30 years of Wilderness: Designation has helped define Kenai Peninsula

Posted: Monday, October 11, 2010

Rick Johnston spoke to a small audience inside a cabin on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Images of moose, bears and past managers hiking through the forest were cast onto the back wall by a projector while the longtime Fish and Wildlife Service employee spoke about the genesis of the refuge. When Johnston first came to work there, it was called the Kenai Moose Range. The title changed 30 years ago when the Alaska National Interests Land Conservation Act turned the game sanctuary into federally designated Wilderness.

Wilderness comprises more than two-thirds of the 1.95 million-acre refuge. By the Wilderness Act's definition, the 1.35 million acres on the refuge are "untrammeled by man" and have no established signs of civilization. The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, but the refuge didn't become the refuge until 1980 passage of ANILCA.

No permanent structures can exist in the Wilderness; historic cabins, however, and related structures can be protected under the National Register of Historic Places. The act allows hiking and camping, but bans generators, chainsaws and any kind of motor-powered or mechanical device. Anyone who stays within the lands is bound to practice "leave no trace" camping.

The spike in the Peninsula's population and changes in the planet's climate could drastically alter the refuge's untouched lands, but Supervisory Biologist John Morton said that they're still deliberating on solutions for the unmanaged expanses.

Johnston said that Alaska's Wilderness is different than areas in the Outside. Visitors to the Last Frontier's untrammeled lands can traverse portions of them with motorized boat, snowmachine or float plane, which are banned in Lower 48 Wilderness areas. Conservationists and politicians compromised on the measure because Alaska is difficult to access as it is, he said. The Wilderness act grandfathered them in as traditional means of access.

"Alaska is so remote, if you don't allow for access they won't be able to use them at all," Johnston said, explaining the reasoning behind the exceptions.

The Kenai Moose Range pre-emptively established stricter regulations in today's Wilderness areas 10 or 15 years before the designation.

"It was managed more like the Lower 48 Wilderness," he said.

Although motorboats can slip through most rivers on the refuge, the machines are banned from certain canoe systems, he said.

Johnston considered the exception a bit ironic.

"You can actually go up to Tsutemena Lake with a standard fishing boat, but you can't use a chainsaw with the same horsepower," he said.

The restricted access limits hunting opportunities within the refuge, Johnston said. The amount effort required to enter the Wilderness allows for more use, though.

"It takes five days to walk in the hard way. You get a dall sheep and walk out. That's 10 days of recreational use," he said. "With fly-out hunting, you fly in, get the game and fly out. That's 2 days of recreational use."

"If you don't have $3,000 for roundtrip airfare, but you're tough" the Wilderness provides an opportunity to get away, Johnston said.

The human presence

"I like to get away from the noise of traffic," said Marge Mullen.

The longtime Soldotna resident said the untrammeled lands are her favorite hiking spot. Unlike trails within city limits, the air smells cleaner and tastes a little fresher. Mullen said that she regularly walks the trails near Moose Pass.

Guy Bruni camps in the wilderness once the cold weather has flicked away the remaining tourists and less hardy outdoorsmen.

"It's more difficult to access," he said. "You get a different experience."

Bruni remembered a time when he was canoeing down the Swanson River. He said that he watched a female brown bear and her two cubs lying in the sun coated grass. The bruins were 350 feet away from his canoe, Bruni said.

Guff Sherman said that he has watched wolves killing sheep and moose calves around Skilak Lake. Black bears clear the berry fields one week after they appear on the plants.

"If you don't pick them when they're ripe, bears scarf them up," he said.

Sherman owns a private parcel within the refuge's Wilderness land. Sherman bought the property seven years ago. He visits the secluded house three or four times a week.

"I just like being away from the white noise and light from town," he said. "The stars are much more vibrant out there. I like being closer to nature and wildlife."

Instead of building a modern home, Sherman and hired hands constructed a log cabin. He claims that all the doors, windows and furniture are handmade. The 55-year-old thought that the cabin fit the atmosphere of the Wilderness, unlike other private structures within the refuge.

"Even though it's their own personal property and they have right to do what they want with it, I feel it's degrading when people build something that doesn't belong here," he said.

The Wilderness act provides for citizens who own property within the federally designated no development zones. Owners can build their own roads to go to and from their land, but must pay for all the labor and surveying themselves.

Johnston said Tesoro owns one of the few rights-of-ways on Wilderness land. The oil company had a pipeline lying when the federal government granted the special status to the moose range. Tesoro uses the road to maintain the pipeline.

Sherman isn't the sole resident of the Wilderness. Around 13 people own homes near Bear Creek, Johnston said.

Private owners in the area are given special-use access permits. While the general public waits for enough snow to cover the ground, Johnston said that the owners can sometimes drive snowmachines to their land in November if enough snow falls.

Refuge Law Enforcement Officer Chris Johnson said that the general public doesn't always restrain themselves when plotting their entrance to the refuge. Illegal snowmobile access begins after the first snowfall. According to Johnson, accidental access stems from lack of knowledge or misunderstanding of the rules.

Not everyone is innocent however.

"Some seems to be deliberate," he said. "They'll go straight past signs that say no snowmobiling."

