“It is dangerous to lose these fish and it is exampled in rivers in London, in France … on the East Coast, on the West Coast — how many examples do you want to have?” Johnson said. “I don’t want to lose fish in the Kenai Peninsula Borough if I can help it.”
Assembly member Mako Haggerty agreed, adding the borough has an obligation to protect the habitats it can.
“There is no magic pill, but we do what we can, and we do what we have to, and protect what we can and what this body can do … is protect what little bit of habitat is under our control,” he said.