A new partnership between conservation-minded government agencies and nonprofits is aiming to comprehensively protect 20 major river corridors on the Kenai Peninsula.
The Kenai Mountains to Sea Partnership, a collaborative effort to conserve the health of anadromous waterways that run nearly 970 miles on the peninsula, is formally launching after about two years of discussion. The main partners are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Alaska, Cook Inletkeeper, the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, though an effective project will include more collaboration and cooperating with willing landowners, said project coordinator Mandy Bernard.
“There are a lot of different tools and ways that people can be engaged with this project, and we are just at the very beginning of public outreach,” she said. “The strategy for Mountains to Sea, how we approach a river corridor, is going to look very different for every corridor.”
More than a dozen government agencies and nonprofits have a hand in managing land along river corridors on the Kenai Peninsula, as well as the hundreds of private landowners that own a section of riverfront. On top of that, various programs like Streamwatch and Adopt-A-Stream operate along the waterways, advocating for habitat protection and erecting temporary fences to protect the vegetation. Though many of them have similar goals, they don’t always coordinate and sometimes aren’t aware of other ongoing efforts, Bernard said.
The Mountains to Sea Partnership doesn’t have a physical office at present — it’s more of a collective effort or idea. The members of the advisory committee for Mountains to Sea are already busy, and the point is not to add another layer of things to do, Bernard said.
“One of the things is that the purpose is to support, not exhaust,” she said. “There are already a lot of organizations throughout the peninsula doing a lot of similar work. This is not intended to be another enterprise with all new goals … These many separate partners can be working toward the same goal.”
The project will focus on 20 stream corridors that begin in federal land and flow through private land before reaching the sea. That includes the Kenai and Kasilof rivers as well as a number of other smaller creeks, including Crooked Creek, Deep Creek, Beaver Creek, the Swanson River and the Resurrection River.
The project didn’t select the rivers because they are superior in any way, but because they were the rivers that met the specific geographic criteria, Bernard said. The Anchor River, for example, didn’t meet the requirement of beginning on public land, and a number of other creeks that include important salmon habitat are already entirely on public land, such as the Russian River. One of the challenges for the rivers chosen for the program, known as “interjurisdictional” rivers, is that they have to pass through the dense urban areas crowded on the western side of the peninsula to make to their headwaters, Bernard said.
“It’s not that they’re the 20 best rivers in the whole peninsula — they all have their merits, but the reason that these 20 rivers were chosen is that their headwaters were already protected, and we’re getting some bang for our buck in that those headwaters are already protected,” Bernard said.
The project has four main strategies: assessment and prioritization, conservation and protection, restoration and stewardship. The overarching goal is to ensure the protection of the ecological integrity of the waterways, including salmon habitat, bird habitat, vegetation and wildlife crossings. An example of restoration is the work the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kenai Watershed Forum do on replacing undersized or perched stream culverts to improve fish passage.
Formal plans and funding are still in the works, though Bernard said the project committee decided to focus on the Kasilof River first. They plan to take community concerns about river use and access into consideration when working because the rivers are economically and culturally important to each community, she said.
The Kenai Mountains to Sea Partnership joins a number of other efforts around the country to approach conservation and the effects of climate change from a high-level view. The Network for Landscape Conservation, an association of conservation and land management organizations, defines it as organizations working together across jurisdictional lines to connect ecological systems. The Kenai Peninsula already has a few limited examples, like the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board, which brings together citizens and representatives from a variety of different agencies to discuss issues related to the Kenai River, or the Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Partnership coordinated through the Kenai Watershed Forum.
The Alaska chapter of the Audubon Society, which focuses on conservation of bird species, is one of the main partners on the project. Much of Audubon Alaska’s work operates at the landscape level, especially in its projects in the North Slope area, and the organization draws on partnerships often, said Ben Sullander, a GIS specialist for Audubon Alaska.
Audubon’s interest in projects like the Mountains to Sea Partnership goes back to the organization’s conservation mission and an interest in the impacts of climate change, he said.
“One of the things we think about with all the things we do is the impacts of climate change,” he said. “Creating these refugia … is something we think of as really good, not just for the fish but for a huge variety of taxa, birds as well.”
On the Kenai, Audubon recently worked on a peninsula-wide software project that maps bird habitat down to 60-meter squares, analyzing habitat for its likelihood to support bird species, called the Bird Habitat Assessment Protocol. Fine-scale tools like that can be useful to other agencies like the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, which works on conserving land, which can contributed to the joint goal of preserving ecological systems on the peninsula. Audubon uses both fine tools and landscape-level data, the value of which depends “on the question you’re asking,” Sullender said.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to put all the spokes together,” he said. “…I think Mountains to Sea really hit on that. They found a good theme that really resonates across a lot of different taxa.”
Bernard noted that the Kenai Peninsula has an advantage over other areas approaching landscape-level conservation because the area is less developed and the salmon runs are still healthy. Elsewhere in the country, many of the efforts are centered on restoration because of harm that has already been done.
“We’re not in the same place as the rest of the country — a lot of our ecosystems are still intact,” she said. “The focus of the corridor connectivity is to try to keep those things the way they are.”