Conservation group lists it as threatened

Is the Kenai refuge at risk?

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is one of 10 refuges the National Audubon Society picked from 530 nationwide to illustrate critical threats to the refuge system.

"At Kenai, the threat is representative of a threat here, which is development," said Perry Plumart, director of federal relations for Audubon in Washington, D.C. "Chugach Electric Association wants to put a power line through the heart of the refuge, and that fragments habitat for brown bears, which have been listed as a species of special concern by the state of Alaska."

The Kenai entry in Audubon's "Refuges in Crisis" report, posted this winter at on the Internet, includes a paragraph about the powerline proposal, a photo of trumpeter swans and a photo of a heap of 55-gallon drums by a pit of oily waste.

"Kenai Refuge historically has been a stronghold for trumpeter swans, but habitat loss on the refuge puts them in greater jeopardy," the text reads.

Plumart said the photo came from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser-vice database but could not say exactly where it was taken.

"It's a waste pit on the Kenai refuge," he said.

Audubon's report says refuges nationwide face similar threats.

"Unequipped to handle the crisis, the refuge system faces a backlog of $1.6 billion in unmet operations and maintenance needs," it says. "Hundreds of refuges have no staff and no visitor center, no signs, brochures or restrooms, no way to serve the public and few avenues through which to aid resident wildlife populations."

Mike Dalton, Audubon assistant director in charge of refuges, said he can't think of a single federal refuge that meets its full capacity to protect wildlife. Plumart said refuges have been chronically underfunded. Thanks to Audubon's report, he said, Rep. Wayne Gilchrist, R-Md., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, has scheduled a March 29 hearing to examine the problem. He said Gilchrist plans a second hearing.

The Kenai refuge also was one of seven sites The Wilderness Society named last year in its Endangered Wildlands Watch List. The society cited the Chugach powerline proposal and added, "Continuing oil and gas development in the refuge's Swanson River oil fields threatens the adjacent wilderness areas."

Allen E. Smith, the society's Alaska regional director, said refuges were created to protect wildlife.

"The Kenai refuge is in the eye of the storm, because it's the most visited refuge in Alaska, it has the road system going around it, it has oil and gas development and there's a proposal for a (powerline) across the wilderness land on the north side of the refuge," he said. "There is a real issue with snowmachines damaging vegetation by operating with too little snow. Off-road vehicles are leaving permanent eroding trails."

One route from the proposed relocation of the Sterling Highway by Cooper Landing would cut through a Kenai refuge wilderness area, he said.

Unocal spokesperson Archie Cook said his company had nothing to do with the waste pit in the photo, which may predate Unocal's presence on the refuge. He said Chevron and Arco were prior operators of the Swanson River field.

"Certainly, we don't operate that way," he said. "Oil companies have made huge strides in environmental protection in the last 50 years. We are concerned about the environment. But we have to live. Do you want people freezing in the dark, or do you want development that minimizes impact?"

Unocal is spending $500,000 on studies for the proposed extension of the Swanson River field, he said, and it will do everything possible to minimize the impact.

"This is an example of an oil company operating responsibly," he said. "But we can't drill virtual wells. We have to get the hydrocarbons out of the ground for the benefit of the people who live in the area and for our business partners, who, of course, will profit."

Chugach Electric Association, Homer Electric Association and other railbelt utilities would be partners in the proposed Southern Intertie, a second high-voltage transmission line between Anchorage and the peninsula. Chugach favors a $90 million route paralleling the existing Enstar Natural Gas Co. pipeline from Soldotna through the Kenai refuge and under Turnagain Arm, said spokesperson Phil Steyer.

"We expect the brown bear habitat issue will be addressed in the environmental impact statement," he said.

The chief alternative is a route paralleling the Tesoro pipeline along the bluffs from Nikiski to Point Possession, then under Turnagain Arm, but Steyer said that would cost $10 million more. The utilities have rejected a third route along the Sterling and Seward highways, since that would suffer the same avalanche hazards as the existing powerline on that route.

Smith said Chugach could bury parts of a powerline along the highways, protecting it from avalanches for less than the cost of a line across Turnagain Arm. The peninsula's west coast was cut in the 1960s from the refuge as a corridor for pipelines, roads and powerlines, he said, but now, Chugach proposes a route through wilderness.

"The values of the Kenai refuge to the local area and Alaska for recreation and wilderness are tremendous," he said. "There is emerging a tougher and tougher conflict with development interests that would use that land otherwise. Whether it's oil and gas or an intertie or roads, there is a real conflict with the purposes for which the refuge was established."

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