This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A forum at the Soldotna Library brought together people who wanted to learn more and discuss salmon habitat. The forum, hosted by Cook Inletkeeper, held a four-person panel: Marcus Mueller, land manager at the Kenai Peninsula Borough; Sue Mauger, science director at Cook Inletkeeper; Patti Berkhahn, who worked for Alaska Department of Fish and Game; and Branden Bornemann, executive director at the Kenai Watershed Forum.

About 50 people attended the forum, which covered issues such as river setbacks and the Stand for Salmon Ballot Initiative.

The first question of the forum asked presenters how their chosen careers bring them close to the salmon habitat.

Mueller discussed how spending a lot of his time looking at maps brings him close to salmon.

“Let’s say we’re talking about the next landfill for the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” Mueller said. “Where does that go? To really tackle that question, you got to look at how water moves across the landscape: the watersheds. One of the really important connections that I find, I find through maps. To see those spatial relationships and to see that wherever we’re at, we are in a watershed.”

Mauger said she intersects with salmon habitat at her job through working with scientists, working with decision makers and conservation groups.

Bornemann told a story about one of his first experiences mapping salmon habitat for the Watershed Forum.

“I was in hip boots at the time, walking alone through the Beaver Creek watershed up a small unnamed stream in the middle of muskeg and spongy earth that did not seem familiar to me,” Bornemann said. “I set some traps and I was floored at where we found salmon. This was a stream that I had driven over multiple times going to work and it had never crossed my mind that this little tiny stream in this habitat is important to the overall picture.”

Berkhahn said she was all over the Kenai Peninsula looking for juvenile salmon, identifying them or netting and tagging King salmon.

“I’ve been on these little streams that you wouldn’t even think had fish in them so high up the watershed, but I tell you what, dolly varden are just about everywhere, second to them is the little coho salmon, “ Berkhahn said.

The next question posed to the forum was how would the Kenai River look different if there wasn’t a 50-foot setback on property near the river bank.

Berkhahn began the discussion with her own experience of living here for 30 years.

“If you look at aerial photography of the Kenai River from 30 years ago and 40 years ago, there’s a big difference,” Berkhahn said. “Today you’re going to see how many places have been built on the river.”

She also noted, along with Mueller, the importance bank habitat provides to a healthy stream.

“If we did not have those setbacks, I’m pretty sure we would have killed the Kenai River by now,” Berkhahn said.

Bornemann agreed with Berkhahn’s sentiments but said that 50-foot is the minimum.

Mauger celebrated the 50-foot setback and said she recently came to the borough assembly meeting to present the mayor with an award to congratulate the assembly’s law.

“The 50 foot setback is a shining light of good land management thinking,” Mauger said.

The forum was then turned to the upcoming initiative that will be on the November ballot. The panel was asked how the watershed would look different if it were to pass.

Mauger said it would be an amazing thing if the initiative passed, because it protects the intact salmon habitat, which is found few other places in the world. She also focused her discussion on permitting projects that may affect salmon habitat.

“It’s important that we have a chance to say ‘yes we think it’s an appropriate use of that stream to do x, y or z,’ which may or may not keep that habitat intact, but at least we have an opportunity to talk about it,” Mauger said.

Mueller anticipates projects would adopt new methodologies if the initiative were to pass.

Bornemann said it’s a shame that the state had to wait for a citizen’s initiative to do this.

“We should have been on top of this a long time ago,” Bornemann said.

Berkhahn said the initiative passing will definitely be a good thing.

“It will keep us moving forward,” Berkhahn said. “You may not realize this, but the Bristol Bay watershed has the greatest sustainable watershed in the world. You know why it’s the greatest run? Because everyone else has ruined their salmon runs with mines, with dams and now they’re all backpedalling. It’s a lot better to keep these systems intact. We can not do as good a job as Mother Nature can.”

The next question asked was whether or not Alaska was a global leader in salmon conservation.

Bornemann said he didn’t know the answer. “I don’t think we are,” Bornemann said. “I think we could always be doing better.”

Mauger said the state has done good work to improve salmon habitat.

“There are some glimmers of hope,” Mauger said. “There are some concerted efforts to create strategic plans around fish habitat. We’re leaders only because no one else is doing anything except restoring their habitat.”

Berkhahn said the state is doing a few things right.

“The current habitat laws are pretty effective for the small projects,” Berkhahn said. “It’s the large projects where they don’t work at all. If Pebble Mine came on my desk I’d have to quit because I couldn’t in the right mind issue a permit for something like that. That’s where we need help.”

Mueller made a comparison between the health of our salmon and the health of our community and as individuals.

“The story of salmon and the story of us are so parallel,” Mueller said.

The last question of the forum asked the panel what can people do to help build up salmon habitat.

Mueller said stewardship.

“It’s picking up trash,” Mueller said.

Mauger said everyone could try and model good behavior.

“If you are taking care of your habitat, people are noticing it,” Mauger said.

Bornemann also said to model good behavior and to have the courage to speak up.

“Just like 10,000 cuts can kill a system, 10,000 little positive things can also lift up a system,” Bornemann said.

Berkhahn told the crowd to read the book “King of Fish,” and to give it to everyone they know.

“That’s step one,” Hahahan said. “What (the other panelists said) is the rest of it.”

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