NOSB paper

This paper was written as part of the 2003 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

The Future of the Kenai River Estuary—An Economic Model for Survival


Rachel Beatty
Stevie-Kaye Pyfer
Matt Smith
Alison Simpson
Jaime Miller


Team Laridae
Skyview High School
46188 Sterling Hwy

Soldotna, AK 99669

Skyview team photo

Kenai River aerial photo


The collapse of the commercial fishing industry in the Kenai/Soldotna area, combined with increasing need for jobs has put the Kenai River estuary at increased risk of industrial development. At the present time five fish processing plants are in bankruptcy and offer the potential for new types of industries to utilize the land. In an effort to help define options for development a total of 272 Skyview High School students and community members were surveyed. The survey results indicated that local residents want to maintain wilderness values, but they recognize the need for economic growth. However, in development adjacent to the river they prefer recreational or residential growth to large-scale industrial projects. Small businesses were intermediate in the selection.

Taking these results into consideration, the Skyview High School National Ocean Bowl team proposes to create an Alaskan birding trail. Similar trails in Texas and at least 20 other states have proved to be an economic boost to local communities. The Kenai River estuary will be part of this trail system. Over 108 species of birds are known to use or nest in the area. Beluga whales, sea lions, and seals are also available for viewing. In addition, during the months of June, July, and August commercial fishing activities are present for tourist participation. At least one fish processing plant will be converted to small business/tourist-oriented activities. In exchange for this capital investment, the Kenai River wetlands will be purchased by private foundations/federal government, or defined by the City of Kenai as conservation lands. Estimated cost of the total project is three to six million dollars. Funding will be a mix of private and government monies.


Skyview High School is located in Soldotna, Alaska (Figure 1), a community that relies on the fishing industry for a major portion of its economy. This area is heavily supported by oil, mainly the oil platforms in Cook Inlet. These have been in decline in recent years. Commercial fishing and tourism are also very significant economic contributors to the local economies. The population of the central peninsula area is approximately 30,000 people. Combined, the sport, personal use, and commercial fishing industries have been worth over $100 million annually in some years to the economy (Tarbox, 2002). Unfortunately, the downturn in the historic commercial catch (Figure 2) and the exvessel value of the commercial fishing industry (Figure 3) is having a significant impact on the communities of Soldotna and Kenai, Alaska. Presently, there are five fish processing plants that are closed or in bankruptcy proceedings along the Kenai River in Alaska. Not only have these large, space consuming and ecosystem impacting fish processing plants been built next to the river, only to be shut down, but the long term impacts of filling the economic void left by them is real. The need to find jobs in the community may put the Kenai River and its adjacent wetlands at higher risk of uncontrolled and unplanned development. In addition, the tourist industry may suffer a setback from the lack of rational development.

After systematic pondering and brainstorming over challenges that face this community on the Kenai Peninsula, our team decided that we needed to provide an alternative economic model for the community while maintaining those values which people in the community share.

This paper presents the results of those efforts. We decided that our information base was lacking some critical information, and, therefore, we approached the challenge in two steps. The first step was to survey the community to see what values they would support and promote. The second was to find a project and economic model that met these community desires while maintaining, to a high degree, the wetlands of the Kenai River watershed.


The group determined that the best way to gain insight from our community was to create a survey on which several economic questions would be asked. Each individual of the team came up with a series of questions. We combined our efforts and selected and formatted the questions into a smaller list. We then had the survey reviewed by Kenai Peninsula Borough School District personnel familiar with designing surveys. We incorporated these comments into the final design and Appendix A presents the survey with an analysis of each question.

We agreed that the future of the community is really in the hands of the students in high school today. We concentrated the survey on members of this group. However, we also wanted input from adults. Therefore, we distributed the surveys to the Skyview student body and teachers. In addition, we randomly passed them out in the community at parents' places of work. When completed, the surveys were returned to the team. Each survey form was numbered for filing and tracking purposes. A duplicate copy was also made and stored in a safe location separate from the original forms. Each survey answer was entered onto an Excel spreadsheet. Summary statistics and graphs were made in Excel. Since not all people responded to every question, we edited the forms to use only those returns that answered a specific question. Therefore, the number of responses varies slightly from the total number returned. In addition, we looked at responses from the following age groups under 20, 20-40, and greater than 40; male and female; and length of residency, under ten years or greater than ten years.

Following analysis of the survey data, we examined the Kenai watershed for locations that would provide an economic opportunity, be associated with the river, provide additional protection of critical wetlands, and be consistent with the survey results.


Survey Results

A total of 272 surveys were returned and put into the database. The student body size of Skyview High School is 600 and 150 of the surveys were filled out by the students. In general, respondents had a strong commitment to the environment, favoring wilderness to economic growth, and residential/small business development to large-scale industrial projects. There were differences by age, sex, and length of residency (Figures 4-14). A discussion of the questions and results are in Appendix A.

