The allure of Alaska red salmon draws thousands of avid anglers to the banks of the Kenai River each year, but that activity has proved detrimental to the very environment that helps ensure the species' existence, habitat watchers say.
Now, a combination of federal, state, local and nonprofit funding is about to restore some 400 feet of shoreline at one of the most popular red fishing zones on the river -- a straight stretch of water below the Kenai River Center in Soldotna.
At its Dec. 10 meeting, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly authorized the award of a contract for riverbank restoration work and construction of elevated walkways, stairways and other development that will help control erosion while enhancing public access.
Peninsula Construction Inc. submitted the winning bid of $357,582. Borough officials anticipate the project will be completed by Sept. 1.
The manner by which many fishers make their way to the riverbank has caused much of the habitat destruction the project is intended to repair, said Rob Robson, director of the borough's Capital Projects Division. Anxious to get to the river, people simply slide down the four- or five-foot vertical drop to the beach, and when they leave, scramble back up, slowly eroding the embankment.
"Haphazard access means each person makes his own trail," Robson said.
Contributing further to the damage are those who fish from the shore, rather than donning hip boots and wading into the river itself where the gravel bottom is less susceptible to disruption, he said.
John Mohorcich, Kenai River Center coordinator, said the bank along the straight section has attracted anglers for years. The currents are ideal for bringing the reds close to shore.
"Red fishing is different from silver fishing," Mohorcich said. "For reds, you want a good current."
Beneath the water, the bottom is good gravel, making it ideal for hip-boot-wearing anglers. He would prefer more fishers chose that option rather than casting their lines from the shore.
"When the reds are in, it will be shoulder to shoulder down there," Mohorcich said. "You might easily see 300 to 400 people a day, probably more than 50 at one time."
While some are fishing, others may be on shore waiting their turn, he said.
The need for the work is obvious, Robson said.
"It's a heavily fished area due to the swelling of an impromptu RV park next to the airport," he said. "Quite a horde of people go down there."
The project will enhance a well-used trail and add walkways, stairs and a ramp, among other things, in an attempt to funnel traffic along dedicated paths. Fishers will be encouraged to fish from elevated walkways or go out and into the river itself.
"The polite word is to be directed," Robson said, adding he hopes anglers can be educated about how to protect the vital habitat and why using the designed pathways will aid the restoration effort.
For a couple of years, he said, fishers likely will encounter an "obnoxious orange snow fence" that will block foot traffic, allowing damaged areas to revegetate.
More than one design for constructed pathways is being incorporated, making the construction a kind of demonstration project for testing the efficacy of each design, he said.
Restoration work will include traditional replanting, as well as the use of artificial logs anchored together to capture silt and allow revegetation, and stumps implanted in the embankment to ward off boat wake erosion.
The ramp to the edge of the river will be built to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Waste receptacles will be added to the site. A concrete pad will have room for future outhouses.
Robson said he expects some work will be done in the late winter and early spring, such as planting willows and driving supports for walkways.
Once river ice allows, erosion control work will begin. That will be followed by construction of stairs and trails by spring.
"The emphasis is to still allow access, but in a way that has less impact on the riparian habitat," he said.
William Nelson and Associates of Kenai designed the project. It's been on the drawing boards for more than a year and fund-raising efforts have gone on even longer. Grants were received from the federal and state governments with a local government match. Money also was raised and provided by Kenai River Sport Fishing Inc.
Assembly President Pete Sprague was glad to see the project funded.
"Any time you have a chance to rehabilitate or restore the river, it's a plus for everyone," he said.
Marty Oberg, owner and president of Peninsula Construction, said his company has been doing this kind of work for five or six years. In recent years, the company has done river restoration projects at the city of Soldotna's Centennial Campground and at the city of Kenai's Cunningham Park.
"The idea is to put everyone the river without destroying the riverbank," Oberg said. "An interesting aspect of this project is that it will have handicapped access all the way to the river."
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