By Jenny Neyman
For someone as closely involved in codes and regulations as John Mohorcich has been in his 30-year career in land planning and management on the Kenai Peninsula, he’s not as given to unyielding allegiance to doing things by the book as the nature of his job might indicate. Being the director of the Donald E. Gilman Kenai River Center — a hub of intersection between local, state and federal departments involved in managing the borough’s watersheds — makes Mohorcich sort of the broth that binds the alphabet soup of acronymed regulatory agencies together.
There are a lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross in that role, but enforcing the rules has never taken priority over his own personal rule for doing his job — keeping open ears, eyes and mind in assessing situations as they come. As times change, so, too, do technology, knowledge, approaches and, eventually, the regulations for achieving the end goal of maintaining the health of the Kenai watershed.
“There’s been a learning curve. It’s important for the borough to be flexible and change those codes with that learning curve. We definitely didn’t have all the answers (when the river center began), and I still don’t think we do. If you’re not learning every day it’s time to look back a little bit and scratch the head and go, ‘Hmm, is this the right place to be?’” Mohorcich said.
It’s not that he’s against doing things by the book — he was a code enforcement officer at one point, after all. It’s just that he’s one of the people who helped write the book of land management on the Kenai. And he learned from that experience that throwing the book at someone is rarely a productive way to achieve long-term improvements.
“It goes back to him being able to get along with everybody and treat everyone fairly and explain things thoroughly,” said Max Best, planning director at the borough, and Mohorcich’s longtime colleague and friend. “He’s never demeaning anybody or giving somebody less importance than another. He treats everybody fairly.”
You catch more flies with honey, as the saying goes. In Alaska, where residents take very seriously their private property rights, you get more compliance with outreach, understanding, education and by sweetened positive reinforcements, like tax credits and streamlined permitting processes, than by a governmental representative telling people when, where and what they can and cannot do.
“It wasn’t the philosophy to point fingers or to identify faults and to write tickets for compliance. We wanted compliance, we needed compliance, but I really think that education and voluntary compliance goes much further,” Mohorcich said.
Mohorcich isn’t much of a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. At crossroads in his
own life he’s chosen to blaze down whatever paths present themselves, enjoying the scenery he finds, rather than letting the inevitable potholes and ruts jostle him into pining for potentially greener grass on other routes.
He’s from Albuquerque, N.M., originally, and grew up chasing his dad’s bug for being outdoors.
“I was just always outside. My mom used to have to find me when it got dark and said, ‘You’ve got to come in sooner or later,’” he said.
He went to the University of Montana Missoula and graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in resource management, along the way doing parks internships in Montana, as well as some wild land firefighting. That experience, in particular, highlighted a lesson many a college-age kid could stand to learn as young and, luckily, as safely: He didn’t know it all.
“I was, I don’t know, wound a little tight, I guess. High strung, ‘Let’s go kill fire,’ right? Looking back, at the time, being as young as I was and immortal, we just thought, ‘Wow, that was awesome!’ But you learn, and I would have made some different decisions now,” he said.
In one instance, a fire bloomed in Arizona, and his crew talked their chief into letting them helicopter in without first doing reconnaissance. They found themselves stranded on a ridge, outmatched for what raged below.
“It can sound like a train. Like if you have a wood stove going and you leave the door open a little bit and it’s doing that, ‘Chug, chug, chug’ type of sound. This whole valley was doing that,” Mohorcich said. “We had our pulaskis and chainsaws and yellow shirts and that was it. We just kind of looked at each other, because we didn’t have escape paths. We stayed on the ridge and got our wits about ourselves and came out all right, but that was one that I just remember looking at each other and going, ‘OK, let’s take this a little easy.’”
That was a good lesson in looking before leaping, but not to the point of incapacity to jump at opportunities. Shortly after graduation, in 1981, he was watching his roommates get packed up to return home to Soldotna for the summer. One of those roommates was Best.
“I was leaving, he was standing in the yard and I said, ‘Hey, you want to go to Alaska?’” Best said. “John said, ‘Are you leaving now?’ I said, ‘Yes, but I can wait for you.’ He loaded up his bags and off we went. He was from New Mexico and liked the mountains. He would go camping and liked the outdoors. I said, ‘You need to go experience the real outdoors.’ Being from Alaska I always tell everybody they should come visit and experience it, and he never left.”
Getting in that car meant giving up a secured job as a backcountry ranger in Glacier National Park for whatever the horizons of Alaska might hold. His dad had talked about wanting to go to Alaska, and Mohorcich had gotten an earful from Best and other classmates from Alaska.
“They would sit around telling their stories about growing up here, and it just seemed like I had to keep going north,” he said.
