Kachemak Bay Research Reserve gets new partner

More than a year ago, things looked bleak for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. The House Subcommittee on Fish and Game had cut annual funding. KBRR’s state partner, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, had told Homer’s community research program it would have to find another partner.

All that has changed. Effective July 1, the Research Reserve has a new home with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Alaska Center for Conservation Science.

“I think people are feeling very positive,” said Jessica Ryan-Shepherd, acting reserve manager. “We’re looking forward to the new opportunities that will be available for funding and projects to work on.”

Now housed in the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, the Research Reserve does both research and education. Founded in 1999, its activities have included Kachemak Bay monitoring of shoreline erosion and invasive species. It runs the Discover Lab education programs and in the summer does things like guided tours of Beluga Slough. It also has responded to requests for research on community issues, like changing shoreline patterns on the Homer Spit and along Ocean Drive.

Formerly known as the Alaska Natural Heritage Program, the Center for Conservation Science shares a similar mission with the Research Reserve: collecting, synthesizing and sharing information on the natural environment. The Center for Conservation Science generally looks at land-based plants and animals and ecosystems while the Research Reserve is concerned with coastal ecology. KBRR also is part of the network of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves. By joining the Center for Conservation Science, the Research Reserve brings in a coastal component to its work.

Keith Boggs, director of the Center for Conservation Science, said that the Research Reserve will continue its unique mission and character.

“But we also anticipate the Research Reserve’s projects expanding to include estuaries throughout Alaska, thus enriching the general knowledge and appreciation of Alaska’s richest and most productive ecosystem,” he said in “Pulse of the Bay,” the Research Reserve’s newsletter.

In 2014, the Research Reserve got its state funding restored thanks to lobbying efforts by the KBRR Community Council, community members, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, then Homer’s senator. Most of the Research Reserve’s funding comes from a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but that grant requires a 33 percent match from the state. ADF&G agreed to continue for another year as the Research Reserve’s state partner, with the understanding that it seek a new state partner. A memorandum of agreement signed this month formalized the transition to the Center for Conservation Science.

Most of the Research Reserve’s seven staff will now become university employees. Acting education coordinator Carmen Field will continue working as a Fish and Game employee and focus more on doing fishing education and angler outreach, but will remain part of the Research Reserve team. Fish and Game will continue support of the Research Reserve through wildlife grants passed through the state from the federal government.

“Which is really critical to our continued operations and allows us to continue research on things like harmful algae blooms and salmon research,” Ryan-Shepherd said. “It’s important to spotlight that Fish and Game is not cutting the cord. They’re continuing to support the research. They’re just not going to be the primary fiscal agent.”

A big change will be in the location of the Research Reserve’s offices. The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center also is the headquarters for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and was built to house U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices and the Research Reserve. It also houses the Discovery Lab and KBRR’s research lab.

Because of fiscal constraints, the Research Reserve will move back into its old building on Kachemak Drive near the old Homer Airport. That building includes a 10-bed bunkhouse and has been offices for programs like Alaska State Parks and the Homer office of the Kasitsna Bay Lab. In early September some of those offices will shift over to Islands and Oceans. The Research Reserve will renovate its Bay Avenue lab for its primary research lab.

“I think NOAA is very cognizant of our financial restraints,” Ryan-Shepherd said. “While they would like to see us remain here (in Islands and Ocean), they understand at least for the time being this move necessitates us returning to the old building.”

At one time the state had been in jeopardy of paying back a portion of the construction cost for the Islands and Ocean building if the Research Reserve moved out, but that isn’t an issue.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife will continue to allow the Research Reserve to use the Discover Lab for educational purposes. That lab is becoming more of a community resource anyway, with other environmental education groups using it.

“Now we’re doing more collaborative things with that space,” Ryan-Shepherd said. “I feel like of late it’s been underutilized. I hope it will become a more vibrant space.”

Another collaboration also will become easier: sharing programs and some space with the Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska Anchorage. KBC Director Carol Swartz described that relationship as being cousins — two entities under larger organizations and part of UAA.

KBC and the Research Reserve already have been collaborating on programs like Semester by the Bay, where visiting student work as interns with the Research Reserve and stay at its bunkhouse.

“Everything we’ve been doing will continue, but for now for like their brown-bag lunches, they’ll be able to collaborate and hold them here,” Swartz said.

That relationship can lead to more cooperation. Research Reserve staff can hold lectures and workshops at the college. Maybe some of its scientists can teach classes.

“It’s fabulous,” Swartz said. “It’s going to create more of a synergy and more of a direct connection between research and community.”

A lot of the potential for work between the local branch campus and the Research Reserve remains to be explored, Swartz said.

“I think it’s going to expand some grant opportunities for them, too, just by being part of the university infrastructure,” she said.

“I think we’ll have a strong connection with the local campus,” Ryan-Shepherd said. “We’re already starting to experience that. It will be all to the good.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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