Those looking for a reason to celebrate the Kenai River as the rising sun illuminated its turquoise waters Friday morning did not need to look far.
Scores of pink and silver salmon swam in the lower river, rainbow trout navigated the middle, and spawning sockeye and king salmon rolled in its upper sections.
Fishermen and recreational users enjoyed its bounty along its banks and in its flowing waters.
All residents and property owners — many of whom also depend on the river for their well-being and way of life — existed with the watershed’s wildlife and ecosystem as they have for many years right at its edge.
“It is good,” said Sasha Lindgren of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe at the close of her prayer recited to a group gathered near the bank of the river to pay tribute to the many residents, organizations, officials and agencies from all levels that have worked to make it so.
Setting the tone for the group’s discussion, Lindgren gave thanks for the gift of the fish and the endless song of the river.
“We all draw from the river,” she said. “Make us ever more mindful of our responsibility to show respect for, and a proper attitude to the Kahtnu, the Kenai River. We ask that the promise and efforts of the many organizations and agencies working together here be strengthened and enhanced today and in the future.”
At the head of the table at the Donald E. Gilman River Center was Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science for the Department of the Interior, who announced the river and the partnership effort created to manage it was selected to be part of the America’s Great Outdoors rivers initiative.
Castle highlighted the importance rivers play in humanity. They are a connecting thread, she said, but in many cases people turned their backs on rivers and didn’t respect them.
Now, however, Castle said people are reconnecting with rivers and to promote that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar picked one river from each state to pedestal as “a great example of what we can do when this kind of diverse group of people gets together and works to restore the river environment.”
Joined by more than 20 officials from various governmental, volunteer and non profit agencies, Castle said she was particularly interested in how the River Center functions, how all the groups have worked together to protect and enhance the river and what lessons learned on the Kenai River can apply to the rest of the nation.
After the group discussed those issues, Castle presented the River Center with an award and visited various sites along the river that highlighted those efforts and announced that $37,000 in funding would allocated to the Kenai Peninsula Steam Watch Program.
“This River Center, I was saying to (River Center Director) John (Mohorcich), this is unique,” she said. “I have never seen a center like this. We talk about one stop shopping for permits and regulatory advice on projects, but I have never seen it like this.”
In his closing comments, Dean Hughes, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game habitat biologist, told Castle to not make it unique.
“Make it the norm,” he said.
Said Andy Loranger, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager, “Let us be an example.”
Mohorcich said that while the River Center has had success in permitting, it has also seen its challenges.
“Not always do these regulations match, but I think that’s one big importance of this center is that you actually can sit around this table and have those discussions,” he said. “I think we’ve been successful in reaching some agreements and some direction to be able to accomplish those things in a timely manner.”
Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said despite the Kenai River’s successes, it still lacks water quantity data, especially in the watershed’s smaller river systems.
“We’ve had some major natural events happen — the spruce bark beetle effects on the Peninsula that are just a decade or 15 years old,” he said. “It really changed our landscape in a very dramatic way and the science behind understanding what that means for the water in the streams is really lacking here.”
Paul Shadura, board director of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, said the Kenai River is an artery to the fishing industry in Cook Inlet and the River Center has represented a “balancing act,” among user groups.
Shadura also discussed this year’s king salmon run and the restrictions forced on fishermen.
“This is a huge canary in the coal mine,” he said. “We are worried and as we go forward, we are hoping this center will be helpful to determine if in fact our spawning areas and nursery grounds are maybe being affected by maybe loving the river to death as (Soldotna) Mayor (Peter) Micciche has said.”
Sue Mauger, science director for Cook Inletkeeper, addressed the anadromous stream protections on the books in the borough and the subsequent “education problem” it created.
“The kids aren’t going to save us,” she said. “This is something that can be pushed back in the next year. It is adult education that is super important and even though in here we all preach to the choir a lot ... there is a big gap to convince the local land owner that what they do matters.”
Mauger said even if the problem with king salmon stocks turns out to be in the ocean, local river protection efforts shouldn’t wane.
“Once that is corrected or shifts or whatever, the fish still come back to the watershed and if we have dropped the ball on the watershed then what we all fear will have come to happen,” she said.
Hughes also talked about the constant need for education and dispelling misguided distrust in those who manage the river. He said the River Center has helped with that.
“It is easy to be angry at government when it is just a box or a building,” he said. “But when it is people, when it is your neighbors, it is really hard to have distrust of those people because your kids go to school with those people.”
Mohorcich gave Castle a copy of the River Center’s “On the River” publication before she gave her closing remarks.
“Your work is not yet complete, as you all know,” she said. “I just want to encourage you to keep at it and keep fighting the good fight recognizing that not everyone has their head in the same place as where this group is this morning.
“But it is really, really important to all of us and our children and grandchildren that you keep on going and keep working to preserve this asset you all recognize as so important.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.