Voices of the Peninsula: What if we’re wrong about salmon buffer zones?

  • By Ken Tarbox
  • Saturday, June 20, 2015 6:17pm
  • Opinion

I was a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough (KPB) Anadromous Fish Habitat Task Force that helped write the existing salmon habitat ordinance. Some Assembly members now want to repeal it. It would be easy to dismiss this effort by the repeal supporters as short sighted and based on fear of government over-reach and other ideological positions. It would be wrong to do that. Instead, I want to point out why buffers are needed, what the risks are of not having them, and why it saves money to put them in place now. In addition, I hope to answer the question I posed to myself with every vote ­— what if I am wrong? I also pose this question to those who want repeal — what if you are wrong?

As a fish biologist/scientist it did not take long in my career to learn and experience firsthand that riparian (nearshore) vegetation is critical to salmon production. The scientific literature is robust with recommendations for vegetative buffers along salmon streams. The question was not whether a buffer is needed but on what is one hoping to accomplish when setting buffer widths.

For example, if one wants a vegetative buffer that provides for salmon production and wildlife corridors then up to a quarter of a mile may be necessary. For fish production a variable width buffer may be the best option but because of enforcement and social considerations 100 feet is frequently recommended (ADF&G recommended this distance in 1996). If one is just dealing with trying to maintain water quality and some fish food production/stream shading a 50 foot buffer provides a minimal level of protection. The existing regulation in the KPB is 50 feet. In summary the science of buffers is solid and as a scientist on the Task Force I would have recommended a wider buffer. But other considerations entered the process. Was I wrong in my vote to maintain just 50 feet and not push for a wider buffer?

The Task Force took 9 months to finish its work and hours and hours of hearing/testimony. Why have buffers on streams not scheduled for development? Why include lakes? What about unique requirement to dock float planes on lakes? What about swimming beaches? What about grandfather rights? What about tree trimming for safety reasons? What about rebuilding structures already in the buffer? What about impacts on mining and oil and gas development? What about real estate values if buffers are in place and a major one was how do we know salmon really use the streams listed?

The Task Force took each issue and worked through them and made significant changes to the regulations. Every salmon stream listed has documentation for salmon in that stream. But more importantly the Task Force recommended a process to challenge that information if things change in the future. Other recommendations included allowing some of these activities without a permit and for some a conditional use permit is required. But in the end more and more activities were allowed while still only working with 50 feet. Was I wrong to vote for these changes and to help craft some of them?

I also came to the conclusion that one cannot wait for development to start as history is full of examples where that approach was tried and it became too late for action. It took us 9 months to get to a 50 foot buffer with lots of options for use in the buffer. I could not imagine how taking hundreds of miles of streams mile by mile or stream by stream and establish a buffer for that stream could work. The cost to the citizens of the KPB would be prohibitive and in the end salmon habitat would be lost at a greater rate than with a minimal 50 foot buffer.

So the question what if I am wrong? If I am wrong on the width and allowed uses in the buffer then salmon production is at risk and the cost of rehabilitation and/or other actions to maintain the salmon based economy of this area will be impacted. Ironically this is the exact same answer if the repeal opponents are wrong. No buffer and loss of salmon production could cost the KPB and its citizens hundreds of thousands of dollars and probably millions in the long term. I was willing to take some significant risk but repeal on all streams except Kenai and Kasilof is too much risk to the KPB economy and future generations of users.

What if I am wrong relative to impacts of a buffer on private property? So I started with the proposition that the opponent’s positions were true — 1. Education and volunteer efforts are all that are needed, and 2. That only Kenai and Kasilof Rivers need protection, even though development along salmon streams was taking place on streams throughout the KPB.

The present regulation of 50 feet of private land has some restrictive uses and land owners are impacted to some degree. Was the degree of impact so significant that it could not be reversed if information indicated that education and other non-regulatory actions would work? I felt the impact to private property was potentially reversible and therefore at this time the risks to salmon of no buffer were greater than impacts to private property owners.

I came to this conclusion upon researching volunteer efforts and examples within the KBP. It was obvious that a single approach to salmon habitat protection would not work. Education is needed but the reality of human nature is that self-interest often overrides society interests. For some individuals regulations are the only way to keep abuses from happening and with salmon it does not take much to start a long term decline in production.

At first the decline in salmon production is usually not measurable but by the time an impact is measurable it is too late. So in the end I felt that property owners are impacted in a range of minor to moderate. That if I was wrong the impact is tolerable within the context of the greater risk — salmon or private property issues. To reverse a salmon decline is much harder and more expensive than to reverse the private property impacts.

I would hope the repeal opponents would examine their position with the question “what if we are wrong?” It is a harder one to answer than assuming one is right. For when we say we are right we tend to ignore contrary facts, we dismiss others as ignorant or stupid, and we retreat to our cultural group and refuse to make rational decisions based on fact.

I can only say to the repeal group that I did listen to your position, tried to question my positions, and tried to research the risks involved. I am asking you to do the same.

Ken Tarbox, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish biologist and a member of the Anadromous Fish Habitat Task Force, lives in Soldotna.

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