As plans materialize for development on the Kenai River Ranch property, residents are caught between concerns of access and conservation.
The Kenai River Ranch, located at Mile 12 of Funny River Road, has been under state management since the early 1990s, when it was purchased using Exxon Valdez Oil Spill funds. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation co-manages the property with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The DNR originally proposed the property as a site for public access to the river, as there is limited access on the south side of the river along Funny River Road. After several scoping workshops and a public comment period in January, the DNR presented three potential concepts for development. In all of the plans, the current residents on the property, Eugene and Della Hansen, will remain there as caretakers and their house will be left undisturbed.
One option is not to develope the land at all, but to use state funds to develop the riverbank as a riparian refuge. However, many residents on Funny River Road requested a boat launch from the south side of the river and for the state to lift fishing restrictions. The second plan included a boat launch with a small parking area and public restrooms. It would also change the rules to allow bank fishing from a section of the property near the boat launch.
The third plan, a hybrid, would allow bank fishing and provide trails and two public use cabins for hikers and skiers. The parking would remain, but the bank would be a riparian refuge with no boat launch.
The DNR hosted an open house at the Gilman River Center, 514 Funny River Road, on Sept. 9 to give residents a chance to comment on the concepts.
“Tonight is an open house — no public testimony, no presentation, no voting,” said Lucille Baranko, landscape specialist in design and construction for the DNR. “These are a collective, broad-brush idea of the comments we received.”
Baranko said the planning commission hoped to answer questions and gather enough public comments to move forward with a single idea to present to the Bureau of Land Management by the beginning of October.
Jack Blackwell, the superintendent of DNR’s Department of Parks and Outdoor Recreation on the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound, said because of funding, it may be some time before any construction begins.
Some of the attendees, however, were concerned about stress on the river from additional public access. Charles Gillespie, who lives across the river from the proposed development site, said a boat launch and additional fishing could severely damage a salmon spawning site along that part of the river.
The area along the bank of the Kenai River Ranch is typically closed to seasonal fishing between July 1 and August 15 to allow the salmon fingerlings time to grow along the banks. Jeff Breakfield, a Fish and Game fisheries biologist who is on the planning commission for the project, said the developers would install a light-penetrating fishing platform, similar to a boardwalk, to avoid damage to the bank from fishers.
Gillespie said he was concerned about the number of salmon in the river decreasing from overfishing over time, and said with additional public access the salmon population could go down further.
“I think Fish and Game is totally ignoring the purpose they’re here for and they’re not serving the river,” Gillespie said. “This means a whole lot. There’s not much need for a boat launch if there aren’t any fingerlings in there.”
Breakfield said conservation is a primary concern, and if bank fishing is approved, the planners will take care to preserve the bank from further erosion. The property is under a conservation easement that requires the state to provide refuge for the wildlife that was damaged during the Exxon Valdez oil spill and not to make significant changes to the land.
“This is why the property was purchased with the oil spill money, to save the bank,” Breakfield said.
Jim Harpring, a Funny River resident, said providing the boat launch is critical. As the area’s population grows, more people will want to access the river. Currently, they either have to drive to Soldotna or launch from Mykiss Road, where there is no parking, he said. There is an easement on Mykiss Road that allows boats to launch, but with no parking, many residents find their driveways blocked and the road congested with cars, he said.
Some people may have private boat launches on the river, but installing a public one could limit damage to the bank by reducing the number of areas people launch from, Harpring said.
“The state has never facilitated any kind of infrastructure on the Funny River side,” Harpring said. “If you’re going to build infrastructure, build it for what you’re going to need. People are going to need to access the river legally.”
Wendy Fisher, who has owned property in the area for more than 15 years and lived there year-round for four years, said Funny River road is dense with traffic now when it used to be quiet. Even if some of the neighbors are concerned about development, she says access is critical and Funny River residents should be able to access the river without driving a long way.
“For sure, the world is getting more populated,” Fisher said. “Alaska may be the last to feel it, but that’s the way it is. The fish belong to everyone, to the whole state. If Fish and Game is OK with it, then it must be OK.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.