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Refuge Notebook: Skilak Loop project to increase recreation opportunities

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010

As you read this, perhaps you are wondering, "Why is the Refuge Fire Management Officer writing about wildlife habitat projects and wildlife-oriented recreation opportunities?" Well, I have to say that I've asked myself that same question. As I thought how to answer that question, I realized there is a very simple explanation. It's really all about the critters, about their habitats, and about our (public) access to places where wildlife live. I also realized that every refuge employee and volunteer, even the firefighters, play a role in wildlife and habitat conservation "for the continuing benefit of the American people" (from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Mission).

Photo Courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Photo Courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Refuge firefighters burn a slash pile.

If, in the past year, you traversed the west end of the Skilak Loop Road, you would have noticed a large created opening in the forest, about three miles off the Sterling Highway. If you drove the Skilak road last week, you might have seen workers in yellow shirts burning piles of slash near the east end of the project area. Some of you have stopped along the road and asked one of the firefighters what the refuge is trying to do there. Others have called or stopped by Refuge Headquarters to ask about the project, and to ask, "When can we get firewood?" For the rest of you, I hope I can shed some light on the Skilak Loop Habitat Project.

Going back to the beginning, you should know that this project was one of many that were proposed in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area Management Plan (approved in December 2006). The Skilak Plan was developed by Refuge managers to achieve one of the goals from the Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan (1985): manage the Skilak area "to provide enhanced opportunities for wildlife viewing".

The wildlife-oriented recreation enhancements approved in the Skilak Plan included: 7 new trails, a day use area at Bottenintnin Lake, new platforms and blinds for wildlife viewing, road waysides, and other improvements. However, the plan does not come with designated or appropriated funding, so proposed activities and improvements will happen as the necessary funds are secured. But, so far, so good. The refuge has now put its Skilak Plan to work and the first project is under way.

The habitat improvement project is the first phase of a multi-phased plan that will ultimately produce a parking area, trailhead and interpretive loop trail with viewing platforms and/or blinds, from which visitors can watch critters. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided the means by which a local contractor was hired to cut the trees and chop, stack or pile the woody biomass.

The second step in Phase I is to treat or remove the generated woody materials. Refuge firefighters have already begun this step by burning some of the 200 slash piles. The remaining piles will be burned as suitable weather conditions occur. Another step in Phase I will be the removal of the large deck of aspen logs near the east end of the project area. To accomplish this step, the refuge issued a special use permit to Chugachmiut, who is scheduled to transport the logs to another site for processing as part of a biomass energy demonstration project.

The third step in this phase is where you, the public, can help. As soon as the large aspen deck is removed, the refuge will begin issuing firewood permits, on a first-come, first-served basis, until all the remaining usable firewood in the designated permit area is removed or the area is closed due to snow or ice. We are anticipating that firewood permits will become available about the first of October.

Next summer, if all goes according to plan, the refuge will complete Phase I by burning the small blocks or units that were hydro-axed or cut and chopped. The goal of these varied treatments is a new mixed forest that will attract wildlife, especially those critters that prefer early seral vegetation. The expected benefits of this project include more opportunities for refuge visitors to: hike a trail, view and photograph wildlife, participate in environmental education activities, and experience nature.

There is also an expected fire management benefit -- a reduction of hazard fuels, especially on the west end of the project where before treatment, dense black spruce dominated the forest. Another benefit is the firewood that will hopefully warm some cold toes this winter. And those of you who will collect the wood can then say that you too played a role in conserving wildlife and habitat on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Thanks!

Doug Newbould is the Fire Management Officer for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

He has lived on the Kenai Peninsula since 1991 and worked at the Refuge since 1997.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on new bird arrivals or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline 907-262-2300.



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