He had lodging with Best’s family and found a job surprisingly easily. They rolled into town on a Thursday, Mohorcich had an interview Friday and was working the following Monday for the state Division of Forestry, which at that time had an office in Soldotna and included land, water and forestry management.
Two and a half years later the state decided to close up the land management portion of the Soldotna office, and transfer positions to Anchorage. Mohorcich didn’t want to go.
“Small towns always appealed to me. Back then we didn’t have a stoplight. At a lot of our in-town intersections there were no stop signs. You could kind of still get away with running a snowmachine right down the middle of the street,” he said. “Everybody I seemed to run into were just good people, down to earth.”
He was coming to appreciate his new home — especially his expansive new outdoors. Though he’s not a flatlander by preference, the mountains were nearby and the snowy season was plenty long.
“We had the winters, and they just provided a whole other change of access for me. I was not real satisfied, you might say, with walking through the woods in the summer around here. But when it turned winter and you could throw on skis or snowshoes or just hoof it, everything opened up. You could go anywhere. I was learning to really enjoy that, the nice long season of freeze-up,” he said.
He applied for and got a newly vacant position in the borough’s land management agency, and spent the next 10 years dealing largely with land acquisitions and timber sales.
“In the interview they kind of asked me, ‘So, you know some stuff about timber and you’re willing to go out in the woods?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do.’ I think that was probably a positive answer,” he said.
A good chunk of that position was working with the state to upgrade roads, through acquiring rights-of-way, moving utilities and overseeing paving contracts. That process shaped many of the borough’s significant roads as we know them today: Strawberry Road, North Fork Road, Mackey Lake Road, Poppy Lane.
“All those were just dirt when we started,” he said.
Following that he took a position as a code compliance officer with the borough. Like the land management gig, this was a boroughwide position and involved of lot of getting out, meeting people and trying to resolve issues, rather than writing citations.
“The borough’s philosophy is to go out and talk to people and, through discussion and volunteer compliance, to get people to come around or follow the proper ordinance or code or procedure,” he said.
Best, now the planning director for the borough, started his career back home as a surveyor and remembers an early trip taken with Mohorcich.
“I rode with him the first time I went out. We were going to go look at something and he said, ‘You’re going to see no fewer than four other things that are wrong when we get there. So don’t look out the window,’” Best said.
That’s a great mix in a governmental representative — conscientious about doing the job, yet empathetic and respectful in working with people who might not like what the job requires the representative to do.
“I think Alaskans, and on the peninsula, we all feel very strongly about our rights. Some of the hardest things I ever had to do is go out and talk to some of the homesteaders who came up here and scratched and created some of these roads and paths and trails and developed some of the things that we’re all accustomed to today, and they worked so hard at it under the conditions. You go out and tell them that they have to do certain things because now we have a 50-foot restriction on their property. That’s one of hardest things I think that I’ve ever had to do with my job,” he said.
About the time he became code enforcement officer, borough Mayor Donald Gilman was working with Sen. Ted Stevens and Gov. Tony Knowles on the creation of a facility that would gather under one roof all the state, federal and local agencies involved in managing the Kenai watershed.
“They recognized that there was quite a few agencies that were involved in the management of the (Kenai River) water body. But once you got outside of that water, up on the lands, that was recognized as a void in the management scenario for healthy fisheries and good watersheds,” he said. “Don said the least we better do is get all these players in the same building to facilitate and assist those landowners and agencies and whoever were doing projects to be able to really help them from having to either run around Southcentral or the state or local area to get information, and be able to come to one area and get the lowdown at one point.”
Mohorcich became the river center’s manager in 1986, about eight months into the center’s existence. At first, state Parks, the borough and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Habitat were involved. Over time the center has grown to house or directly partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Kenai Watershed Forum’s education program, the federal Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and others. The center’s purview also has expanded from just the Kenai River to protecting the rivers and watersheds of the Kenai Peninsula.
“What I was most proud of was being part of a group where we had to put aside our egos. Many times we had to understand that our different programs conflicted and sometimes they weren’t warmly accepted by the public or landowners. We had to work cooperatively — everybody, the agencies and the landowners, the contractors and the people that are putting projects in — and work together in getting those projects off the ground and, basically, in the ground. That’s my biggest accomplishment, or what I feel the best about,” Mohorcich said.
“And I really was only able to accomplish what I accomplished because of all the administrations and people I got to work with. Nothing’s a one-man show. I think most of us learn that really quick. I’m really going to miss the people I got to work with, the staff out there at the river center. They’re a top-notch, good group of people,” he said.
Growth and accomplishments is not to say the position has been easy, especially in the early days of the borough’s Kenai River Habitat Protection ordinance, passed by the Borough Assembly in 1996. It was a substantive change, requiring property owners to get a permit for just about any work to be done within 50 feet of the river, such as installing stairs, docks, fishing platforms, walkways or fish-cleaning stations.
