Step by step, a father outlined the edge of his land every morning. His daughter rode on his shoulders, taking in the sight of the animals in the creek and the trees around their field. Some of the beavers she could call by name, she remembered.
“I grew up like that, and I’m so thankful,” said Priscilla Mott, who still lives on the land where her parents homesteaded near Soldotna in the 1950s.
Every year, she and her husband farm hay on the same soil. The winding thread of Slikok Creek still runs through it, and moose still visit the field. Little else is the same, though: urban development has brought a paved Kalifornsky Beach Road within a few hundred yards of the northern boundary of Mott’s property, and the city of Soldotna has grown from a tiny town in the 1960s to a bustling tourist destination with more than 4,000 residents.
The old family homestead is owned jointly between Mott and her siblings. It’s still a working farm that requires maintenance, and she wants it to stay that way and expand. People frequently tell her they love looking at the field, she said.
“That’s what people come up here for,” Mott said. “They come to fish, they come to see our animals, they come to see something different. They don’t come here to go a mall. They don’t want to see pavement; they want to see moose in a field.”
Recently, though, she has felt threatened by a move from Soldotna’s government to explore possible annexation of the land west of the city along Kalifornsky Beach Road, which would include her farm. The city regulations would prevent her from building a new barn without meeting building codes and having an inspection.
While members of the Soldotna City Council have said they won’t vote to annex anyone without majority support in a given area, Mott said she and other homestead families are concerned about the future of their lands as urban development continues.
“I love this property,” she said. “I don’t want to see it be covered up with houses.”
Conserving the homestead
When homestead families like the Motts arrived in the 1940s and ‘50s, the Kenai Peninsula was sparsely populated and there were few roads. Many people who homesteaded or grew up on their parents’ homesteads recall days of splitting wood by hand to heat their cabins, hauling water up from creeks and no indoor plumbing.
However, when the oil boom began after the discovery of the Swanson River Oil Field in 1957, the population of the peninsula began to explode. People looking for work in the oil fields flocked to the central Kenai Peninsula, and development and other services followed them. They started their lives in mobile homes around the river and eventually built houses, organized into a city and began to build infrastructure to accommodate more people as they arrived.
The world changed around the homesteaders very quickly. Marge Mullen, who homesteaded in what is now downtown Soldotna along the Kenai River with her husband and children, said she remembers walking to Soldotna from where the road previously ended in Cooper Landing — approximately 45 miles away — to arrive at their homestead and pulled water out of Soldotna Creek to do the dishes in the 1950s. By 1970, she was surrounded by neighbors.
Originally from Chicago, where the buildings were very close together, she remembered, Alaska seemed wonderfully pristine and spacious. Over time, Mullen became interested in preserving her property adjacent to Soldotna Creek from development, she said.
“I saw salmon of different kinds venturing out of the Kenai River and up the creek,” she said. “… I could have been a wealthy homesteader if I had more creekside development, but I was more in favor of letting nature take its course there.”
Mullen worked out a deal to place a conservation easement on part of her land through the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, which holds lands in the public interest on the peninsula, primarily for habitat and conservation purposes. The nonprofit, based in Homer, owns some land and manages conservation easements on others. Kachemak Heritage Land Trust owns about 20.5 acres of the Mullens’ former homestead and manages another approximately eight acres under a conservation easement management plan.
Landowners grant conservation easements to protect their land from incompatible development while retaining ownership and use of the property, said Joel Cooper, stewardship director for Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, in an email. The terms of each agreement are tailored to the individual owner’s wishes, he wrote.
The land trust is required to monitor all its conservation easements and owned properties annually, including a physical inspection, photographs, looking for third-party encroachment or invasive species, among other things, Cooper wrote. Even if the land is sold eventually, the conservation easement remains.
“The property can be bought and sold, but the conservation easement is binding on all future owners of the property,” he wrote.
During some visits, the land managers have observed some trash that shows the property is being visited, but nothing inconsistent with the conservation values of the property, Cooper wrote. Kachemak Heritage Land Trust works with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on management of the conservation easement property, and the state is working signs for the property outlining prohibited activities, like bank fishing. The signs haven’t been mounted yet, though, he wrote.
“The State and KHLT hope that the new signs will help people understand what is allowed on the property,” he wrote.
The Mullens aren’t the only family looking at setting up a similar trust. Mott said she has been considering the possibility of a conservation easement on Slikok Creek on her land. Slikok Creek, which is spawning habitat for early run Kenai River king salmon, runs all the way through her property.
As homestead lands have been surrounded by development, some have eyed them as prime real estate for homes, commercial centers, parks or other urban development. Over time, many homesteads have been sold or subdivided. Thompson Park in Kenai is a former homestead; so are the parcels along Pine Street outside Soldotna.
