Kenai Borough Re-Evaluates Controversial Fish Habitat Protections

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is considering an ordinance that would scale back habitat protections for anadromous waters throughout the Kenai Peninsula. Opponents of the ordinance claim these freshwaters salmon migrate to must be safeguarded. Supporters believe the protections impose on the rights of property owners.

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The Borough’s Anadromous Waters Habitat Protection areas have been mired in controversy ever since the protections were extended to include all anadromous waterways in the Kenai Peninsula Borough area. The current law prohibits any kind of land development within 50 feet of the protected waters’ shorelines. A few waterways are excluded from the law, including waters in the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service Area. Assembly Member Wayne Ogle of Nikiski is a cosponsor of ordinance 2015-14 along with Kelly Wolf of Kenai and Dale Bagley of Soldotna. The measure would reduce the anadromous habitat protection areas to just the Kasilof and Kenai River Watersheds.

“Our ordinance would basically peel that back where only those two watersheds would be protected like they were back in the 2000 era in which it was introduced,” says Ogle.

In its last meeting the borough assembly heard an outpouring of opposition to the ordinance from residents who were adamant these restrictions are necessary to protect salmon. Michael O’meara of Homer said pulling anadromous waters out from under the habitat protection umbrella would be devastating.

“Cutting off those small tributary systems and streams is a little bit to me like looking at the human circulatory system and saying well all of those little capillaries that lead up to the brain and down to our sexual organs are superfluous so we might as well just cut them off,” says O’meara.

Laura Sievert of Kenai testified that in her opinion, assembly members in favor of removing habitat protections were acting on emotions and political beliefs rather than hard science.

“And even though you aren’t trained biologists. I’m assuming the assembly members have educated themselves on this issue and you know that buffer zones are essential for salmon habitat. Remember your responsibility is to represent the long-term interests of the people of this borough. And I don’t think you’re doing your job if you’re only listening to a few private property owners complain about their rights,” says Sievert.

Assembly Member Ogle says there is no imminent danger to salmon habitat and property owners resent having restrictions forced on them.

“It basically comes down to who is the better steward of the property. Is it the property owner or is it going to be some bureaucrat down at the River Center,” says Ogle.

The River Center is a multi-agency department whose mission is to protect the peninsula watersheds, fish and wildlife. Fred Braun is one of the few residents who spoke in favor of the ordinance.

“I do support the Kenai River and all the regulations. I’m here tonight to speak about the small little streams, the little creeks, Daniel’s Creek, even Bishop Creek; some so small you’ve stepped across them. I also own a one acre lot on Bishop Creek. It’s not a 50 foot buffer it’s a 100 foot buffer. The lot is totally worthless,” says Braun.

Braun says the 100 foot buffer, designed to protect the habitat, prevents him from making any improvements to the property. Ogle argues there’s far more damage being done to salmon habitat by fishermen than by private property owners living on the banks of these waters.

“[I’m] talking about the overfishing, set netting and so forth that has an impact on salmon preservation. I think [that] should be looked at also but I suspect it’s not being done that way because it’s a very politically tough nut to crack,” says Ogle. “It seems to me that property owners are the easiest low hanging fruit that they can latch onto and put restrictions on.”

One side claims their rights are being violated unnecessarily. The other says removing these protections could be the beginning of the end for salmon on the Kenai Peninsula. The Borough Assembly is scheduled to vote on Ordinance 2015-14 in its July 7th meeting. Originally the assembly planned to hold a vote on June 16th, but that vote was called off when it was discovered the Planning Commission had not reviewed the measure.

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Quinton Chandler is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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