Southwest Alaska Salmon Habitat Initiative

The Conservation Fund has formed an impressive coalition of local groups, landowners, guides and lodges and major foundations united around a simple idea: purchase land or conservation agreements from willing local landowners to affect landscape-scale conservation of intact habitats used by abundant wild salmon, trout, bear, caribou, moose and migratory waterfowl. In health terms, this is classic preventive medicine.

 

 

Southwest Alaska Salmon Habitat Initiative

 

 

The Conservation Fund has formed an impressive coalition of local groups, landowners, guides and lodges and major foundations united around a simple idea: purchase land or conservation agreements from willing local landowners to affect landscape-scale conservation of intact habitats used by abundant wild salmon, trout, bear, caribou, moose and migratory waterfowl. In health terms, this is classic preventive medicine.

The Southwest Alaska Salmon Habitat Initiative is a widely supported Alaskan conservation project with the biggest upside for hunters and anglers. The stakes for sportsmen and wildlife cannot be overstated in Southwest Alaska, a 40 million-acre region that includes the Alaska Peninsula and the salmon-rich Bristol Bay drainages. 

The alternative is to allow a steep local economic downturn to force the sale of private coastal and riverine properties up and down the most productive drainages of Southwest Alaska. Most of the properties at risk of subdivision, sale and development are inholdings within renowned state parks, national wildlife refuges and national parks. These conservation units include the Togiak, Becharof, Alaska Peninsula and Izembek national wildlife refuges, Wood Tikchik State Park and Lake Clark, Katmai and Aniakchak national parks and preserves.

Ten Percent Solution

Together the state and federal lands set aside for conservation total 26 million acres. Throughout Southwest Alaska lie 4,500,000 acres of private Native land transferred to the local people in 1971 pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act or through the 1906 Native Allotment Act. Much of this land is within or adjacent to these large public areas. For a variety of reasons related to historic settlement and land use these Native lands disproportionately include much of the best hunting and fishing and highest value habitats in the region.

The project partners in the Southwest Alaska Conservation Coalition estimate a critical ten percent of the Native holdings, or 450,000 acres, throughout Southwest Alaska should be kept open to public access for hunting and fishing and secure vital fish and wildlife habitat. They plan to achieve that goal over the next decade. Although that may seem like a large number, the footprint of the conservation purchases is small by Alaska standards; slightly over 1% for Southwest Alaska. Better yet, the benefit of conserving the inholdings for wildlife and public access is magnified by the surrounding large public lands that will remain available for hunting and fishing as they have in the past.

Salmon Economic Crisis & Land Ownership

The urgency of the project is driven by the collapse of commercial wild salmon prices which has been ongoing since 1988 and is impoverishing the local Native population of the region. The livelihoods of these commercial fishermen have been hit by a market crash in wild salmon that ranges from 50% to over 90% depending on the species of fish. The ex-vessel price paid to fishermen for sockeye has fallen 77%, pink salmon 92%, coho 78%, chum 81% and chinook 54%. The value of commercial fishing boats, nets, limited-entry fishing permits and other assets have plummeted accordingly. Since Native Alaskans own over 95% of the private land in Southwest Alaska the correlation between growing poverty and property owners is almost one to one. Something has to give and the disposition of land assets – from local sellers who have owned the land for generations to outside interests - is underway amid some legendary hunting and fishing destinations.

Looming Loss of Access

Conservation Force supporters who have visited Southwest Alaska know the grandeur of the region. Many of us have hunted brown bear, moose and caribou or have fished for salmon, steelhead, rainbow trout and grayling on streams and rivers unmatched for their abundance. Some of the best big game guides and the finest lodges operate in these areas.

What few visitors know is that these undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see are being steadily impacted by private cabin and lodge construction within prime wildlife areas. The pace will only increase. A natural but negative side effect of this land ownership transformation is rising trespass enforcement by the remaining original land owners as they become less tolerant of the increasing visitation and as new non-local owners restrict the public from key access points for floatplanes, boats and rafts necessary to operate in remote wilderness areas offering the best hunting and fishing opportunities.

“The parallels for the piecemeal settlement of a wild region over time are well known in the Lower 48 states but still rare in Alaska,” says Glenn Elison, state director for The Conservation Fund. “But modern travel and the growth in the numbers of upscale sportsmen who are using Southwest Alaska is putting the remote areas within the reach of more and more people. The region can handle that pressure but not if everyone starts wanting their own private retreat and they all end up along rivers and lake shores.”

Salmon are the Cornerstone

Conserving wild salmon habitat has been chosen as the Southwest Alaska project’s cornerstone objective in rallying support for the purchase of these critical properties. Salmon are the keystone of the region’s ecology, economy and culture. An estimated seventy-five million salmon return annually to spawn in Southwest Alaska rivers like the Nushagak, Kvichak, Naknek, Alagnak and Wood River to name a few. The fish greatly enrich the region’s land and water with nutrients that become the mainstay in the diets of many mammals and birds. 

Brown and black bears, wolves, foxes, wolverines and other furbearers are direct predators and consumers of salmon. Bear population density and size clearly depend upon salmon abundance. Raptors such as bald eagles, owls, hawks, as well as countless gulls, terns and other birds join in the annual feast on salmon carcasses. 

Caribou and moose are less obviously connected to salmon, yet their migratory corridors and home ranges overlap thousands of miles of Southwest Alaska’s salmon rivers, streams, and nameless tributaries. As discussed above, the Native lands in the region overlap many of the key access points and best fishing and hunting areas but a larger threat to the resource is the certainty that development harms productivity of salmon and other habitat. 

The destruction of once prodigious Atlantic and Pacific salmon runs from California to British Columbia is a well-known story. Salmon spawning and rearing habitats are highly vulnerable to human caused changes in water quality. 

