Having been an employee of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for 34 years to the day when I retire at the end of December, I’ve an unusual appreciation of issues and events surrounding the Refuge since Dave Spencer’s arrival in 1947 as the first manager of what was then the Kenai National Moose Range. Reflecting back, a singularly interesting and influential chapter in the refuge’s history is the battle for the establishment of Kenai Wilderness, our 1.35 million-acre contribution to the National Wilderness Preservation and Management System.
After a century of losing wildlife and wildlands, the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 by 373 to 1 in the House, and by 73 to 12 in the Senate. By today’s standards, this is a startling level of bi-partisan support, reflecting the public’s desire for protection of America’s wilderness heritage.
The Act immediately established 9.1 million acres of Wilderness but, more importantly for this story, required review of potential wilderness throughout federal lands. This requirement set the stage for hundreds of local dramas involving inventories, data collection, wilderness proposals, public hearings, and grassroots lobbying throughout the country on either side of the wilderness designation issue.
One of the watershed issues in our local history was just such a wilderness review and proposal scenario for the Moose Range. The arguments both for and against wilderness “zoning” within the Moose Range was a classic discussion, or some might say battle, of resource protection versus development interests at both national and local scales. One of the many subplots is the story of a small but effective grassroots organization known as the “Kenai Conservation Society” (KCS). Actually, this group of local residents was organized in 1965 as the nonprofit Kenai Peninsula Chapter of the Alaska Conservation Society (ACS).
The ACS was a Fairbanks-based group, founded in 1960 by Camp Denali co-owner Celia Hunter and others, that advocated for Alaska conservation issues. The ACS became synonymous with opposition to the federal government’s Project Chariot, a proposal to use nuclear devices to establish a harbor in northern Alaska, and the Rampart Project, which proposed to dam the Yukon River and flood over 9,000 square miles. ACS also became well known for their advocacy on behalf of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Later, ACS fought for protection of Alaska’s federal lands known as the “D2 lands”, culminating in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. By the time President Carter signed this legislation in 1980, the forward-thinking but pragmatic ideas of the Kenai Peninsula’s own little conservation club “that could” were woven into the fabric of the Kenai Refuge and statewide legislation.
Initially, KCS was moved to action by critical conservation issues of the day — a fear of lost resources and values, their close proximity and association with the Moose Range, and a perceived need to weigh-in on big issues affecting the “Range” and the Kenai Peninsula. This group of friends, acquaintances and neighbors met in their living rooms and kitchens. The group’s enthusiasm, knowledge, sense of urgency and, ultimately, their influence belied their relatively modest numbers. Although they formed primarily to support and advocate for issues associated with the Moose Range, they also weighed-in on issues affecting clean air and water, and “growing pain” issues associated with new and increasing oil and gas exploration and development in Cook Inlet and on the Kenai Peninsula.
Former KCS president Jim Fisher recently reflected on his surprise when a letter he had penned regarding oil rig-related waste dumping in Cook Inlet actually resulted in temporary suspension of operations. You see, the local group was not just some distant altruistic environmental group — they were friends, family members and neighbors of others now involved in the new industrial activities and were fertile ground for collecting information on practices and events that previously had not been known or available.
It came as no surprise to those involved in KCS that formation of such a conservation advocacy group was not without critics. In talking to former members and reviewing archives, sharp-tongued critics often mistook any critique of local development as being against progress.
The Moose Range was also struggling to balance its original conservation mission, as articulated in the Executive Order that established it in 1941, with the seemingly inconsistent Interior Secretarial Order that opened it to oil and gas exploration and development. By the time KCS was hatched, over 1,500 miles of seismic trails and new industry roads had been laid down on the northern portion of the Moose Range. Then Refuge Manager John Hakala described it collectively as “one hell of a mess.”
My first association with KCS was in 1979. Bill Schrier, then chapter president, had a well-worn path to the manager’s office at the Moose Range. Mr. Schrier was a disciple of friendly but persistent negotiation and discussion, consistent with his profession as a local school teacher. He always had a smile and a well thought-out agenda and, when he asked “how are you?”, he meant it. While an ally of the Moose Range in its over-arching conservation mission, KCS was critical of certain management practices, particularly plans to build more roads and facilities into roadless areas, and certain methods associated with habitat projects which cleared vast areas for game production.
The first KCS president was Dr. Calvin Fair, a soft-spoken local dentist, who had a passion for the outdoors and wildlands. Local homesteader Marge Mullen, Kasilof big game guide George Pollard, Bureau Of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (now U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) employee Will Troyer, and local attorney James Fisher and his wife Helen were just a few of the early members. Legend has it that Dr. Fair was at his best advocating for conservation issues and recruiting new members while you were a captive audience in his dental chair.
In a recent conversation with Mr. Fisher, who still lives on the peninsula, he described how the passion for conservation and his initial involvement was really his wife’s doing. Fisher, however, rose to the occasion, eventually serving as chapter president, while joining Fair in authoring numerous letters and chapter positions on a variety of conservations issues, as well as offering formal testimony at public hearings.
The fabric of the group and the attraction for many new members was the group’s split personality as a local outdoor club, sponsoring outings and hikes to wild places in the Kenai Mountains, in addition to their more serious agenda as conservation advocates. In a recent conversation with Marge Mullen, she fondly recalled an outing to Emma Lake and the Kenai Range’s “Nickanorka Mountains” lead by George Pollard.
Ms. Mullen recalled the same trip in her eloquent testimony on behalf of establishing wilderness within the Kenai National Moose Range during wilderness public hearings in June 1971. In fact, the KCS’s championing at these contentious hearings became the rallying cry for a host of other voices across Alaska and the Lower 48. Most national and statewide conservation groups testifying at those hearings, and in subsequent written comments, simply spoke of their general support for Kenai Wilderness and then referred to the details in the KCS proposal.
KCS President Fisher and Vice President Fair supported the Refuge’s proposals, but went even further. Dr. Fair boldly advocated for additional wilderness acreage, combining several of the six smaller individual proposals and, for the first time, inclusion of Tustumena Lake. But perhaps more telling was a proposal to amend what would become the establishing legislation, with a compromise for limited motorized access variances (motorboats, aircraft and snowmobiles) for certain traditional uses.
When the issue was “said and done” and wilderness protection for the Kenai Moose Range became reality in 1980, the homegrown group’s ideas including the access compromises carried the day both at Kenai and throughout Alaska. Remarkably, the final Kenai Wilderness designation included an increase over 400,000 acres, even more than advocated by Fair and Fisher on that June day in 1971. The humble group not only provided a local face in support of wilderness protection (even if in the minority) but, importantly, they also influenced powerful national conservation interests for a workable balance of wilderness protection and traditional access.
Former House Of Representatives Speaker Tip O’Neal noted in an often-repeated quote that “all politics are local,” and wilderness advocate Ben Haze once stated in a Wilderness Management class at the University of Washington where I had invited him to speak “that if you are willing to write a letter a day you can change the world.” The KCS officers and members intuitively practiced these two concepts. I believe Refuge resources and today’s Kenai Peninsula residents are all the better for their efforts.
The soon-to-be-retired Rick Johnston has served as wilderness ranger, law enforcement officer, pilot, and permit specialist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.