Critical habitat plan revisions should consider full watershed

My dogs and I have a new favorite run. It starts out my back door and then onto a series of foot trails that eventually lead up to the head of McNeil Canyon.

My dogs like it because, well, it’s a run, and I like it because once at the top, with an 180 degree sweep of the head, one can take in the almost the entire outer and inner Kachemak Bay and everything in between, including favorite spots like Bear Cove, Chugachik Island, Aurora Lagoon and Humpy Creek.

Similarly, in order to understand the extent of human impacts on and to properly manage the entire Kachemak Bay ecosystem, it requires both a broad view and attention to detail. This includes a consideration of different perspectives from the top of the Mountain for a look at the streams and marine ecosystem below, to getting down into the inlets and coves in order to observe sea stars clinging to the knobby dark rocks.

Now there is a perfect opportunity to do just this, in the form of public participation in the Alaska Departments of Fish and Game and Natural Resources update to the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Areas, or CHAs, Plan. Together, the CHAs protect important habitat for wildlife, shellfish, fish, marine mammals, and tens of thousands of shorebirds, sea birds, and waterfowl.

The Alaska Legislature created the CHAs in 1972 “to protect and preserve habitat areas especially crucial to the perpetuation of fish and wildlife, and to restrict all other uses not compatible with that primary purpose.” However, because regulatory jurisdiction of the CHAs is limited mostly to tidal and submerged lands, it is questionable whether ADF&G and DNR regulatory actions can achieve this “primary purpose.” This is because, natural systems, fish and wildlife, and human activities impacting them, generally, do not adhere to jurisdictional boundaries.

In order, therefore, to fully achieve the CHAs’ goal of restricting activities to those that are “compatible with the protection of fish and wildlife, their habitats and public use of the critical habitat areas,” maybe it’s time to consider management of the entire Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats watersheds rather than just focusing on the jurisdictional limits. The latter approach, for example, leaves out the interconnections between above ground and below ground waters, flood reduction, groundwater recharge and other systems that are beneficial to the marine environment.

Therefore, when evaluating ecological impacts, rather than limit one’s view to within prescribed jurisdictional boundaries, it makes more sense to look at the interconnectedness of all waters within a watershed, including wetlands and stream, seeps, and springs. For example, whether a stream originates from glacial or nonglacial sources has real implications for salmon. The source determines its vulnerability, and therefore salmon’s vulnerability to land use activities.

Similarly, much has changed for rivers and streams that support healthy fish and wildlife habitat within the CHAs, since they were established over 40 years ago. The onset of climate change, for example, has resulted in increasing temperatures and decreasing snowpack, causing declines in in stream flows. Also, a significant number of streams on the Kenai Peninsula, experience summer temperatures that cause potentially lethal stress to salmon.

Similarly, rapidly melting glaciers result in more silt, higher turbidity, reduced light penetration, and reduced phytoplankton abundance and copepod biomass. Finally, trees killed by spruce bark beetles and thin-leaf alder defoliated by exotic green alder sawflies mean less canopy cover and more solar radiation.

Although the CHAs’ regulatory jurisdiction has a limited focus on freshwater ecosystems, the agencies responsible for implementing the plan can still work within their own programs and that of other agencies having jurisdiction over land uses as well as local and tribal governments to take actions that will preserve the unique fish and wildlife values of the entire watershed.

Your comments during the scoping process for the plan update (which are due Nov. 4) can encourage the state to engage in this kind of collaboration.

Sustaining the values, not just of the CHAs but the entire Kachemak Bay watershed, especially in a warming climate, is going to need the 30,000 foot as well as the on the ground view.

Hal Shepherd is a writer and a consultant on water policy issues. He lives in Homer.