Across Europe, the East Coast and much of the West Coast, wild salmon runs are gone altogether, or struggling in the few places where wild fish do return to their natal streams to spawn. Alaska — particularly, the Kenai Peninsula — stands out as one of the few remaining places that boasts sustaining, wild salmon populations. It's also home to the concept of being an ownership state, with residents protective of their rights and leery of governmental intrusion.
Given its salmon success-story, it would seem the Kenai is doing something right in protecting its fish. So why, then, should the Kenai Peninsula Borough do something that feels wrong to residents also protective of their property rights — namely, expanding regulations over lands bordering anadromous fish-bearing waters in the borough?
The assembly is set to vote on the issue Tuesday night. At issue is whether to repeal or amend a 2011 ordinance passed that expanded a 50-foot near-shore habitat protection zone previously in place along the Kenai River, 10 of its tributaries and 14 other area streams, to nearly all anadromous waters — including rivers, streams and lakes — in the borough. Within that zone are restrictions on what property owners may and may not do.
Saving fish that don't need saving?
There hasn't been an opponent to the ordinance who has argued that salmon don't warrant protection. Rather, it's been a question of whether this protection is needed?
"This is saving the fish when they don't need to be saved," said Michele Hartline, of Nikiski, at a recent assembly meeting.
"When the first (anadromous habitat protection ordinance) started in '96, there was a need. The Kenai River needed to be addressed. There were real, serious violations on those riverbanks. The second one (in 2000, when the original ordinance was expanded to include Kenai River tributaries and additional streams) there was a need on those particular rivers. They needed to be addressed. (But the expansion that passed in 2011), let's just get everything and throw it in the pot. There wasn't a need. There wasn't a need for the lakes. There wasn't a need for a lot of these tributaries," she said.
Opponents want to know, where's the problem this expansion of habitat protection zones will address?
"There's been no pollution there," Vern Knoll, who has lived on Daniels Lake in Nikiski for decades, told the assembly. "I think 50-feet buffer for lake property is too much. I believe probably a 10- or 20-foot buffer should be plenty. I believe the ordinance is too restrictive. We do not need a 50-foot buffer alongside the lakeside."
The protection zone carries with it a host of restrictions, permit requirements and potential fines for violations.
"The proposed ordinance … gives the appearance of being designed to protect fish, when actually it's a vast expansion of borough zoning authority," said Stacy Oliva, of Nikiski, at a June 4 assembly meeting.
The idea behind the habitat protection zone is to safeguard lands within 50 feet of anadromous waters, to prevent riverbank erosion, removing natural trees and vegetation, filling wetlands, pollution discharge, building structures that prevent light or rainwater from reaching the ground, and other activities that would harm water quality.
Both supporters and opponents of the habitat protection zones expansion agree that, while there have been instances of these activities, there is not an epidemic occurrence of such issues across the borough today.
But that's where they diverge. To some opponents, expansion of the habitat protection zones is punishment of waterfront landowners for crimes not committed. Supporters, however, see it as prevention to keep those problems from happening.
Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said the expansion of the habitat protection zone isn't meant to address a specific, current violation or redress an ongoing wrong; it's to keep the borough's anadromous habitats going right.
"This is not an immediate response nor immediate fix to any problem we see right now. This is a long-term need for the fish. The response or protection it provides is a decades- or centuries-long effect," he said.
There unfortunately are and have recently been concerns over the health of the Kenai's fish runs, such as hydrocarbon pollution in the rivers, spikes in water turbidity during times of high boat traffic, ocean conditions impacting king runs, and any number of fishery-management debates.
Those issues have and will continue to come and go, needing to be dealt with as they arise. But ensuring clean water and healthy fish habitat should be a never-changing goal, Ruffner said.
"People talk about fisheries management actions or other projects. Those things can happen on a two-year or four-year political cycle. The long-term protection is out of synch with most of our human decision-making," Ruffner said. "There are a lot of things that people are concerned about that are reversible. But once you lose their habitat, it's really impractical to consider that as being a reversible action."
The banks and nearshore areas adjacent to anadromous waters are critically important to the health of that water, Ruffner said. Where the land meets the water is where the rubber meets the road, in terms of habitat and water protection.
'Public health 101'
"In the case of keeping water clean, which is an essential element of fish habitat, having that natural buffer between the stuff that we do — whether it's parking lots or gravel or lawns — is really important. There really is no question about that, it's fundamental public health 101 — you keep your water separated from sources of contamination, regardless of how small they are," Ruffner said.
Stream banks, shorelines and nearshore areas act as filters and feeders, both helping to keep contaminants out of the water and helping regulate the distribution of good materials — like leaf matter in the fall and rainwater in the spring. A healthy covering of natural trees and vegetation provide structure and stability to nearshore areas, and can help prevent the infiltration of non-native, invasive weeds.
"With roots and vegetation holding banks intact, whether it's riverbanks or wave-generated waves on lakes, natural vegetation helps stabilize and protect the banks. Coupled with that stabilization, it provides the structural complexities that are necessary for fish and fish food to hide and live within that space," Ruffner said.
As many have pointed out in public testimony to the assembly and the Anadromous Fish Habitat Protection Task Force, it's not as though waterfront residents overall don't recognize the ecological importance of their property.
"Things have to be done to protect the river. But if you go through and look at what the majority of landowners do, they want to protect the river. We don't walk up and down the bank. We don't do things to destroy it. Everyone who has a lot on the river cherishes it," said Tom Mushovic, who lives on the Kenai River in Funny River.
On Tuesday night, the assembly will vote on whether to enact the amendments and recommendations of the task force, or whether to repeal the 2011-12 changes and shrink habitat protection zones back to the areas established in 2000. Ruffner said he thinks the task force did a good job of addressing some of the complaints about 2011-12 while maintaining adequate ecological protections. For instance, the task force recommends allowing lakefront property owners more leeway to have docks, floatplane haul-outs and other developments within the 50-foot zone.
"There are differences between lakes and rivers and I think the task force did a very good job of working through those things. They would allow people the practical use of lake frontage ... so it won't prevent people from enjoying the waterfront, but it will prevent large-scale damage," he said.
The majority of public testimony at task force town hall meetings and assembly meeting has been in opposition to the expansion of the habitat protection zone.
"(Development) is happening here and will continue happening here. We want it to happen in a way that won't harm the long-term ability for us to have fish here," Ruffner said. "Fundamentally, it seems like the opposition to this is coming from the values we have as Alaskans — we don't want government interference. And those are juxtaposed right next to everybody appreciating everything that the fish do for us — the recreation, the economics, the cultural economics of the fish. So putting those two things side by side is a difficult task to resolve."
Oliva and others who have testified in opposition to the expansion of the habitat protection zones, aren't convinced.
"The public, by 96.2 percent (of those testifying) overwhelmingly perceived (the measure) as being more about expansive zoning and less about preservation of fish," she said.
Jenny Neyman is editor of the Redoubt Reporter, which covers the Kenai Peninsula. Used with permission.