An Outdoor View: The king of Alaska’s rivers, Part 3

Author’s note: This is the third and final 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 a river being loved to death. This part has been lightly edited for brevity. — LP

In the 20 years since Ralph Pott wrote to Governor Hammond, some things have changed.

The Kenai isn’t quite the circus it was, now that motors are limited to 35-horsepower. The increasing use of 4-stroke outboards has reduced noise and pollution. Property owners who want to use their land in a habitat-friendly manner can now go to the Kenai River Center in Soldotna and get help from State Parks and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations now educate the public about fish habitat and other issues. Thousands of individuals devote time, energy and money to projects intended to help the river.

Yet, if the Kenai were human, it would be crying.

Easy access to the river and its nearness to Anchorage make it the state’s most heavily fished water. Angler effort rocketed from 122,000 angler days in 1977 to nearly 360,000 in 2000.

Increasingly, Alaska residents are noticing that Outsiders are taking over the Kenai and other fisheries. In 2001, about 100,000 more fishing licenses were sold to nonresidents than to residents.

A 1994 Department of Fish and Game study found that impacts from anglers and development had destroyed 12 percent of the Kenai’s king salmon rearing habitat. In response, the state closed more than 15 miles of publicly owned riverfront to fishing, thereby forcing more anglers into less space. Boardwalks and other mitigation measures costing millions of dollars have been tried, with mixed results. A recent habitat study found that increased fishing effort is contributing to increased habitat loss.

Boat waves continue to bombard the banks. The Legislature in 2002 killed funding for the second phase of a two-part boat-wave study. Without the study, impacts of boat waves may never be known.

Ask people what’s wrong with the Kenai, and most will say, “Too many guides.” There were 375 registered Kenai River guides in 2002. That guides and their clients boost the local economy is overshadowed by their contribution to crowding and the strain on limited resources. In 2001, guided anglers accounted for nearly 90 percent of the harvest of early-run king salmon.

The Peninsula’s continued population growth raises the question, “How much progress can a river stand? Another 15,000 people moved onto the Kenai Peninsula between 1980 and 1990, a 61 percent increase for the decade. The 2000 census showed an increase of another 9,000. In the Pacific Northwest, population growth proved lethal to salmon.

Sewage is a growing threat to the Kenai’s water quality. Outside the cities of Kenai and Soldotna, all residents must depend upon on-site septic systems. Along the lower 45 miles of river, there will soon be a septic system every 150 feet, or so.

The endless fight between sport and commercial fishermen over salmon allocation, the question of whether there are too many guides, and myriad other issues and problems are nothing compared to the issue of inadequate land-use controls for the watershed.

Suzanne Fisler, a State Parks ranger at the Kenai River Center, says, “We’re constantly dealing with property owners who want to obliterate, annihilate and modify. Property owners don’t want to build their house 200 feet from the river. They want to build it 10 feet from the river. They don’t want to have to walk out to the river to get a view. They want to cut all the trees down, so they can see it from their easy chair.”

The watershed is under constant attack, Fisler says. What’s being lost is what makes the Kenai such a great producer of fish — wetlands, floodplains, tributaries, riparian zones, tidal marshes, water quality and quantity. Economic development and community expansion sound good, she says, but without good controls, they equate to a loss of habitat.

In 1996, the borough adopted an “Anadromous Streams Habitat Protection” ordinance that requires a permit for logging or installing a fuel tank in the 100-year floodplain. It also requires a permit for, among other things, filling, construction, excavation and major clearing of vegetation within 50 feet of the river and 10 tributaries.

But even a 100-foot “buffer strip” provides nowhere near complete filtering action for water entering the river, according to fisheries biologist Ken Tarbox, a Soldotna resident. By adopting this inadequate ordinance, the borough has just delayed the debate on what really needs to be done.

“Now politicians can hide behind this ordinance and say, ‘We’ve done this. We put a buffer on that’s protecting the river.’ The buffer provides a lot of political cover, but it’s pretty meaningless,” Tarbox says.

■ ■ ■

As I think about all that has happened to the Kenai in the past 30 years, I’m reminded of Bill Platts, a U.S. Forest Service biologist who came to Soldotna from Idaho to talk to the river advisory board in 1985, when that group was working on a plan to protect the river. One of the country’s foremost experts on salmon streams and how they function, Platts spoke with the utter conviction of someone who had seen productive salmon streams die. His words struck me as a warning and a clarion call to action.

“Take care of the watershed first, because that takes care of the river,” Platts said. “If human needs are put ahead of the needs of the watershed, there will soon be no resources.”

It remains to be seen whether the Kenai can endure the pressures of human needs and remain one of the most productive salmon rivers on earth.

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

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