The 1.32-million-acre Kenai Wilderness, which was designated by Congress through the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, consists of three units: the Dave Spencer Unit (187,228 acres) which includes the Swanson River and Swan Lake National Recreation Canoe Trails, the Mystery Creek Unit (46,086 acres), and the Andrew Simons Unit (1,087,094 acres). The Kenai Wilderness is administered in accordance with applicable provisions of the Wilderness Act, ANILCA, and other laws and regulations governing management of the National Wildlife Refuge System. These legal mandates affect all aspects of the administration, and commercial and public uses of Kenai Wilderness.
The 1985 Kenai Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) established management programs to protect those areas of the Refuge designated as Wilderness. The preferred alternative and subsequent regulatory actions preserved the size and naturalness, and opportunities for primitive recreation. Conserving the pristine and unmodified character of these wild areas was a central purpose of the ANILCA legislation and the establishment of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Natural fish and wildlife population dynamics and habitats continue to be emphasized, although regulated visitor use, hunting, fishing, and trapping are allowed. Motorized access is permitted in specific areas for traditional activities subject to regulations from the Secretary of the Interior to protect the wilderness values. The 2010 CCP allowed the use of prescribed fire in Wilderness, subject to national Wilderness and Fire Management policies.
A supplemental Wilderness review completed in 1988 recommended that an additional 195,000 acres of Kenai Refuge be designated as Wilderness. Wilderness values that have been formally protected by Congress through Wilderness designation, and those associated with lands that have not been formally designated but are generally wild and natural, are described below.
The Kenai Wilderness represents all of the ecosystems and fish and wildlife habitats of the Refuge. The Harding Icefield, piedmont glaciers, and glacial lakes make up significant portions of the area. Mature spruce forest covers additional portions of it. Similar to other forested areas of the Refuge, this forest has been substantially affected by an outbreak of spruce bark beetles. Fire management programs that establish areas of limited suppression have contributed favorably to a natural fire regime and an untrammeled environment. This established Wilderness area is generally natural in appearance and ecological function, although there is substantial human use and evidence of recreational use and associated impacts.
The Kenai Wilderness is located within one of the most heavily populated and fastest growing regions of Alaska, and accessible areas receive significant annual visitation. Wildlife populations require directed management and access control to conserve natural populations and conditions. A managed fish and wildlife harvest, the Refuge permit process, and regulated access have left most populations within the Wilderness relatively natural and wild.
Wildlife such as wolves and brown bear that depend on highly natural landscapes appear to be holding their own despite the pressures of nearby population centers. Naturally re-established wolf populations have succeeded, although they face significant harvest pressure and population health issues. Brown bears remain a population of concern, but natural habitat and critical feeding areas have been protected by Wilderness designation. A re-established caribou herd has also thrived within the natural habitats of Kenai Wilderness.
In addition to terrestrial habitat, the Kenai Wilderness continues to provide critical water quality and quantity for natural salmon spawning and rearing habitat within the Kenai River watershed and the six other major watersheds of the Kenai Peninsula.
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