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Peninsula's past, present predicts future impacts on environment

Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, April 30, 2004

We all know that the Kenai is a wonderful place to live. We've got salmon, moose and bears, campgrounds, hiking trails, the Kenai River, Cook Inlet, the Kenai Mountains and lakes of all sizes for boating. We've got places where we can snowmachine and places where we can find true wilderness. Of all these countless ways to recreate, most of them are within spitting distance of where we live and work. This is one reason why the number of people who live on the Kenai has increased 22 percent in the last decade. It's also why 2.4 million people traveled down the Sterling Highway last year. They're all trying to get to this nice place we call the Kenai.

Every time somebody builds their home here, it's another septic field in the ground, another driveway, another acre carved up, more kilowatts and more BTUs of gas. And every visitor puts demands on the resources, perhaps as another RV on the highway, another motor boat on the Kenai, one less red salmon, or another night of full campsites.

But new residents bring skills and expand the work force; more visitors bring cash and help keep many of us employed.

So how do we find a reasonable balance? One innovative tool to help us find a solution is a computer model, called ALCES, a Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator. ALCES is a stock-and-flow model that was designed to track human "footprints" across the natural landscape.

Footprints are the artifacts of humans going about their business of living, such as seismic lines, roads, homes, trails, utility rights of way and oil and gas fields. The natural landscape is what the Kenai looked like before we really started affecting the natural system: the 5.5 million acres of forests, wetlands, glaciers, streams and lakes

that still are mostly intact on the peninsula.

ALCES tracks human footprints on the landscape and can cumulatively "grow" these footprints into the future, in response to different scenarios that we decide are plausible. Students of the computer game "Sim City" will recognize this idea of experimenting with possible futures.

Suppose we think the residential population on the Kenai will continue to grow by 2.2 percent each year for the next five decades. What will our grandchildren likely see on the Kenai in 50 years? ALCES can help us forecast the demands on the utilities, predict economic growth, show us how forests and wetlands may change and how critical wildlife species like brown bears may be impacted.

Several athletes from the Kenai Peninsula competed in the Arctic Winter Games this past year in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

This also is the heart of the burgeoning Alberta oil sands industry that is extracting oil at almost 1 million barrels per day.

The population in Alberta is growing at 1.3 percent per year and the economy is growing by 3.2 percent per year. ALCES was originally developed in Alberta to specifically address these kinds of growth issues. Government agencies, commercial forestry and oil companies have used ALCES extensively to help understand how their decisions today will affect the quality of life tomorrow.

Forecasting possible futures is a pretty tall order for any piece of computer software. It took two years out of the life of a pretty smart guy, Dr. Brad Stelfox, to develop ALCES and several years of use by Canadian agencies to refine it. And it will take the experience and expertise of a lot of local professionals to ensure that the Kenai version has the proper data inputs and is running reasonable future scenarios.

The refuge worked with the Kenai Watershed Forum to host two workshops in April 2003 and 2004 to bring ALCES to the Kenai. Stephanie Sims, the new ALCES Consortium Coordinator at the Kenai Watershed Forum, is actively working to bring local experts from federal and state agencies, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, industries and Native governments to the table. I encourage you to look at www.kenaiwatershed.org/effectsmodel.html. It's an ambitious project, but one that I sincerely believe is critical to help us strategically plan economic opportunities while ensuring that the Kenai will be as nice a place for our grandchildren as it is for us.

John Morton is the supervisory fish and wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge Web site at http://kenai.fws.gov/.

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You can check on new bird arrivals or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at (907) 262-2300.



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