Development plans, rising use challenge Kenai refuge

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge faces many threats, according to Jim Hall, deputy refuge manager.

''Fragmentation is a major threat,'' he said. ''Development in and adjacent to the refuge is a major threat. There are threats to the hydrology. The fish are a major component of the wildlife. If we don't protect our water, we'll lose them, just like they did in the Lower 48.''

Such concerns are part of the reason the National Audubon Society has listed the Kenai refuge among its top 10 threatened refuges nationwide. Conservation groups say a proposed electrical transmission line through the heart of the refuge would fragment habitat crucial to brown bears.

While the utilities' favored route follows an existing Enstar Natural Gas Co. pipeline, the pipeline right of way is just 50 feet wide, while the powerline right of way would be 150 feet wide with an access road, said Perry Plumart, National Audubon Society director of federal relations. While the pipeline is buried, the powerline would be above ground.

Hall said the environmental impact statement and public process required under the National Environmental Policy Act will examine power line options, including alternate routes.

''Ecologically, you may say running up the coast is the best alternative, but it may cost 10 times as much,'' he said. ''That's why the NEPA process was developed, to allow the public to take a look and to come up with the best alternative.''

Audubon may not see the whole picture, he said.

''They're welcome to participate in the NEPA process,'' he said. ''After that, we'll decide whether it's a compatible use or not, and it may even enter the political arena.''

He said Unocal's proposal to extend the Swanson River oil field, which includes construction of 13 miles of road, also raises fragmentation issues.

''There are numerous reports showing that some species of forest-breeding birds have to have X acres of contiguous land to sustain the population,'' he said. ''If you take 100 acres and cut it in half, you have a fragmented area. You have two 50-acre areas with a road running through them. Forest fragmentation is something biologists worldwide are concerned about. You can't just look where the road and the (drilling) pads are. You have to look at the broader impact to the ecosystem.''

Seen that way, the Unocal proposal would have an impact on about 25,000 acres, he said. However, Unocal has the right to develop its federal oil and gas leases, and Cook Inlet Region Inc. has the right to access its subsurface oil and gas holdings.

''We have to allow access, but we also have to protect the nation's interests,'' he said. ''We're going to do the very best job we can to ensure they disturb as little as possible.''

Oil and gas development has brought other threats, he said. Some reserve pits where oil companies dumped contaminated drilling muds and cuttings have yet to be cleaned up. A 1960s compressor explosion spewed PCBs, suspected carcinogens that may harm fish and wildlife. The cleanup cost about $23 million, Hall said. There was a leak of xylene, a toxic hydrocarbon, from a tank on the Swanson River field, and cleanup has been ongoing for several years.

Hall said Congress has cut land from the refuge for Native corporations and the state, and much of the land along lower Kenai River is in private hands. That has led to development in and around the refuge.

''A lot of the salmon that spawn in the Kenai River watershed have to come through all that development before they even get to the refuge and pass all those brown bears eating them to spawn,'' he said. ''That's not necessarily a threat, but it could be.''

A dry cleaning fluid spill near the Kenai River in Soldotna also could hurt salmon, he said.

''If they had a major diesel spill in Kenai downstream, the salmon would never get upstream to spawn,'' he said.

Increasing numbers of visitors come to the 1.9-million-acre Kenai refuge to hunt, fish, hike, canoe, take part in environmental education camps and enjoy the visitor center.

There were 533,000 refuge visitors last year, up from 246,000 in 1970. That is more than Denali National Park, which received 503,000 visitors last year, Hall said.

While federal government spends roughly $13 per acre to manage national parks, he said, it spends about $7 per acre to manage national forests and less than $2 an acre to manage wildlife refuges.

Still, the Kenai refuge budget has grown from $1.9 million in 1996 to nearly $2.9 million in 2000. Over the last four years, Congress has upped funding for refuges nationwide by $50 million.

The Kenai refuge still has a wish list that includes $10 million to build a new visitor center and $19 million to upgrade Skilak Loop Road, built as part of the original Sterling Highway.

''You can still see the logs they cut and laid the original road down on,'' Hall said.

The backlog of maintenance and repairs at the Kenai refuge totals 216 projects and $19 million, Hall said. The refuge will spend $127,000 this spring to replace the failing dock for the Russian River ferry.

''It was shored up two years ago,'' he said. ''It was about to wash down the river, the dock and everything. It had already undercut the pilings. They had to cable it to two cottonwood trees.''

Hall said the maintenance backlog includes repairs to boat ramps, campgrounds, 200 miles of refuge trails and public-use cabins.

''People like to use our cabins, but the bottom logs are rotted out on almost every one,'' he said.

The refuge also could use more money for research, he said.

''You drop one thing to do another,'' he said. ''We're just putting out fires.''

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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