By targeting the most salmon sensitive habitats that are the most frequently used by visiting anglers, the project can conserve salmon viability and public access through the purchase of land or easements.

Coalition Leadership and Funding is Broad-based

The team of partners tackling the inholding acquisition campaign is operating as the Southwest Alaska Conservation Coalition. The group involves core regional stakeholders, expanding out to businesses in Alaska, non-profit organizations, major foundations and Congress.

Joining The Conservation Fund on the board of the coalition are Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Alaska Professional Hunters Association, General Communications, Inc., ConocoPhillips Alaska, the Nushagak/Mulchatna-Wood Tikchik Land Trust and well-known guides.

Major foundations like the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (named after the co-founder of Intel and his wife) have already contributed or pledged $4.5 million. In the past two budget cycles the U.S. Congress has allocated about $6 million in federal coastal wetland grants, and funding from the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Department of Commerce, the Forest Legacy Program at the Department of Agriculture and the Land and Water Conservation Fund through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

These large foundation and congressional funding sources often require other donors to match their support, especially member-based organizations, who contribute their funds, thereby validating public support for the coalition’s goals and objectives.

Among the donor groups have been Royal Caribbean Cruises, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Dallas Safari Club, ConocoPhillips Alaska, Vital Ground Foundation, Donner Foundation, Columbia Sportswear, Orvis, The Huntsman, Wildlife Forever, Woolrich, Inc., Rapala, Pure Fishing, Alaska Sportsmen’s Lodge, and Boardwalk Lodge, Charles C. Brandt Construction, and hundreds of individuals.

Given the growing scarcity for conservation funding in the federal government, the track record for Southwest Alaska and the matching support look to give the project a leg up in future congressional budget cycles. The State of Alaska Parks Division has the approval of Governor Frank Murkowski for proceeding with targeted conservation purchases that leave a private land base for local Native and rural residents while capitalizing their ANCSA corporations. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are strongly supportive.

What Others Say

Third party endorsements are nice to have in any large conservation project and the Southwest Alaska Conservation Coalition is attracting opinion leader support.

Former Alaska Governor Jay Hammond, the famed ‘Bush Rat Governor’ who is also a former pilot, hunting guide and commercial fisherman from Southwest Alaska, strongly supports the project stating, “I can think of no other region where the interplay of a species like salmon has shaped the region’s culture, commerce and ecology.”

International big game consultant Bert Klineburger (Founding Conservation Force Board Member) has vast experience in expanding global hunting opportunity and sportsmens’ access. He opened up several countries, including Soviet satellite states during the Cold War. Bert likes the local buy-in apparent in Southwest Alaska conservation, “The Southwest Alaska project is wisely working with the local landowners and people to achieve their objectives. In my experience, I’ve always worked to benefit local people by strengthening the incentives they have for conserving outstanding habitat. No lasting successes are possible where the interests of hunters and big game are at odds with local people.”

Dr. Richard Allen of Kerrville, Texas and a past president of both the Dallas Safari Club and Dallas Ecological Foundation (both Conservation Force supporting organizations) floated the remote King Salmon River in 2004 as part of a project evaluation effort for DSC/DEF. “The ecology of the area is one of the last truly wild areas left in the United States. To see this habitat lost would be one of the major tragedies of our time. We must preserve this area intact for future generations and that is one thing that I truly, truly believe. Southwest Alaska Native leaders would rather sell to conservation buyers to protect salmon habitat and perpetuate their subsistence lifestyle,” says Allen. “Conservation purchases are the only way to keep fish and wildlife at peak levels, compensate landowners, and allow historic public access for world class hunting and fishing. The good news is, most of the region is still intact with healthy wildlife populations.”

Allen and his wife Suzie successfully hunted the Alaska Peninsula for caribou and enjoyed the outstanding fishing of this area in the 1990s. Their outfitter was Alaska Professional Hunter Association president Joe Klutsch who now serves as a board member of the Southwest Alaska Conservation Coalition. APHA recently passed a resolution supporting the coalition’s goals and objectives as has the influential Alaska Federation of Natives forming an important alliance between wilderness-based user groups like big game hunters and the landowners in the region.

Wildlife Forever President and CEO Douglas H. Grann floated the Kwethluk River in 2002 and became an early advocate of the coalition’s project, “Anyone who’s experienced the region knows it is unmatched for salmon and rainbow trout fishing in North America and the world actually,” Grann says. “The opportunity for our members to help purchase small tracts that conserve much larger areas provides an enormous degree of leverage when looked at per dollar spent or per acre conserved for fish and wildlife.”

Getting it Right in a Last Great Place

Readers of The Hunting Report and Conservation Force supporters have wide personal experience of the world’s foremost hunting and fishing destinations. All of us have favorite places burned into memory and it would be a kind of torture to have to choose one of our favorite places over others. Conservation Force strives to make sure we don’t have to lose any of the last great places but we are all aware of the political, social and economic cross currents that put many awesome wildlife regions in jeopardy, leaving some permanently ruined.

There is only one Alaska Peninsula in the world and only one Bristol Bay. The subcontinent of rivers that is Southwest Alaska is not equaled anywhere for wild salmon productivity. Nowhere do wild salmon populations have a greater likelihood to be conserved in their original bounty. The Initiative is the best hope for bears and other wildlife in the region. Conservation Force is accepting earmarked contributions for the Southwest Alaska Salmon Habitat Initiative or you can direct your donation directly to The Conservation Fund, Alaska State Office, 6400 Andover Drive, Anchorage, AK 99516, glennelison@alaska.com, 907-868-7974. For more information visit www.swakcc.org or www.conservationfund.org.