He said that banned ATV traffic increases with the opening of the hunting seasons.

"During spring time people are anxious to get out," he said.

Morton expressed concerns about potential poaching by residents near the Wilderness. Law enforcement head Johnson said that his division issues between 500 and 2,500 citations within the refuge each year. He couldn't recall any patterns. Illegal hunting is rarely caught, but Johnson cedes that it does occur.

"It's a crime of opportunity: 'A critter shows up. No one's around. I think I can do this,'" he said of a poacher's possible motivation.

But the secluded nature of the Wilderness may make it a frequent site of poaching because less people there to spot people, he thought.

Sherman said that refuge Wilderness gives him a degree of solitude, but people regularly boat in the area. He isn't the only one who lives on Skilak Lake either.

"There's not as much intense Wilderness as in the Interior," he said.

That's part of the reason Sherman lives there though. The area is fairly accessible, and with three miles of hiking and a pair of binoculars he can spot occasional caribou. Once he spied a wolverine running down the mountain.

"I'm 55 years old," he said. "I don't like fighting the weather."

Wild land, wild fires

Fire manager Doug Newbould sat at a small wooden corner table in the refuge's fire management station. The building lies off a gravel path that runs off the road to the Refuge Visitor Center.

The Wilderness designation dictates how firefighters operate within the refuge. Newbould said that he lets naturally occurring burns run their course as long as human life, like Sherman and his neighbors, or historical structures aren't threatened.

Normally, Newbould's department monitors active fires. This process includes analyzing weather conditions, fuel loads and infrastructure, like subdivisions and research equipment in the area. If possible, his division won't do anything until the flames spread toward a community near the refuge. Then the fire crews are called in.

"The refuge tells us what they want done," said Division of Forestry Operations Forester Marsha Henderson.

Borough Planning Director Max Best said that many people live along the Wilderness territory. The land attracts residents that want sprawling properties and a peaceful living space.

"It's desirable if you don't want neighbors, as in human neighbors," he said.

In the case of a fire, Newbould said that the refuge manager appoints an incident manager when a fire is spotted. If the fire heads toward a development, an interagency fire plan is created that includes the Division of Forestry's fire wing among others.

Fire managers balances Wilderness values with public safety. Newbould said that the refuge has never used bulldozers when quelling a fire, but calls in aircraft to drop water onto flaming areas. The refuge bans dumping retardant chemicals on Wilderness land.

Division of Forestry Chief of Fire and Aviation Tom Kurth said that crews do use chainsaws to access the flaming areas. Firefighters use the motorized saws to build escape routes as well. Kurth said that his division doesn't dig fire trenches or clear large areas of woods to prevent flames from spreading during Wilderness fires.

The recent damp summer had few incidents, he said, but that hasn't always been the case. Kurth remembered the 2005 Fox Creek fire that burned more than 20,000 acres of land. While the rest of the fire went untended, he controlled the flames that spread toward the relatively populated Caribou Hills on the western boundary of the Wilderness.

Once most fires end, Kurth said that crews will clear dead foilage and remaining fuel loads. The Wilderness values prevent much clean-up. Department of Fish and Game Area Biologist Jeff Selinger said that fires can benefit game species. Moose populations increased years after flames scorched foliage during the 1980s. Morton described the process as a natural.

Although Newbould couldn't recall an incident where the situation escalated to such a degree, the incident manager could order bulldozers and retardants to restrain the flames.

"Protecting Wilderness values are important, but protecting life is more important," he said.

The future of the Wilderness

There was a 15-minute break after Johnston's lecture on the history of the Wilderness designation. Morton took his place in front of the lines of chairs. Johnston's slides featured photos of Wilderness past: moose, turn of the century hunters and float planes landing in remote lakes.

Morton's slides depicted a potentially grim future for the Wilderness.

In the 30 years since the land designation, he said that the moose population in Gaming Unit 15A has dropped from 4,532 to 1,670. The borough's population has risen from 25,282 to 53,578. The refuge is now home to 67 invasive species. Morton said that the Wilderness land is fairly un-infested, but biologists have found non-native plants along trails winding through the designated land.

According to Morton, it's unlikely that the Peninsula will see another crop of mature white spruce trees because of spruce bark beetle infestations. Airplanes, highway traffic and the Swanson River oil field generate a consistent buzz throughout some parts of the Wilderness.

A recent spatial modeling project estimates that the majority of refuge will resemble the ecosystem of the Aleutian Islands in 100 years. The boreal environments will give way to expanded wetlands. The refuge's biodiversity, a measure of the number of unique species in an area, will decline by 20 percent.

"This is scary stuff," he said. "This is not a little thing."

Moose, ptarmigan and dall sheep populations are projected to drop within the next decade.

Morton said that the model is just a model. But the projections are grim enough for the supervisory biologist to organize studies on the effects of climate change and noise pollution on animals present on the refuge. Wilderness regulations prevent him from doing more than watch.

He said that Wilderness managers are discussing how to handle the changes to ecosystems on a federal level. Sitka black tailed deer have been spotted in the refuge already.

"By law, we don't do anything in the Wilderness," he said.

Tony Cella can be reached at tony.cella@peninsulaclarion.com.



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