The Kenai Mountains to Sea Partnership: A Local Effort to Address Climate Change at a Landscape Scal
Nonglacial streams on the Kenai Peninsula are already reaching lethal temperatures for salmon during short periods in July, due to warming summers and loss of riparian shade caused by spruce bark beetles and green alder sawflies (an exotic species). Working with private landowners, partners can promote re-vegetation of banks with more resilient species. Photo by John M. Morton/USFWS
The 6 million-acre Kenai Peninsula in southcentral Alaska is a spectacular landscape of ice, mountains, forests, fens, tundra, coastal bluffs, rocky shorelines and rivers with lots of salmon. Congress knew the land was special when it conserved three-quarters of the peninsula within Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Chugach National Forest and Kenai Fjords National Park.
But climate change doesn’t respect conservation boundaries. The Kenai is changing quickly, responding to temperatures warming twice as fast as those in the Lower 48. Available water on the western peninsula has declined 60 percent since 1968 as glaciers recede in the Kenai Mountains. Trees and shrubs encroach into warming alpine tundra and drying lowland wetlands. In the aftermath of a 15-year spruce bark beetle outbreak, grassland fires in spring are now common in a boreal ecosystem that has historically only experienced forest fires in summer.
Outside the federal conservation estate, the Kenai is being rapidly developed. Connected to mainland Alaska by a 10-mile wide isthmus and the state highway system, the Kenai is a playground for tourists and Anchorage residents. It is also one of the fastest growing regions in Alaska.
This nexus of a rapidly developing landscape in a rapidly warming climate prompted the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust (KHLT) to ask, “How can we be more strategic about prioritizing private land acquisition for conservation of the Kenai?” Out of that simple question evolved a very local, landscape-scale strategy of habitat conservation called Kenai Mountains to Sea.
One monitoring metric of sustained ecosystem health will be the sampling of riparian vegetation to confirm that salmon are being dispersed by brown bears and scavengers. Photo by Berkley Bedell
Kenai Mountains to Sea partners — KHLT, the Service, Audubon Alaska, Kenai Watershed Forum and the Cook Inlet Keeper — envision a landscape of connected private and public lands. They are working with willing landowners, agencies and tribal entities, and strengthening longstanding and effective private-public partnerships dedicated to voluntarily conserving and enhancing fish and wildlife habitats for the continuing economic, recreational and cultural benefits to residents and visitors of the Kenai.
Because Kenai’s landscape is changing so dramatically, the partners focused on riparian corridors as enduring features that provide ecological connectivity between freshwater headwaters high in the Kenai Mountains and Caribou Hills and their salty mouths in the Cook Inlet and Gulf of Alaska.
Conserving riparian corridors brings many benefits — they save salmon; transport marine-derived nutrients; maintain hydrology; provide green infrastructure for recreation, access, cultural resource site protection, plant dispersal and wildlife movement; connect existing protected areas; and, in a world of rapidly changing vegetation due to climate change, protecting them makes sense for landscape conservation.
But which riparian corridors? Nearly 400 stream outlets (1,800 miles of anadromous salmon habitat) intersect the Kenai’s coastline, so the strategy targets “interjurisdictional” streams, those partly inside and partly outside federal land management. These streams, 20 in total, comprise half of all stream miles for anadromous fish on the peninsula and flow from federal lands through lands of multiple ownerships to the sea. By focusing collective conservation efforts on these interjurisdictional streams, every mile of corridor outside federal boundaries will ultimately leverage three miles of streams on federally managed lands.
After a two-year planning process, the strategic document was formalized in early 2015 along with an interactive, online decision support tool developed by Audubon Alaska. With a $50,000 grant from the Service’s Alaska Coastal Program for KHLT to hire a project coordinator, there have been early and promising successes.
The strategy was critical for securing $5 million to initiate the removal of a fish passage barrier on Crooked Creek, a priority corridor. It also prompted discussions with an Alaska Native Corporation about leveraging its own land management planning with Kenai Mountains to Sea. And it helped identify possible acquisition of two parcels that separate the Kenai Refuge from the Kasilof River, another priority corridor.
Another benefit of developing the plan is the increased and shared understanding of the changing landscape among project partners and others in the area such as Kenai Peninsula Borough planning department. Kenai Mountains to Sea is indeed a local effort to address climate change at a landscape scale.
DR. JOHN M. MORTON, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska Region
DAVID WIGGLESWORTH, Deputy Assistant Regional Director/Fish and Aquatic Conservation, Alaska Region
MANDY BERNARD, Conservation Director, Kachemak Heritage Land Trust
|This article appeared in the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine.|