Project and Site Selection

Because the project topic had to do with a coastal ecosystem in a coastal community, we knew that the project had to have a positive impact on the ecosystems found along the coast. We also determined from our survey that it must help the community by making use of and maintenance of natural habitats and yet provide an economic benefit to gain public support. We thought that the Kenai River itself would be a good focus area. However, the mainstream river appeared to be heavily utilized; therefore, economic gain would be minimal at increased risk to the river from development. Therefore, we decided to focus on the Kenai River estuary lower five miles of the river. Fish processing plants situated in already disturbed areas are available for development and are adjacent to the river and estuarine wetlands. These wetlands are in a natural state and are available for eco-tourism non-consumptive eco-tourism. The Kenai flats estuarine area includes a large salt-water marsh, a black spruce forest, and a fresh water pond (Figure 15).

From our survey data, we deduced that small business development or recreational development on disturbed lands would be acceptable. In addition, by tying the development into eco-tourism we could positively impact adjacent wetlands by maintaining them in a natural state. We wanted to strengthen our economy, make use of wildlife without destroying it, and keep everyone positive about the project.

From our research we learned that the economic benefits of bird watching can be very large. Small communities in a number of states have seen economic gain from promoting bird watching in their area. For example, a small Gulf of Mexico town in Texas made as much as $2.5 million annually (American Birding Association, 2002). In Texas, over 700 miles of the Texas coastline is covered in a birding trail/road system project (Sharp, 2002). In national parks and other eco-tourism areas benefits have reached $80 million for small communities (American Birding Association, 2002).

The bird watching industry is over a billion dollars annually in the United States. For example, in Florida alone the industry is estimated to contribute $477 million annually. It is also the fastest growing outdoors-recreational activity (Stap, 2002). The Georgia Colonial Coast Birding Trail incorporates a 19th century lighthouse, a museum, and historical sites into their birding trail (Cubie, 2002). Vermont ties their birding trail in with their other greatest tourist attraction such as viewing of the autumn colors, skiing, and summers spent on their lakes. Finally, areas that are valuable ecosystems can be made economically useful without significantly impacting the delicate habitats within them (Erickson, 2002).

In addition, Alaska is considered to be one of the best birding spots in the nation. One out of every four tourists who come to Alaska is interested in bird watching. Nearly 77 million people in the United States are involved in some form of bird watching or feeding (Dobbyn, 2002). They represent a significant pool of potential visitors to Alaska.

We think that promoting bird watching in the Kenai/Soldotna area could help the Kenai peninsula by continuing to expand our tourist industry as well as connecting us to the rest of the world. Everyone knows that the Kenai River is famous for its salmon fisheries. We feel that the Kenai peninsula can be the start of a major project to promote birding in Alaska.

Our project is designed to revitalize the economic and environmental values of the lower Kenai River wetlands. As part of this plan we envision that the Kenai River wetlands will be part of a State of Alaska coastal trail system which promotes wildlife viewing with a special emphasis on bird watching.

This trail system would start in southeast Alaska, using the marine highway system, to perhaps go from one birding site to another as well as being able to observe birds along the way. Following this starting location the trail would include a variety of locations in the state—Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Mat-Su valley, Seward, Homer, and Haines. From the road system, the options for bird viewing are unlimited and any small community could participate. For example, Denali National Park has golden eagles, Aquilia chrysaetos, and rare species such as Arctic warblers (Phylloscopus boreali). More importantly, places like Homer, Alaska have existing shorebird festivals that would meld nicely into a road trail system. In our community of Kenai/Soldotna, we plan to provide part of the resources and infrastructure needed to make the trail concept viable.

Our trail starts in the valuable wetlands of the world famous Kenai River flats (Figure 15). The trail is designed to provide ample wildlife viewing opportunities. For example, over 108 species of birds have been documented to use the Kenai River wetlands (Table 1). Year round viewing of eagles and owls are possible. The first arrivals of the spring's migration are snow geese, Hyper borea, quickly followed by thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl. It is not uncommon to see pintail ducks, Anas acuta, Canada geese, Branta canadensis, and sand hill cranes, Girus canadensis by the thousands. In addition, shorebirds such as Hudosian godwits, Limosa haematica, are known to breed in the area (Davis, 2002).