However, other families have hung onto their original parcels, either for practical purposes — like farming, the way the Motts do — or for personal ones, the way the Mullen did. But as the homesteaders age and their children live farther away or may not want to hold on to all the property, the question of what will become of the large pieces of land — some directly on the Kenai River and thus very desirable — looms ahead.
One such controversy arose late last year over the former Hansen homestead on Funny River Road, also known as the Kenai River Ranch. The state purchased the land, using Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council funds and asked for public comment on how to develop it. The public comments were divided between people wishing to conserve it and those who wanted to develop a boat launch there for the growing population of Funny River Road.
There is no boat launch on Funny River Road. Residents have to drive all the way to Soldotna to launch onto the Kenai River. However, after discussing concerns about habitat damage and boat crowding on the river, the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board — the citizen and agency board that provides advice to the state on Kenai River Special Management Area issues — recommended that the state do only riparian habitat restoration on that property. Earlier this year, the state finalized plans for the land, which did not include infrastructure development.
Many of the undeveloped lands on the central peninsula would help answer a desire for more building. Soldotna is considering annexation as a way to both increase its property tax roll and to help developers who want to build in the city and existing local businesses that want to expand find more land to do so.
However, for landowners like Mott, there are other places for houses. Her primary concern is the loss of agricultural land across the country. Once something is developed, it’s not likely to be turned back into farmland. Alaska imports the vast majority of its food supply, and if there were an interruption in the transportation line, Alaskans would not have much recourse to stock their shelves. It’s important to have farms close to population centers so the people who live there can get food and other agricultural products when they need it, Mott said.
“We aren’t getting any more agricultural land,” she said.
The Mullen homestead is perched at the edge of Soldotna Creek Park and along the Kenai River close to Soldotna. The city has looked at developing trails through the area as part of a more walkable downtown area. Cooper said there have been brief conversations about including the KHLT’s owned property in Soldotna’s development plans in the past.
“KHLT would be happy to be in larger conversations with the City of Soldotna about the future long term management of the Mullen property that we own,” he wrote.
To stay or to go
Page Spencer’s family has hung onto their homestead land near Kenai even though they haven’t lived on it since 1968.
Spencer and her family homesteaded in the 1950s on land straddling Beaver Creek just to the east of where the Snowshoe Gun Club now stands. Her father, David Spencer, was the first manager of the Kenai National Moose Range, now the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Although it was close enough to where she and her siblings took the bus to school once they walked to the road, it was still a wild place then. Sometimes they would take what she called a “moose holiday” — when there were moose standing between them and the way out to the road.
Her father fell in love with the land when he found it while looking for a homestead property.
“It must’ve been one of those golden fall days (when he saw it) … and he said, ‘I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,’” Spencer said. “(My parents) lived in Kenai for five or six years, and the kids kept coming, and the house was half finished all our lives.”
However, they weren’t meant to stay forever. Her father was eventually made manager of all the national wildlife refuges in Alaska, and the federal government wanted to move his family. He put it off over and over, wanting to stay in Kenai, but eventually he was relocated to Anchorage in 1968, Spencer said. Leaving Kenai was one of the hardest things the family ever had to do, she said.
But by that time, the place was much different the one her parents had fallen in love with.
The oil boom had inflated Kenai’s population, bringing roads and development with it. Shortly thereafter in 1970, the gun club went in next door to the Spencers’ property, and the Twin City Raceway went in not too long after. The noise changed the character of what it was like to live there, she said.
Her mother, Eloise, died in September. Spencer said her mother never thought about going back to live there because it had changed so much, between the population growth and the noise.
“Frankly, it was a different value system and a different way of living, and we were outnumbered,” she said. “My father was one of the original founders of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and my parents were very passionate about ecological systems and what eventually became the environmental movement, and we pretty much grew up in that. It was not a common value system in that part of the world.”
She and her siblings, who own the land together, are considering a conservation easement similar to what the Mullens have, to preserve the property as a whole for habitat purposes. They aren’t sure what they’re going to do yet, as they don’t intend to live on the property but don’t want to see it developed.
Others, like Mott, want to keep living on the lands they remember. Mary Huhndorf of Nikiski still lives in the log cabin her parents built on their homestead in the 1950s. Scattered nearby are the outbuildings her family used as an outhouse and to store food for the winter. It occurred to her, she said, that she will be the last generation of the family that remembers these buildings in use as they were originally intended.
“I think the era of the homestead has just become a real part of the Kenai history,” she said. “It isn’t as old as … all of the Native villages, but the homesteaders now go back three-quarters of a century. It was always my dream if I were independently wealthy, I would want to preserve our homestead as a historical site.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.