In the 1980s, as the state gorged on oil money and the Kenai Peninsula population boomed, more and more people discovered the Kenai River and the Cook Inlet salmon fishery. At the time, people with foresight began worrying about the habitat's future.
"We knew where this was going to go," said Ken Tarbox, who retired last year after two decades with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Biologists saw heavy fishing, erosion and trampled riverbanks at the same time they realized the river was vital rearing grounds for salmon. Private property owners saw trespassers, litter and traffic, he said.
In 1982, then-Gov. Jay Hammond convened a Kenai River Task Force. Legislation growing out of that process in 1984 created the Kenai River Special Management Area.
The years since have seen a proliferation of organizations, projects and entities to address Kenai River issues: the Kenai River Center, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association Inc., the Kenai River Property Owners Association, the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, the Nature Conservancy's Kenai River Project and the Kenai Watershed Forum.
Mary King, a Fish and Game sport-fish biologist, came to the area in 1982 and has watched attitudes change.
During most of the 1980s, a few people voiced concerns about pressure on the habitat, but "we had these huge returns of salmon and everyone was happy," she recalled.
About the time of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the mood changed. Fishing turned sour. The spill spooked people about Alaska's environmental vulnerability and, via the criminal settlement, turned on the funding faucet for regional restoration projects, she said.
Phil North, who works for the federal Environmental Protection Agency at the Kenai River Center, said he has seen a real change in public perception since he began working in the area 12 years ago.
"People are so much more aware. ... They do not take (the Kenai River) for granted," he said.
North praised area groups, agency workers and visionaries for getting together to provide leadership and improve the habitat situation. Many involved are dedicated individuals who don't receive the credit they deserve, he said.
Researchers with Fish and Game and the U.S. Geological Survey studied the impacts of high use on the river and produced a series of eye-opening reports. They linked anglers and boat wakes with bank erosion, and riverbank construction projects with lost rearing habitat for salmon fry. Another study found worrisome trends in water quality.
Several responses followed.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the Nature Conservancy and the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust purchased property in the watershed to set aside for habitat preservation.
Businesses, organizations and government began working together on assorted projects.
For example, studies of aquatic insects involved the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Fish and Game, the University of Alaska Anchorage's Environmen-tal and Natural Resources Institute, Trout Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
In the 1990s, crews removed riprap, used in earlier efforts to shore up riverbanks, and replaced it with state-of-the-art bioengineering solutions such as willow plantings and "bio-logs" of coconut fiber. Raised walkways, with gratings to allow light penetration, began replacing footpaths. The results, such as Soldotna's Classic Fishwalk, have won awards.
Even school children got into the act. The Adopt-A-Stream project, coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and schools, started involving elementary schools in stream monitoring projects in 1992, and more recently Fish and Game has helped elementary schools set up aquariums to incubate salmon fry. Kalifornsky Beach, Soldotna, Tustumena, Sterling, Nikiski and Mountain View have participated in such programs. Cooper Landing School and Kenai Central High School also do science class projects relating to habitat health. A generation of peninsula high school students has contributed bright ideas and elbow grease to the peninsula's environment, often relating to the Kenai River or other salmon habitat, through the Caring for the Kenai contest.
Last year, protection and scrutiny expanded to the river's at-risk tributaries such as Slikok and Soldotna creeks. But more needs to be done, according to the river watchers.
"The regulations need to keep pace with growth," said Robert Ruffner, director of the Kenai Watershed Forum.
Some people tell him the river should be managed like it was in the old days. But the peninsula has changed so much that that would be impossible. Now, people need to set aside differences and work together for the common cause of keeping the river healthy, he said.
"It really is up to the people living here, even if they are not directly involved in the sport fishery or commercial fishery," he said.
Fish and Game's King agreed that the river remains in serious condition. She is in the fifth year of a project looking at riverbank damage. Despite a decade of attention and restoration, she still finds signs that recreational boat traffic is speeding bank erosion. New results also suggest that dandelions and horsetails are displacing native plants in areas of heavy angler foot traffic.
"We definitely have to find a balance between the economy of the area and the resources of the river," she said. "If we could manage the river based on biology, we could do fine."
Her former colleague, Tarbox, is pessimistic about the outlook.
People keep trading away the habitat's long-term future in favor of short-term gains. The river's management is fraught with politics and devoid of accountability. Today's mistakes will take a generation to become obvious, he said.
"There are no planning efforts going on in the watershed. ... We are piecemealing it," he said.
He pointed to the borough's 1996 ordinance setting up 50-foot buffers to protect riverbanks as an example of shortsightedness and wishful thinking. Biologists had recommended a minimum of 100-foot setbacks.
Tarbox is cynical about riverfront projects, too. The touted restoration and preservation work is treating symptoms, not causes, he said.
"It's an arrogance that says we can manipulate nature because we understand it. We don't," he said. "Bio-logs are nice politically. They look good."
People are willing to give lip service to preserving the Kenai River and salmon habitat, but when it costs them money or inconvenience they back away, he said.
"I don't want to call it ignorance. It is a conscious choice," Tarbox said. "I think in the long term we are pushing this river too hard."
The EPA's North was more optimistic, but he warned that the Kenai Peninsula Borough's residents and government need to confront tough land-use decisions. The health of the land will determine the health of the river, he said.
"I think we need to bite the bullet and pay attention to how we use the land," he said.
North's solution is to get away from what he calls "mindless development" and instead build a "land ethic."
The best way is through education and dialogue rather than by imposing regulations, he said.
"We are part of the landscape, and if we want that landscape to function, we have to pay attention. ... The river can't support the fish by itself," he said.
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