Some people might not see a connection between the work of a historical society and the work of a salmon conservation organization, but not Robert Ruffner.
Ruffner, who spoke Saturday afternoon at the semi-annual Kenai Peninsula Historical Association meeting in Soldotna, said both entities respect how things used to be and see the benefit in taking care of them for the future whether that’s a homestead cabin or a salmon run.
“Cabins aren’t just going to save themselves — you really have to set yourselves out to figure out which ones are important and what we are going to do to take care of them,” he said. “They need a plan and so I think the parallel is the same for the natural resources we have here — we have to figure out which ones we want to save and figure out how to go about doing it.”
Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, talked about a topic the historical association likely knows a lot about — change. He addressed how much of the area has changed since the homestead days and how that has had, or could have had an impact on salmon runs considering the development’s proximity to local rivers.
Change also includes the amount of developed land, the area becoming dryer and warmer and a growing population base choosing more and more to live in rural areas away from the defined cities, Ruffner said. Those changes take on a greater significance, he said, when one considers that the area’s population will double by 2056, according to projections, he said.
“There are some consequences people don’t really think about when large numbers of people don’t want to live in towns anymore, when they want to live in rural areas,” he said. “So what does that mean? You can’t always live at the end of the road unless you build more road.”
Ruffner estimated the Peninsula has about 2,500 to 2,700 miles of road — that’s important considering how many of those roads cross salmon-bearing streams, he said. If such development doesn’t occur correctly it can block fish from moving back and forth thus choking the salmon cycle.
Roads can be built in a fish-friendly way, but if people are not thinking about it and making it a priority, it won’t happen, he said.
But there are changes affecting the area, for better or worse, out of local control such as climate change, which is in some circles a loaded subject, he said.
“But we can say for sure without talking about it at that level I think we all know, we have all been to Exit Glacier at some time in the past,” he said. “We generally know that this area is warming up.”
As glaciers recede, the water flowing in the Kenai River is getting there in a different way than it did in the past and that change is likely to continue, he said. Lands are drying up, he said, and that means changes on a whole watershed scale, he said.
Those changes could also be spurring high water events like the recent flooding on the Kenai River, around the central Peninsula and across Seward, he said.
“The rainfall events are spiking so we have these 100 year floods every 10 years, which seems a little odd — not sure if there is anyone from Seward here,” he said with a laugh.
But when those changes occur, people should stop and ask questions, he said. Ruffner said someone needs to ask if such trends are going to continue and if so, what is being done to design and engineer infrastructure to withstand the events.
“Well, it is pretty common sense, we need to make our culverts bigger, we need to make our bridges longer and do it more so than what the engineers and the standard designs say right now,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing and it has paid off.”
Ruffner was asked about the anadromous streams protection ordinance passed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. He said he and the Watershed Forum support it, but agreed changes could be made to the ordinance to make it more palatable.
“This is a case where I would say the chain is only as strong as the weakest link,” he said. “So if we are only taking care of one or two of the main rivers, it doesn’t make that much sense to us. The river systems, the lakes, they all support salmon at some point in their life cycle.”
Ruffner said the 50 foot setback is the minimum amount needed for natural processes to occur that benefit fish.
“There is nobody else that regulates that — that is one of the big fallacies that I have heard is that, ‘Oh we’ve got all these other agencies that take care of this stuff’ and that’s not true,” he said. “It is only within the borough’s purview to be able to take care of the stuff that is outside of the ordinary high water and that first 50 feet.”
Ruffner was asked if the same rules recently implemented borough-wide had made noticeable changes on the Kenai River, where they had been in place since 1996. Ruffner said a review showed the rules slowed down growth in habitat areas and reduced the human footprint on the river. But, that doesn’t mean anyone can say how that has affected fishing specifically, he said.
“We can’t say that, ‘Oh, because we slowed the development along the edge of the river down through these policies that have been put in place by the assembly, so now we have 20 percent more fish in the river,’” he said. “We will never be able to do that. But what we can say for sure is that in places where they have lost that near shore habitat, it doesn’t matter what is going on out in the ocean or what fishing policies have been put in place, they are not going to be healthy and survive in that part of it.”
The last change Ruffner mentioned — one he said he wants to avoid — deals with what has historically happened in other areas as development expanded and modernized.
“There are people who say that in 100 years we are going to lose (salmon) here, that if we don’t do something different than what we have done here we are going to lose salmon in 100 years,” he said. “I don’t buy that because it would be hard for me to get up and go to work everyday.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.