Habitat Protection Vote Coming Up with Borough Assembly

     The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will hold a public hearing on an ordinance designed to protect salmon habitat. The Borough has been in the business of regulating land use in these areas since 1996. But the latest attempt by the Assembly to keep riparian zones healthy for fish was met by a small, but vocal opposition.

     The Borough Assembly has been wrestling with this issue for almost a year. The Task Force put together by Mayor Mike Navarre has finished its work. They came up with a bunch of recommendations to make the ordinance work better. And to resolve some of the complaints. Navarre’s Chief of Staff, Paul Ostrander facilitated that group’s meetings. He says that claims about government overreach are misplaced.

     “This is not as significant an increase as a lot of folks think,” Ostrander said on a recent episode of Coffee Table.

     “The regulations are the same. The increase is only about 39%, 40% increase in the number of waters that are regulated; it’s not a three or four or five times increase,” he said, addressing claims that the scope of the proposed ordinance would increase dramatically.

     This latest version does include more parcels that will fall under the new rules. But it also removes many of the water bodies that would have been included had the Borough simply applied those rules to the State’s catalogue of anadromous waters. There simply wasn’t enough evidence that some of the lakes and streams in the catalogue actually support returning fish to include them in the ordinance.

     Despite that though, many calls have been made by people opposing the measure that the Borough conduct a thorough study about habitat health here on the Kenai. While the Kenai is certainly a special place, in many ways, it’s not that different from other places around the world that have lost and are trying reclaim their salmon numbers.

     “The habitat is critical. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Washington state, Oregon or the Kenai Peninsula. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. And as far as whether the salmon runs are doing well on the Kenai or anywhere else, all we can really do is control what goes on here. We can’t control what goes on out in the ocean. We can’t control what Fish and Game decides to do as far as management of those fish. But what we can do is control is the one thing we know that’s critical; that near shore habitat. You don’t need a scientific study to know that that habitat is critical for the health of those waters,” he said.

     There has been plenty of debate about this among Assembly members over the past ten months. But one thing that seems to have common support is a need for more education.  As Ostrander explains, it’s not that rivers and lakes are surrounded by people who are willfully damaging the resource. It’s that they might not always have the best information or tools to promote healthier habitat. If you’ve lived here even for a short time, you’ve heard stories of days gone by before there were any rules at all to protect land adjacent to the Kenai River.

     “You know, there were things they wanted to do to park their boat or just to keep the bank from eroding, but they didn’t know how to go about that. So what this ordinance does is it looks for voluntary compliance. The key to this thing working is the River Center folks working with the land owner and make sure that what they’re doing on their property doesn’t damage it.”

     The recommendations made by the Task Force that have made their way into the ordinance weren’t adopted unanimously by that group. It was a 5-3 vote. Ostrander says the two sides came together in many areas, but in the end, there were some very basic philosophical differences about what the government’s role should be in protecting habitat areas.

     “I know some some of the Task Force members who voted against this…I’ve had lengthy conversations with them and we were always in agreement that the habitat was important.  And it did get to the point where there was a lot of compromises on both sides, but we couldn’t quite get to the point of consensus. But I think they (the dissenting voices on the Task Force) would tell you that there were significant improvements made in this amendment that helps balance private property rights and the public resource that wasn’t there previously,” he said.

     The Assembly will hold its public hearing on the measure next Tuesday at 6 p.m. Ostrander says he expects a full house.