Kenai manager discusses changes at chamber lunch

Refuge management requires ability to adapt to public needs

Posted: Monday, August 05, 2002

Managing one of the state's largest tourist destinations requires the ability to adjust to constant change. Just ask the guy who is in charge of the 1.9 million- acre expanse of land that stretches from Kachemak Bay to the tip of the northern peninsula.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Robin West spoke at Thursday's meeting of the North Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. He told the chamber that a lot has changed in refuge management over the years.

"In the early days they had a bounty on eagles. Then in a generation, its about a $10,000 fine if you shoot one," West said.

The key to successful refuge management is having the ability to understand what the public wants and adapt to any changes in the public's wishes.

West said that's particularly key on the Kenai, where the refuge is managed both to provide critical habitat for animals as well as recreational opportunities for humans.

"We get half a million visitors a year," he said. "We're a popular place."

That's pretty much always been the case with the refuge, which was established in 1941 in order to protect the peninsula's gigantic moose.

Back then, hunters wanted a place that would remain wild so the Kenai moose could continue to thrive.

Since then, the refuge has undergone a number of changes, West said.

"The Kenai National Moose Range was established to protect the moose. That was the sole purpose of the refuge," he said.

"The early culture of the refuge was primarily hunting based. After ANILCA, we had a new mandate to conserve bears and wolves and other animals along with the moose. Basically, all wild species of plants and animals."

In addition to changing how the area was managed, the passage of ANILCA, or the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, gave the former moose range its current name.

However, that change certainly hasn't hurt the peninsula's famous moose population.

West said steps are still taken to ensure the population and the ecosystem stays healthy. One way to do that is to burn areas of old, dead spruce trees so smaller, more moose-friendly trees can replace them.

The practice not only creates new habitat for moose, but it also clears dangerous beetle-killed spruce trees, West said.

"With the fires, we have a setback in habitat. It is very good for the moose."

Although prescribed burns have gotten out of control, West said the majority are beneficial to the environment.

"Prescribed burns are the best way to create moose habitat. You hear about the ones that got away, what you don't read about are the ones that go well," he said.

Keeping the public perception of the refuge positive is what West said is his primary duty as manager.

"It changes slowly, but wildlife management as a profession has evolved to what society's values demand," he said. "And that will continue."

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