By Carey Restino
Climbing through the tangle of willow bushes and tall grasses topped by cottonwood trees and interlaced with streams, Kachemak Heritage Land Trust Executive Director Marie McCarty stops, looks around and comments on how beautiful the surrounding scene is.
“And you know the best thing,” she asks, sidestepping a large, groundwater-fed pool. “The best thing is that this land is going to stay just like this.”
For several years, the land trust has been working to identify parcels along the Anchor River that have significant value in protecting the health of the popular fish resource. The Anchor River, as well as many other rivers in Alaska, runs the risk of being impacted by increasing water temperatures as Alaska climate changes. Areas of the stream with overhanging banks help provide cool spots for salmon, as long as they aren’t developed or damaged by human impacts.
More than a decade ago, the land trust began to identify parcels of interest from a conservation standpoint along the river. A 55-acre donated parcel near Blackwater Bend jump-started those acquisitions. The land trust was able to use that donation to help acquire another 64-acre parcel on the other side of Blackwater Bend. More recently, the focus has moved to the other side of the river, off the Old Sterling Highway, where it purchased the 11.76-acre parcel in 2011 after years of effort searching for funds and grants to help buy the valuable land. This property, along with a 12-acre chunk owned by Kachemak Moose Habitat Inc., started to make a significant portion of stream-abutting land protected from development. Add to that a parcel across the river owned by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources designated for moose habitat and public access under the Kenai Area Plan and the strength of the protection value increases geometrically.
Then, last summer, the land trust was able to add yet another chunk of land with Anchor River frontage beside the land it purchased in 2011. This new 15.35-acre parcel on the South Fork will add to those dedicated for permanent conservation to protect important salmon habitat.
Land trust board member Donna Aderhold, a biologist, pointed out features of the land as the group toured the land last week. Having large portions of land next to each other protected adds significantly to each acre’s value, she said, because streams move through all the parcels uninterrupted. The groundwater-fed streams found on the land that flow into the Anchor River not only keep the water cold in the summer, but also provide open water sources in the winter, thus making the properties even more valuable. Juvenile coho have been found in the backwater channels.
“We’ve been slowly patchworking these pieces together,” said McCarty. “They are important to the people, to the local economy and to us recreating.”
McCarty said the land trust began identifying these parcels of importance with help of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District and the Cook Inletkeeper.
Cook Inletkeeper stream ecologist Sue Mauger flew the river with a heat sensor and helped to identify these pieces as high-value spots for the river’s overall health. In a 2011 statement, Mauger noted the importance of providing these cool-water habitats.
“Water temperature plays a critical role in all phases of the salmonid life cycle in freshwater systems where fish hatch from eggs and later return to spawn,” Mauger said in the statement. “Warm stream temperatures are frequently associated with increased stress in fish, making them increasingly vulnerable to pollution, predation and disease. By protecting key private parcels, the land trust is leading the way to ensure the long-term resilience of Anchor River salmon during this time of thermal change.”
The attention to the south fork of the Anchor River represents a shift in the evolution of the land trust, which started in the ’80s in an attempt to find a way to conserve land in the area in its natural state. The land trust still does a significant amount of its work by holding conservation easements on properties — stipulations on the land that protect natural elements through restrictions on use and development — but when possible, land acquisition is also part of its portfolio. Sometimes those lands are purchased, other times donated, McCarty said.
While in its early years, land trust acquisitions were driven more by availability and interest, today, the land trust is able to guide where it would like to see more landholdings based on the goals stated by its board.
“These are properties on the Anchor River that are especially important to conserve for salmon habitat,” she said. “These two parcels are spectacular, with both river frontage and backwater channels for young salmon.”
McCarty said the land trust isn’t opposed to development, but rather sees the value in preserving some land that is vital to the overall environmental health of the Southern Kenai Peninsula, such as the Anchor River. Since all land turned over to the land trust is done so voluntarily, the land trust serves as a vehicle for preserving the wishes of landowners, many of whom have strong connections to their property and the desire to see it remain undeveloped.
“That’s the nice thing,” McCarty said. “You can drive what your land looks like forever.”
McCarty said the nonprofit organization has identified other parcels of interest along the river and has reached out to other landowners, providing them with information about the land trust and the opportunities it provides.
“Our outreach is to willing landowners,” she said. “People are invited to work with us or to not.”
The land trust is also not opposed to maintaining public assess to the river for non-destructive recreational uses such as fishing. As the group got ready to leave, a local fishing enthusiast clambered into the river downstream as an eagle soared through the cottonwoods. McCarty asked him if he might be interested in helping to monitor the property, part of the trust’s responsibility of taking ownership of the parcels. As the land trust moves forward, McCarty said it hopes to acquire more parcels in the area to add further to the patchwork of land protecting salmon and habitat in the area for generations to come.
“In our ownership, these properties will continue to be places for young salmon to grow and for adult salmon to seek refuge in their cool waters,” she said.