Kenai River Festival designed to be fun-filled learning opportunity for community

Celebration, education, inspiration

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2001

The late spring and early summer months present many natural wonders to the people of the Kenai Peninsula. We're fortunate to have moose with calves running through our neighborhoods. Just last weekend I saw a couple of caribou taking a break near the forestry building in Soldotna.

Less obvious creatures such as those amazing wood frogs have now emerged from their frozen state, and along with the various species of migratory birds, the air is now filled with the unique sounds of summer. Our rivers and streams fill with fish activity. Newly hatched salmon and trout migrate to and from the banks of the Kenai River and up the scores of small streams. These small streams provide slow-moving water with lots of food, resulting in ideal rearing habitat for the youngest generation.

The 1- and 2-year-old fish will use the lower river and tidal areas to become acquainted with salt water as they prepare to head out to sea for the next several years. And the 4- and 5-year-old salmon are on the last leg of a truly amazing cycle, coming back from the ocean to spawn in our fresh waters and start the cycle anew.

Summer also brings some not-so-natural wonders, such as wondering how long that road project will really take. Wondering where all those visitors come from and if they really enjoy extended stays on asphalt parking lots. At the moment, I'm wondering if we'll have one more weekend of great weather for the Kenai River Festival.

More important than the weather is wondering how to convey the reasons for having a Kenai River Festival. The festival is held for three reasons: celebration, education and inspiration. Live music, dancing and arts and crafts for the kids are all part of the celebration, and it's a blast! Also important to me is our celebration of all the good measures that have been taken to help maintain our rivers, and by doing so, our economic diversity and quality of life. Many individuals, businesses, public officials, agencies and nonprofit groups are to be commended for their efforts. You'll see many of these folks at the festival. One of many such examples of positive measures was last year's decision by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to provide the same level of bank protection the Kenai River has had for six years to 24 additional salmon streams. This was a good decision because any river will only be as healthy as the tiny streams that feed into it and all of our streams are important.

We should celebrate the 50-foot stream protection ordinance that was passed unanimously by our assembly, and the fact that more consideration is being given to ensure our streams don't wind up like those in the lower 48. This type of community awareness is cause for celebration.

While we are celebrating at the festival, we are also learning -- learning that there is more to understand. For example, many of the small culverts under our roads are in need of maintenance because they prevent juvenile salmon from swimming up many small creeks that would provide access to acres of rearing habitat. Another example is the awareness that our water quality is very high in some areas, but less than perfect in other areas. Impacts to aquatic insects living in the Kenai River have been documented, and our knowledge of water quality is not as complete as it should be. We need to gather the information required for thorough assessments of the waters and then help people reduce the introduction of contaminates into our waters. I know of no one who wants to pollute our streams, so it is in our best interest to help identify potential pollution problems and work together on solutions. There are many gaps in our scientific knowledge. Few people agree on what the biggest gaps are, but clearly there is a need for better understanding.

Finally, the Kenai River Festival is about inspiration. When we celebrate what we have, and learn about our challenges, we will be inspired to get involved. I don't limit that to just being involved on river issues, but expand it to include community issues.

As the executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, a private nonprofit organization, I'm proud of the role we have played to involve citizens and volunteers over the past five years. However, we are by no means alone.

There are many other ways to be involved in the community. Many groups, schools and individuals offer opportunities for people to help maintain our quality of life. The existence of so many opportunities and activities related to our waters is a clear indicator of their importance to the economy and quality of life in the central peninsula.

When individuals get involved in any community group they are almost always better able to recognize the ties between the environment, the economy and our social and physical health. As more people participate in community activities and organizations, we have a better chance of improving the quality of life on the Kenai Peninsula.

I hope to see you at the Kenai River Festival this weekend. We'll provide the equal parts of celebration, education and inspiration; you can take what you want or need. There are no admission fees or charges for any of the activities, which include lots of music, arts and crafts, kids' activities and some excellent barbecue salmon. Stop by to say "hello," thank the 60 some odd folks who are volunteering, take note of the financial sponsors, ask lots of questions ... and have fun!

Robert Ruffner is the executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum.

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