Proposed coastal trail: Boon to city or risk to Kenai River?

Posted: Thursday, August 01, 2002

Editor's note: The following is the final in a series of articles about the problems the city of Kenai faces as the bluff overlooking the Kenai River erodes at a pace of 3 feet per year.

If the city of Kenai gets its way, it could boast a multi-purpose coastal trail as one of its most scenic and impressive recreational attractions.

The city hopes to build the mile-long trail along the base of the Kenai bluff on the north bank of the Kenai River, between Kenai Dunes Park at the mouth of the river and Pacific Star Seafoods on Bridge Access Road.

The trail would be built 33 feet above the average low water mark, atop a sea wall the city also wants to build to try and protect the base of the bluff from erosion caused by waves, currents and tides. The wall would be built of armor rock, huge boulders ranging from 500 to 10,000 pounds, layered on top of smaller filter rock.

The proposed trail would be 12 feet wide and paved, with pullouts for resting and wildlife viewing and a 200-foot cable strand bridge over an estuary area right past the dunes area. Ramps leading down to the beach would be constructed at regular intervals along the trail.

The trail is designed to have several trail heads and access points, many of which would be wheelchair accessible. The west end trail head would be accessible along the existing gravel road leading from the parking area at Kenai Dunes Park.

The east end trail head would require the construction of a new parking area, which would be accessible from Bridge Access Road. An additional trail head leading from a parking area on Frontage Road near the Kenai Senior Citizens Center would switchback down the west side of Ryan's Creek and would be wheelchair accessible.

Other trail heads, from Erik Hansen Park and Riverview Avenue, would be long ramps that would be too steep for wheelchair accessibility.

The bluff along the trail would be resloped at a more gentle angle and terraced to minimize erosion caused by seeping ground water, wind and rain. The slope would be planted with grasses, wildflowers and other types of vegetation to further protect the face of the bluff from erosion. A 10-foot wide drainage ditch would be constructed between the bluff and the trail to collect any soil that erodes before the vegetation can take hold.

This is the design plan the city would like to implement as soon as possible.

But before construction can begin, the city must get state and federal agency approval and permits for construction in the environmentally sensitive and ecologically important Kenai River estuary area.

Last year the Corps of Engineers was given $500,000 of federal money to complete an environmental assessment of the project. The city must wait for the completion of that study before it can move forward with the project.

The entire project is estimated to cost $10 million. According to city officials and proponents of the trail, the cost would be well worth the benefit.

"I would like to see it," said Bud Lofstedt, 50-year Kenai resident. "It's such a prominent place, people go there to watch drift boats -- it's just a spectacular place for whales. It's just too bad that they can't keep it, it's the main crux of Kenai for an observation point."

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the project.

Several agencies have submitted concerns about the possible ecological impact the project may have and have raised environmental questions that must be answered before construction can begin.

The fundamental debate centers around the question of whether anything should be done to stabilize the bluff.

"The river is naturally eroding in that direction at 3-feet per year," said Ken Tarbox, a retired biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and opponent of the city's proposed project.

"Whether that will continue is questionable, that's just what the river's doing. ... We have a river system producing millions of dollars to benefit the whole peninsula and therefore, to me, the best way to maintain that investment is to oppose this. It is arrogant of humans to think that they know how rivers operate and put at risk those investment dollars in economic resources."

Tarbox suggested the city try alternative methods to build the trail that don't require construction on the bluff or in the river mouth. Buying about 100 feet of land on top of the bluff and building the trail up there would be an option, he said.

The city opposes this option because it wouldn't stop the erosion that is slowly eating away the land on top of the bluff.

"We still have to handle the erosion, we still have to keep the waves from crashing into the side of the bluff," said Keith Kornelis, public works manager for the city. "One of the big portions of this project is to stop the erosion."

Before the city can put its plan into action, it must satisfy the concerns Tarbox and others have raised.

"I think at this point in time the burden of proof is on the city of Kenai to show this is a benefit to the Kenai Peninsula and not just to the city of Kenai," Tarbox said.

"I think people should look at these projects in river mouths, especially, very very carefully. Even if it may benefit one community, it may work to the detriment of other communities. Anybody who lives along the Kenai River should be concerned about this project."

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