The City of Kenai and the State of Alaska recognize this area and already have planned a bike/ walking trail along the major highway which bisects the flats (Figure 15)). We plan to incorporate the existing trail into our proposal. In order to minimize costs and environmental impacts while providing good viewing opportunities and easy access we have designed the broadwalks to be short in length and follow presently disturbed areas (Figure 15). The boardwalk will be elevated and use blinds and screening to minimize impacts on migrating birds and wetlands (Figure 16). In addition, specific locations for viewing were designed to provide unique perspectives on different habitat types. We have placed viewing platform A (Figure 15) near the river so that both the river and marsh can be watched. In the water are beluga whales , Delphinapterus leucas, sea lions, Eumetopias jubatus, seals, arctic terns, Sterna paradisaea, and seagulls; over 6000 seagulls nest across the river that can be seen from this location. Platform B allows viewing allows viewing of wetlands that has greater and lesser yellowlegs, Tringa spp, and pintails as the main viewing options. Parasitic jaegers, Stercorarius parasiticus are also common sights. Platforms C provides a short excursion through a black spruce, Picae mariana, forest to view owls, moose, and other woodland animals. Platform D is in sight of a freshwater pond. Species found here include nesting waterfowl, Hudosian godwits, and arctic terns which feed on juvenile salmon, Onchorhynchus spp, rearing in the pond. Platform E allows viewing of the rest of the Kenai River flats and nesting sandhill cranes during the summer.

The start of the trail will be at an existing fish processing plant that is presently closed (Figure 17). This disturbed area would be ideal for small business development or a non-profit devoted to migratory bird research and outreach. Our plan for this area includes planting native vegetation in disturbed areas with informational kiosks, removing buildings that are old and non-historical and rebuilding with a new modern plan. Close to the river we would plant trees and shrubs to minimize bank erosion and runoff into the river. However, to start the trail we would have viewing areas that would allow tourist to see the fish processing activities at adjacent fish processing plants. This includes fish offloading from the commercial fleet, seagulls feeding on discharged salmon waste, and the normal activities associated with river and harbor use. Small businesses could include gift shops, restaurants, a small visitor center for eco-tourism, commercial fishing museum, or even a small fish processing plant that demonstrates how salmon are processed and sold.

Economic Cost and Gain

The economic cost of this project is as follows 1) cost of the fish processing site is estimated at $0.5 to 1.0 million, estimated from similar site for sale in area, 2) the trail in the Kenai estuarine area is estimated at $100–200 per foot (ADF&G 2002) and is about 2300 feet in length (total high end cost $460,000) 3) reconstruction of fish processing site is estimated at $2-4 million and 4) the estuarine area is presently owned by the City of Kenai—cost could be $0-1 million depending on city involvement. The total high-end cost is $6.5 million. Since all cost estimates were maximum figures, the actual cost should be less.

Sources of revenue for the project will be a mixture of private and government funds. Private funds will be required for most of the fish processing plant area. These funds can come from private businesses wishing to locate in the area or single investors in a developmental corporation. Funds for the trail will be requested from private, state, and federal grant programs. For example, the Nature Conservancy or the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association may be interested. Federal sources of funding could include the Economic Development Administration, Department of Commerce. This organization has special funding “to help communities plan and implement economic adjustment strategies in response to sudden and severe economic dislocations” such as the collapse of the fishing industry (Richert, 2002). In addition, special grants may be obtained from the federal or state government via the legislative process (e.g. Senator Ted Stevens could introduce the bill in the federal system).

Appendix A—Survey Results

  • Question 1. What do you like best about our community?

    Winter was most important to those who are male, and those who are under the age of twenty (Figure 4). Those twenty to forty years of age valued fishing/hunting and wilderness. Women liked the people, the winter, the schools, and the population more than wilderness.

  • Question 2. What industries do you think the Kenai Peninsula should have in the future?

    From the data we can conclude that large industrial projects and government is not very important to residents of the central Kenai Peninsula (Figure 5). Small businesses seem to be a favorite across all groups.

  • Question 3. You have the decision to develop a stretch of property along the Kenai River, What types of development is acceptable to you?

    The most acceptable kind of development to have along the Kenai River was residential (Figure 6). All groups ranked the different kinds of development in basically the same order with residential first, recreational and small business very close, tourism in the middle, and oil & gas developments the least desirable.

  • Question 4-5. How important do you think it is for the Kenai Peninsula to protect its wildlife?

    There was a consensus among all categories of people that protecting wildlife was more of a priority than promoting economics (Figure 7). The greatest difference between wildlife/economics in the different age categories was in the group over 40 years.

  • Question 6. Would you rather see our community stay the same size (4000 people) or become bigger—same size, double, triple, ten times, or Anchorage?

    One hundred and sixty people indicated they wanted to see the population stay the same size. However, a number of people indicated that a doubling of size would be acceptable. (Figure 8)

  • Question 7. Do you think that the Kenai Peninsula needs to protect its wildlife and natural ecosystems or focus more on economic growth that may degrade those systems?

    The overwhelming vote (180 out of 272 surveyed) was for protection of natural ecosystems (Figure 9).

