An Outdoor View: The king of Alaska’s rivers, Part 2

Author’s note: This is the second part of a story that first appeared in the the December/January 2003 issue of Alaska magazine. It’s my take on 30 years of “progress” on the much-loved Kenai River. — LP

As bad as things were on the water, they were worse on the land. Between 1970 and 1980, the peninsula’s population climbed from 15,000 to 25,000. The few public facilities along the river were stressed. Most alarming, the Kenai Peninsula Borough had no land-use restrictions.

In the 1970s, excavators brazenly operated bulldozers in the riverbed and carved canals, harbors and boat ramps out of the gravel riverbanks. Developers filled and drained wetlands and converted wooded shoreline to RV parking lots. Property owners stripped the banks of natural vegetation, then “erosion-proofed” the banks with everything from rip-rap to old tires.

Looking back at these “bad-old days,” it’s plain to see that these people meant no harm to the river. Back then, they didn’t know that filling and draining wetlands degrades water quality and removes habitat needed by rearing salmon. They didn’t know that by removing natural vegetation they were removing salmon habitat. They didn’t know that rip-rap and tires are no substitute for natural banks. They didn’t know they were killing the river.

■ ■ ■

Fishing had devolved into an extreme sport by the late 1970s. Many people were driven from the river, repelled by the noise, traffic and conflicts. Yet, for others, the Kenai still had some charm. Every year, more people came.

A turning point came on Jan. 26, 1982, when Sterling resident Ralph Pott wrote a letter to then Governor Jay Hammond, stating his concerns for the future of the Kenai River. Hammond replied that he was aware of the problems and would do something about them, and he did.

In Soldotna, on Oct. 6, 1982, the Kenai River Task Force convened. The 16-member board held several well-attended public meetings, and in March 1983, submitted 20 recommendations. Key among these was the creation of “a Kenai River commission or authority outside of any existing agency.” This idea evolved into an act establishing the Kenai River Special Management Area. Governor Bill Sheffield signed it into law on June 1, 1984.

The intent of the new law was to protect and perpetuate the fishery and wildlife resources and habitat, and to manage recreational uses and development activities. Under the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation was given a greater management role.

The law also created a Kenai River advisory board, to which fell the task of developing and implementing a comprehensive management plan for the special management area. On Oct. 17, 1984 the 19-member board met for the first time. Over the next two years, the board and its seven committees held a total of 176 meetings.

Two contentious issues required the board’s attention: guides and boats. After several months of often heated testimony and debate, the advisory board recommended a permitting system for all commercial activities. Board members asked for licensing requirements for guides, including that they have liability insurance. State Parks wasted no time in adopting the recommendations.

The boat issue was even more controversial. Millions of dollars were at stake. Under a 35-horsepower limit, it was estimated that more than half of the boat engines on the Kenai would have to be replaced. Proponents of smaller motors cited reductions in speed, noise, wakes and pollution as possible benefits. In testimony to the board, drift-boat guide Dennis Randa said, “Fishing the Kenai River from a motorboat is like making love to a beautiful woman while you’re beating the hell out of her.”

Meanwhile, the news of Soldotna resident Les Anderson catching a world record 97-pound king salmon brought more waves of humanity to the Kenai.

At the peak of the engine debate, on Sept. 8, 1985, a 21-foot Wooldridge inboard jet-boat and an 18-foot Hughescraft with a 150-horsepower outboard collided at high speed at Big Eddy, a popular fishing hole near Soldotna. Sport-fishing activist Bob Penney said of the incident, “It’s a miracle that nobody was killed. It’s an example that something’s got to be done.”

After months of often-hostile testimony and spirited debate, the advisory board voted for a 35-horsepower limit. On Jan. 9, 1986, Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources Esther Wunnicke announced that a 50-horsepower limit would be in effect for 1986, and a 35-horsepower limit would begin in 1987. Later that year, Wunnicke approved the first Kenai River Comprehensive Management Plan.

While guides were being reined in and boats slowed down, something new was affecting the Kenai. Anglers who fished for sockeyes with flies on the Russian River found that flies also worked on the lower Kenai. By the late 1980s, the Kenai had become the world’s largest sockeye sport fishery. But an ugly down-side soon became apparent. In the yearly three-week frenzy, anglers were trampling the river’s banks and obliterating vegetation.

Next week, the story’s conclusion: New regulations and more enforcement help, but people continue to love the Kenai to death.

■ ■ ■

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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