Living outside cities harms the wilderness people crave

Loving the land too much?

Posted: Friday, May 26, 2006

A love of the wilderness has drawn two thirds of the Kenai Peninsula’s population to homes outside of cities and towns. But if the next 50,000 peninsula residents continue the settlement trends of the peninsula’s first 50,000 residents, they could destroy vast tracks of the wilderness they seek beneath the burdens of their love, according to an Alaska Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator study.

For more than two years the Kenai Watershed Forum has been working with the original designer of a modeling computer program and mapping tool called ALCES, to look forward in time at the peninsula.

ALCES digests data on natural processes and human land uses in a community to draw conclusions about how different resource management decisions will shape the future of a community and its environment, according to Brad Stelfox, the program’s designer.

And on the peninsula, ALCES study results have found that trends in residential settlement could be among the largest drivers of change on the peninsula, Stelfox said at a presentation on some of the study’s conclusions about the peninsula’s future.

Of the 15 to 20 ALCES studies Stelfox has participated in throughout the Americas, the Kenai Peninsula has the largest proportion of people not living in towns of cities, he said.

A major reason the peninsula’s population settlement patterns could dramatically degrade its wilderness is because rural living requires roads, lots of them.

“This is the single greatest contributor to your new roads on the peninsula in the next half century,” he said. “The population is growing at, at least two percent, the majority of which do not want to live in cities, want to live in these subdivisions, and every house without exception has to have a road to it.”

Road building cuts otherwise seamless tracts of wilderness into puzzle pieces and requires lots of resources, the acquisition of which also degrades the environment.

According to the ALCES study, in 50 years the peninsula will have three times as many roads as it does now, minimum. And as the peninsula’s road system grows, so will its insatiable appetite for gravel, and the need to dig for it.

“Relative to what we’re extracting now it’s got to basically double, almost triple in the next five decades ... (and) a lot of it’s going to be used for roads,” Stelfox said.

Most of those roads will be built to access houses built in subdivisions, he said.

And although roads make the peninsula more accessible for its human residents, they can cut off access for other species.

“We’re going to build a lot of roads on the peninsula,” Stelfox said. “And when you build roads, those roads will cross creeks, and you’re either going to be building bridges, or in many cases you’re going to be building culverts. And some of these creeks are very important for your salmonides, your salmon. And these crossings will hang.”

When culverts are flush with the down stream side of a stream bed they enable salmon and other fish to swim up streams crossed by roads. But as water erosion cuts into the stream bed, it recedes from the mouth of the culvert, creating a small waterfall and an eventually insurmountable obstacle to fish trying to swim upstream to spawn.

“All culverts will hang. They always have, it’s just a matter of time,” Stelfox said. “All culverts are waiting for a flood event of a sufficient magnitude to create plunge pool dynamics and hang.”

Although human land uses will undoubtedly change the peninsula over time, so will natural processes, and to make ALCES as accurate as possible, data on these, too, were fed into the program.

Stephanie Sims, a staff member of the Watershed Forum and person responsible for gathering most of the information fed into the modeling program, excavated peninsula data on everything from gravel mining and tourism to moose and erosion.

Some natural events can alter the peninsula suddenly and dramatically.

“If we look at all of the natural disturbance regimes we can see that much of the peninsula is being shaped by fire and insect outbreaks,” Stelfox said. “Undeniably, a significant portion of the peninsula has been historically shaped by fire ... . (And) certain insects have also been exceptionally important in driving plant communities. Spruce bark beetles have influenced a significant portion of the peninsula, and often in very episodic ways.”

Since the peninsula ALCES study was first proposed three years ago, at least 14 resource management agencies have stepped forward to provide data as the computer program has been customized to the peninsula. Now, these agencies are being trained to use it to help determine how land use activities can be steered to maximize the benefits and minimize the liabilities of land uses for the future.

“Without exception all of the land uses that are occurring on the Kenai Peninsula are creating benefits, and without exception every single one of these uses on the Kenai Peninsula is creating liabilities and there’s no exception to that rule,” he said. “(But) we don’t have to wait for 50 years to find out where our land use trajectory is going to take us.”

The information resource managers glean from using ALCES can be used to help the peninsula plan with an eye to the future, Stelfox said.

Communities that still retain large expanses of unspoiled wilderness and natural resources, such as the peninsula, frequently forget there is a limit to their bounty and plan only for today rather than tomorrow, he said.

In the next half century the peninsula’s population will more than double.

But with a responsible approach to development that focuses on the long term, the peninsula can avoid some of the environmental and resource problems created by ad hoc, short-term planing, he said.

“Instead of dealing with the cause, much like how we treat medicine, we tend to deal with symptoms,” he said.

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