Monthly Archives: April 2012

New views — Climate change, urbanization impact peninsula

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Clark Fair, Redoubt Reporter. Ice retreats from the surface of Skilak Lake.

Redoubt Reporter

The celebration of Earth Day is a time to think about the planet, the ways it may be changing and what those changes mean to its inhabitants — humans not excluded. Here on the Kenai Peninsula, many transformations are taking place with the flora and fauna, and while sometimes difficult to observe from a ground-eye view, the patterns of change are a bit easier to understand when seen from above.

To illustrate this concept, John Morton, supervisory biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, presented “The Kenai Peninsula at 30,000 feet,” as part of Kenai Peninsula College’s Earth Day celebration last week.

“The bottom line is things are changing,” Morton said. “I’m not pointing fingers to the cause or offering up solutions, I just want to put the facts out and show the empirical data to let people know this is real and happening right here.”

Using satellite imagery overlaid with various graphics, Morton was able to show one of the most easily observable changes to occur to the peninsula in the last 100 years — the human population growth and subsequent urban expansion.

Rather than an area with no roads, a scattering of small towns, Native communities and fish camps, the completion of the Sterling Highway in 1951 and the discovery of oil in 1957 brought many changes to the peninsula over the next several decades.

“Just in the last 30 years the human population has increased from 25,282 to 53,578 people,” he said.

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Central to the debate — Soldotna residents to vote on land purchase

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

There is at least one thing both sides of a proposal for the city of Soldotna to buy the Hutchings Auto Group property for use as the city’s visitors center and chamber of commerce office can agree on — a need for planning.

But not quite of the same kind.

Those supporting the purchase talk of a need to think long term about what Soldotna could be in the future, and highlight how the purchase could advance some of those goals — enhancing the development of Soldotna Creek Park while creating a visitors center big enough to show off what Soldotna has to offer, a conference center that could be a hub of activity for residents and a bloom of landscaping to spruce up the otherwise concrete-dominant look of the highway.

“If this opportunity goes by we may never have that chance to go back and do re-planning, because cities just kind of grow and then, 30 years later, you go, ‘You know, we should have planned that a little better.’ This is a chance to kind of go back and redo that,’” said Michelle Glaves, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, which runs the city-owned visitors center.

Those with concerns about the proposed purchase, however, say more planning should go into the immediate decision in order to avoid what they see as a potential boondoggle of traffic jams and irresponsibly spent tax dollars.

“I don’t know that I’m totally opposed to it, but there’s just, for me, tons and tons of questions that aren’t answered, and that’s what frustrates me,” said Norm Blakely, who owns Blakeley’s Trading and Loan in Soldotna. “I don’t think they’ve done their homework. If they’re going to spend tax dollars let’s, for once in our lives, spend it wisely and let people know what’s going on.”

The Soldotna City Council approved a measure March 28 to purchase the 3.12-acre parcel at 44075 Sterling Highway, owned by David and Linda Hutchings, and the approximately 20,000-square-foot building that has operated as Hutchings Auto Group, for $2.1 million. The purpose is to relocate the Soldotna Visitors Center and chamber of commerce office from its current 800-square-foot facility at the intersection of the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Because of the amount involved, the decision must go before Soldotna voters for ratification. The city is holding a special election Tuesday, May 1, with absentee voting ongoing since April 16.

Whether to check “yes” or “no” on the ballot is the ultimate question facing Soldotna voters, but that decision will likely be informed by the many other questions surrounding the issue. Such as:

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PacRim digs into Chuitna plans — Representative offers update on changes to mining plan across inlet

By Joseph Robertia

Photos courtesy of Judy Heilman, Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition. The Chuit River flows through the proposed Chuitna Mine area on the west side of Cook Inlet, 45 miles from Anchorage.

Redoubt Reporter

Members of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee heard from representatives of PacRim Coal on Thursday with an update of their plans to develop a coal mine at Chuitna, across Cook Inlet, roughly 12 miles northwest of the village of Tyonek.

Much of the presentation focused on the benefits of the mine, should all permitting applications withstand public and related agencies’ reviews. But, knowing their target audience, PacRim’s update also focused heavily on the effects the mine would have on the surrounding watershed and the fish and game species living there.

“The Chuitna coal project is not a choice between a coal mine or fish,” said Dan Graham, Chuitna project manager since 2009. “It is designed for both.”