Resistance to the ordinance’s passage was somewhat drowned out by a massive flooding event in 1995, demonstrating quite clearly the need for caution of what is built and stored near the water.
“I know if we had one 5-gallon gas Jerry jug we had 100. I mean everything you could think of that a normal person would have in their backyard, a lot of that ended up in the river. We had barbecue grills, septic tanks floating down the river, we had gazebos, we had docks, we had lawn furniture, people’s boats of course got away. And when people saw that and thought about a 50-foot habitat protection setback, I think that was kind of a critical moment,” Mohorcich said. “Disasters are very unfortunate, but sometimes there’s some good that comes out of those. And looking back I think that was a pivotal point in the assembly passing that code. And the other thing is property owners along the Kenai were just extremely willing and interested in trying to learn how their actions affected the river and how to maybe improve those actions. They loved the river, they wanted to be really good stewards of it.”
As it has been throughout his career, Mohorcich’s approach to enforcement of the setback was through outreach.
“We really put a lot of emphasis on education and I still think that if you put that as a high regard and people understand the program they’re going to make good decisions. I think it cuts way down on compliance issues, it cuts way down on receiving applications for projects that aren’t fully thought out. The more field visits we did, the more workshops and working with people, I really think we started seeing dividends pretty quickly,” he said.
The borough’s establishment of a tax credit program to reward property owners doing bank-restoration and riparian habitat enhancement projects also helped facilitate passage of the habitat protection ordinance, Mohorcich said. And he’d like to see the borough consider a similar incentive to property owners for leaving riparian areas undeveloped.
“We’ve learned Mother Nature’s natural way is better than anything we could restore,” he said.
The habitat protection ordinance and its 50-foot setback were expanded in 2000 to include 24 additional salmon streams on the peninsula. In January 2012, additional anadromous streams on the west side of Cook Inlet were also added to the habitat protection ordinance, and currently the borough’s Anadromous Streams Task Force is continuing a review of whether all anadromous streams, excluding the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service Area, should be covered by the ordinance.
“These things are hard and they’re new, but I also look back on when I came here, without stop signs and streetlights, and, boy, there’s a lot more people than there used to be. I think it’s appropriate timing to be having these discussions. And these discussions lead, in my opinion, to good things, which basically means education and people’s points of view coming forward. Sometimes it wasn’t comfortable — you feel like you have to have that flak jacket in front of a group. But that outcome — discussing it and thinking about it and hearing different points of view — I think that’s positive overall.”
Current wrangling over how widespread the ordinance should be is another step in the ongoing evolution of watershed protection and stewardship in the borough. It’s a difficult balance to find between protection, development, private property rights and governmental oversight.
But the process is helped by what Mohorcich sees as a near universal recognition of the importance of the borough’s waterways and the life they support.
“I think there are very few, if any, people who don’t recognize or don’t support that we need to make sure that our fisheries are in as good a shape as they can be. We all, I think, recognize that our riparian areas, our waterways, are extremely important to all of us that live up here. Subsistence, sport, commercial fishing — there are so many aspects of our rivers and those fish that it’s ingrained, I think, in the peninsula. In all of us. I think we all have an understanding and agreement that we’re at least to that level as we take these next steps in where the differences of opinion are,” he said.
The book on habitat protection in the borough’s watersheds is still being written, but Mohorcich’s chapters of involvement have come to conclusion with his retirement in August. That doesn’t mean, however, that his story is finished.
He’s spending more time with family — wife of 25 years, Laura, and daughter, Sarah. Son, J., is attending Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, pursuing a doctorate in political theory.
“I did make the commitment to make dinner that first night I retired. I’m not a cook — I’m out of practice, let’s put it that way — and my wife and daughter aren’t too sure they want me to be a cook,” he said.
More time for recreational pursuits is on the docket — hiking, biking, running and skiing. Though it wasn’t long before he took another job, as a professional wilderness guide for oil exploration seismograph crews, essentially acting as a bear guard and outdoor safety guide.
“I’m back out to the woods, which I’m excited about. I’m low man on the totem pole, which is OK. I’m looking forward to doing a good job with these guys and enjoying watching the seasons change while I’m out there,” he said.
Any change can be a good one, if the focus is on what opportunities it brings.
“In hindsight, I look back at the land management job, my early state job, all the way to the river center, what really kept me here was that it was new. If it would have been rubber-stamping stuff and just following what was already set in stone, boy, it would have been hard to keep me chained to the desk. That’s what really kept me here and kept me interested,” Mohorcich said. “The state was new, the borough was new, we actually didn’t have a notebook or binder that we pulled out for policies for how things were done. We came up amongst a lot of new situations — definitely not new to the Lower 48 or potentially other boroughs — but new for here, and we were charged to make good decisions and figure it out.”