  • Question 8. Do you think that you will still be a resident of the Kenai Peninsula in ten years or more?

    Only about 15 more people surveyed are not planning on living on the Kenai Peninsula in ten years (Figure 10). There is much higher number of students who plan to leave while the adults surveyed would rather stay.

  • Question 9. Do you feel that there are enough job opportunities on the Kenai Peninsula?

    The question of whether there are enough job opportunities on the Kenai Peninsula, it was pretty universal for people to say that there are not enough (Figure 11). Students felt more strongly about this than adults.

  • Question 10. Would you prefer to live in Soldotna/Kenai or Anchorage?

    The majority of respondents indicated they would prefer to live in Soldotna/Kenai (Figure 12). However, those under 20 years of age were almost split on this issue while those greater than 40 were strongly in favor of a smaller community. Males tend to favor a smaller community while females were more evenly divided.

  • Question 11. Do you think it is more important to preserve our wilderness or to develop more land to create more jobs?

    All ages were for wilderness protection (Figure13). There appeared to be no major differences associated with age, sex, or length of residency.

  • Question 12. Do you want to increase the tourist industry?

    All age groups said no to an increase in tourism (Figure 14). However, people age 20-40 were evenly split and those greater than 40 were only slightly opposed. We feel that our proposal addresses this discrepancy with tourism that is low impact and not associated with fishing on the lower Kenai River.


Alaska Department of Fish and Game(ASDF&G), 2002. Habitat Division, Kenai River Center.

American Birding Association, 2002. The Economics of Birding. http:

Cubie, Doreen, 2002. Georgia's Colonial Coast Birding Trail. Audubon Magazine September, 2002. page 58

Davis, Randall, 2002. Personal interveiw. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Soldotna, Alaska office 907-262-7767

Dobbyn, Paula, 2002. Bird-watching takes off. Anchorage Daily News. September 15th, 2002

Erickson, Laura, 2002. Great River Birding Trail. Audubon Magazine September, 2002. page 60

King, Mary, 2002. Alaska Department of Fish and Game(ADF&G)

Richert, Jr. , Bernhard. 2002. Personal interview. United States Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration. Anchorage, Alaska 907-271-2272.

Sharp, Patricia, 2002. Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Audubon Magazine September, 2002. page 57

Stap, Don, 2002. Great Florida Birding Trail. Audubon Magazine September, 2002. page 59

Tarbox, Kenneth, 2002. Personal interview. Retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Soldotna, Alaska office. 907-262-7767


Figure 1. Map of the Kenai River drainage.

map of Kenai River drainage

Figure 2. Upper Cook Inlet, Alaska commercial sockeye salmon harvest.

sockeye salmon harvest

Figure 3. Exvessel value of the UCI, Alaska commercial salmon fishery.

exvessel value, salmon fishery

(Source ADF&G)

NOTE: Larger versions of figures 4-14 can be seen by clicking on each graphic—use your browser's back button afterward to return to this paper.

Figure 4. Results from Skyview NOSB community survey: Question 1—importance of Kenai/Soldotna community attributes (value 1=very important; 5=not important).

community attributes survey

Figure 5. Results from question 2 of survey: most desired industries (value 1=very important; 5=not important).

most desired industries survey

Figure 6. Results from survey question 3: most acceptable river developments (value 1=very important; 5=not important).

river developments survey

Figure 7. Results from survey questions 4 and 5: importance of wildlife protection and economic promotion (value 1=very important; 5=not important).

wildlife protection, economic promotion survey

Figure 8. Results from survey question 6: preference for community size.

community size preference survey

Figure 9. Results from survey question 7: wildlife and ecosystem protection or economic growth.

wildlife protection vs. economic growth survey

Figure 10. Results from survey question 8: Kenai Peninsula resident in 10 years or more.

resident in 10 years survey

Figure 11. Results from survey question 9: enough job opportunities.

enough job opportunities survey

Figure 12. Results from survey question 10: living preference in Kenai/Soldotna or Anchorage.

living preference survey

Figure 13. Results from survey question 11: preserve wilderness or develop land to create jobs.

preserve wilderness vs develop for jobs

Figure 14. Results from survey question 12: increase tourism.

increase tourism survey

Figure 15. Boardwalk layout for the Kenai River estuarine/wildlife/birding trail. White arrow coming in at upper right indicates trail planned for construction in 2004 by State of Alaska.

aerial photo with trail layout

Platform A is two tier high for easier viewing. Platforms B, C, and D are built with screening to minimize viewing impact. The trail B to C will be screened to minimize impacts on birds using the adjacent wetlands.

Figure 16. Viewing platform (without screening) and walkway design.

photo of platform

walkway design drawing

Figure 17. Fish processing plant scheduled for revitalization with plan for development.

processing plant revitalization

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