Graham began the presentation by explaining one of the changes to the original mining plan, which was amended to reduce the impact of development in the area. Rather than creating a long road through the wilderness area around land owned by the Tyonek Native Corporation, PacRim entered into an easement agreement with them to transport the coal directly from the mine to the port facilities at Ladd Landing in Cook Inlet.

“Under the easement agreement, we’ll install an elevated coal conveyor system to transport the coal,” Graham said. “The unique design of this conveyor system will significantly reduce the environmental impact of the project infrastructure.”

The conveyor system will feature a belt, roughly 5 feet wide and 80 to 100 feet high, that runs between towers located 1,400 feet apart. This will eliminate coal transfer points between the mine and port, reduce stream crossings from seven to one, and will reduce the length of the proposed new road construction from 12 miles to six, he said.

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Tsunami debris: Center prepares for beach cleanup

By Naomi Klouda

Photo courtesy of Homer Tribune. Volunteers collect washed-up junk off the beach in Kachemak Bay.

Homer Tribune

A prevalent problem with marine trash is the tragedy it causes marine life when a bird plucks a morsel that is actually Styrofoam, or when a seal gets strangled by fishing nets.

If there’s a good side to the massive patch of Japanese tsunami debris en route to Alaska, it’s the awareness brought to the problem. People will meet the trash on the beach and clean it up before it can trap unsuspecting animals.

Homer beach monitors have been at it for a few months now, eyeing the tidelines and removing garbage, said Patrick Chandler, special programs coordinator at the Alaska Center for Coastal Studies.

“We’ve been monitoring beaches for 28 years in Kachemak Bay. We’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s coming up and what has come up,” Chandler said.

“The entire tsunami debris problem is a difficult issue. The reason is because we’ve been getting Asian debris in Alaska for many, many years. We know because of the ship that made it over here, we know that high windage items — buoys that float high that get a lot of wind to get that push — we get those.”

Japanese floats were found from Nanwalek. Last week, Halo Bay Bear Viewing pilots flying between Homer and Katmai came upon large yellow buoys. Kachemak Bay also has seen scattered buoys, with a possible range all the way down the Kenai Peninsula, according to NOAA estimates.

NOAA sightings have confirmed that debris is not in fields or islands, but scattered over a large

Graphic courtesy of Homer Tribune.

area of the North Pacific.

The problem is the difficulty in confirming whatever comes ashore was washed loose from the massive spread of trash, he said. The tsunami struck in March 2010, with the potential for years of strewn trash carried on currents. Much of it likely sank.

The government of Japan estimates that the tsunami swept roughly 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. Of this 5 million tons, they

estimate that roughly 70 percent sank near shore, leaving 30 percent, or roughly 1.6 to 1.7 million tons of debris floating off the coast. That aligns with previous NOAA data and experience from similar events that shows that the majority of heavier debris is likely to sink in the near shore area. Floating items — including boats that pose navigation hazards — are left to be carried on currents.

“What I can say is over past few weeks we’re finding uncommon buoys – big white Styrofoam buoys. We know they are of Japanese origin,” Chandler said.

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Almanac: Loose lips… Intemperance airs captain’s secret

By Clark Fair

Redoubt Reporter

Dave Hutchings could keep a secret — for as long as he wanted to. He had made a promise in his youth, and he kept that promise, but when he reached middle age he had to decide whether remaining silent was still necessary.

The “summer of the secret” began in the spring of 1959, and Hutchings, a 13-year-old Kenai lad from a family of 10, was beginning his usual rounds as a garden-tilling specialist. His mother had helped him to purchase a Sears and Roebuck rototiller, and he was working off the expense by tilling for his mom and about a half-dozen other women gardeners in the area.

One of his most important clients was Ruby Coyle, known throughout the area as a terrific gardener. As neighbor Henry Knackstedt put it, “Ruby and Waldo had a very large and perfect garden. Everything was spaced just so, and there were no weeds to be found due to their continual maintenance. They also maintained a very nice greenhouse and several cold frames. I think they had the largest lawn in Kenai when I was a kid.”

Unfortunately for the 44-year-old Ruby, when Waldo’s need for a new deckhand coincided with his sudden realization that the Hutchings kid was a good worker, she wound up having to finish her own tilling — and she was not pleased about the turn of events.

“I think Waldo saw a little bit of potential (in me),” Hutchings said. “And he had lost a deckhand who had probably gotten old enough to go on to a bigger and better job, and so he kind of stole me from Ruby that year, and Ruby wasn’t real happy with him.”

In the middle of his rototiller work, Hutchings was whisked away down to Waldo’s boat, and he worked on the boat all that summer.

Waldo’s commercial fishing vessel was a converted sailboat, which Hutchings called a “double-ender” and a “planker,” meaning that it was pointed at both ends like a typical sailboat, and it was constructed of wooden planks. Its mast had been removed and replaced with a power unit designed to release and retrieve the fishing nets. It had a generous amount of room below deck, containing a fish hold, an engine bay and some living quarters.

Painted white and with a clean design, the 45-foot craft was called The Crest, and the 48-year-old Waldo proved very finicky about his boat.

“You learned on different boats what the captain likes,” said Hutchings. “The captain in this case, Waldo, was kind of a clean freak. You’d get on-board, and you’d take your boots off, and you would wear a deck shoe or a tennis shoe. When you were on-board, you cleaned up behind yourself. The boat was pretty much immaculate.”

And there was one more important rule that Waldo made clear to young Hutchings: “You do everything that I do when you’re on the boat, and I want you to do it well.”

Later that summer, Waldo almost came to regret that advice.

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Drinking on the Last Frontier: Sip up summer suds in Seward

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. The former Elks Lodge in Seward is being transformed into the Seward Brewing Company, expected to open in June.

It’s May in Alaska, which means it’s time to start thinking about the great annual migration that occurs about this time every year — the return of the tourists. Soon, great flocks of them will arrive back on the Kenai, perching on barstools and riverbanks. Many of our local businesses will be lining up to take advantage of this bountiful return, including our local breweries and brewpubs. However, this year there will be a new player on the local beer scene — Seward Brewing Company.

It’s not surprising; Seward would seem to be a natural fit for a brewpub, given its relatively isolated location and the large number of tourists it sees in a summer, as they arrive by road, rail and cruise ship. The real surprise to me is that it’s taken this long to get one off the ground.

I’d been hearing rumors for months that a new brewery or brewpub was getting ready to open there, in the building which was formerly the Elks Lodge, but I had not been able to confirm it or get any details, until recently. Now I can confirm that the 13,500-square-foot building, located a block north of the Alaska SeaLife Center on the corner of Washington Street and 4th Avenue, is indeed being turned into a brewpub.

Originally a mercantile store with offices upstairs, the structure dates from the 1940s and boasts magnificent views of Resurrection Bay and the surrounding mountains. This historic structure is being returned to its former glory, with a new exterior of copper siding and a completely redone interior.

The man behind this venture is Gene Minden, the owner of Chinooks Restaurant at the Seward Boat Harbor. In fact, the 8.5-barrel brewhouse, which the Seward Brewing Company will be using, is the same one that has stood idle in the front window of Chinooks for years. Now it has a new home and will finally be put to use.

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Winging It: Flushing out spring sightings

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of John Skinner. Campers hike out along the shore of Resurrection Bay from Seward for a spring birding trip.

Ah, the infinite intricacies of birding.

A weekend seaside camping trip with five wildlife-aware hikers highlighted the hobby’s varying perspectives — the angles, lessons, puzzles, stories (near misses), close calls, split-second circumstances, the gem boxes of curiosities, etc., as we warm toward the migration holiday season.

Hitting the Tonsina trail in Seward, I tuned my ears and eyes to “sensitive,” or “bird survey” mode, as I strapped down my snowshoes. A common/uncommon awareness dawned on me again. “Whenever you’re outside, and not even in a forest, wetland or natural area, and even when there aren’t any birds around, you’re birding.”

“Hang on, I hear something,” I told the hiker beside me early on our stomp. We stopped. The ripened silence had corridors — quiet, quieter, the ch-ch shutter of softened snow bits tumbling onto the trail. After a minute, “Nothing.” We continued walking.

The squeaky snowshoe/songbird piped with every left foot lift.
Crossing a bridge over a river that spills into the sea, the lead hiker detected a real bird call. Our silence was served this time.

Spritzy high-pitched burbles purled a trembled timbre. The call locator suggested, “Pacific wren,” a species she had heard and even seen in this area that edges a rainforest of giant moss-clothed Sitka spruce. We heard it again. Softer, muffled, compound mousey jumbles.

“American dipper,” I suggested, since a middle doubled aspect of the vocalization reminded me of a reedy Segway element (brrr-brrr) between the dipper’s sweet tweets. And because such a species fit the river habitat.

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Filed under birds, Winging it