Please join us on Tuesday, February 18, 5-6pm (AKDT), for our Friends February membership meeting with featured guest speaker and photographer, Lisa Hupp.
Lisa will be speaking to us at the Anchorage meeting: our other gatherings will join via Zoom Meetings or you can join from home (see below).
Anchorage: Fish & Wildlife Service Regional Office, 1011 E. Tudor
Fairbanks: Watershed School 4975 Decathlon
Homer: Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, 95 Sterling Highway
Soldotna: Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, Ski Hill Road
Lisa Hupp will share her experiences behind the lens photographing Alaska’s refuges. “I love how photography can demand close attention and devotion to place,” Hupp says. “It’s a way to see and share the world, whether you take photos on a phone or with a backpack full of equipment. Alaska’s national wildlife refuges are places of endless possibility for photographers, from dramatic and vast landscapes to charismatic wildlife. These refuges are big, wild and remote; photography can help us to tell their stories.”
Hupp is the Communications Coordinator for National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska. You can see some of her images and read how she gets those amazing shotshere.
The calm before the storm! The Arctic Refuge drilling proposal continues front and center on the national stage, and the administration’s numerous assaults on the environment continue to be bogged down under the pressures of time, resources, and inadequate scientific studies. However, we expect major events in the very near future.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
There are rumors concerning DOI plans to sell leases for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. The Record of Decision (ROD) continues to be delayed for unannounced reasons and is now expected sometime in March. Since the lease sale had been planned for December 2019, the delay of the ROD and the necessary waiting periods after its release have pushed any possible lease sale farther into the Spring at the earliest.
There is no word about plans for seismic exploration.which likely cannot occur before the 2020-21 winter, if at all. However, SAExploration has been sold to a Norwegian company. The implication of this transfer for exploration in the Coastal Plain is unclear.
Our conservation and Native Alaskan partners continue to hold more successful outreach events throughout the country, and there have been many great pieces in various media. The campaign’s meetings with executives of oil companies and financial institutions concerning the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts are producing impressive results. Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign continue to spearhead this increasingly successful campaign. Major investment managers and banks are joining the ranks of those warning against investing in oil and gas projects, with special attention to the Arctic. We continue to make progress in the decades-long battle to save and preserve the Arctic Refuge and its subsistence and cultural values!
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
There was no significant development in the suit filed on August 7, 2019 in federal district court that names Friends as the lead plaintiff along with eight conservation partners. The Court approved the unopposed intervention of the State of Alaska. We have not received a ruling from the Court, and we will provide updates as this lawsuit works its way through the legal process.
Kenai Predator Control and Hunting Regulations
The proposed Kenai Refuge predator control regulations have not been released, but we continue to expect them soon. It is likely that the new regulations will not only allow hunting of brown bears over bait, as well as loosened restrictions on hunting in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area and 4-wheel drive access to frozen lakes, but we expect additional draconian measures to be included in the final version. It appears that there will be a 60-day comment period, but no public hearings. All of our conservation partners are closely monitoring this process and are preparing to take whatever action is necessary to stop this assault on Kenai Refuge wildlife.
We are not aware of any significant development on the proposed 211-mile long Ambler industrial road even though it is on an “unprecedented, extreme fast track,” according to a BLM official.
We last reported on the lightning-caused Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in July just as temperatures moderated, humidity increased, and the fire spread came to a crawl.The Type 2 fire crew was sent elsewhere to battle more active fires and life on the Refuge returned to something near normal.
But then came August’s record heat and record drought.In two intense days a 35 mile an hour wind gusting to 40 whipped up the fire, sending it racing across the landscape.At 2 am on the night of August 17th as the winds howled, refuge staff began evacuating sleepy campers from campgrounds and cabins in its path.Less than 24 hours later the fire jumped the highway and the Kenai River and overran the access roads to those campgrounds.The Sterling Highway, the only road access to the Kenai Peninsula towns of Sterling, Homer, Soldotna and Kenai, shut down for more than a day.For the next two weeks, the highway would be periodically closed due to hazardous conditions and pilot cars and long waits were often necessary to travel through the burn area. Dense smoke invaded the communities even as far as Anchorage, and the towns of Cooper Landing and Sterling were put on notice that evacuation might be imminent.Initial attack on the rekindling of the Swan Lake Fire was complicated by the other three fires burning in Southcentral all of which had the potential to take out many homes and one – the McKinley fire – did destroy more than 50 homes.The Type 2 fire team that was in route to Swan Lake was diverted to the McKinley Fire because more lives and homes were at risk there.A Type One (highest level) firefighting crew was then ordered and began to arrive on August 18.The Great Basin Incident Management Team arrived to attack the r fire concentrating on protecting the towns and highway.More bulldozers and aircraft were added to the fight although dense smoke shut down aircraft use on some days.Refuge fire qualified trail crews worked on hand lines and saving the much-loved Refuge recreational cabins.The Refuge had previously created defensible space around the cabins and that foresight coupled with the efforts of the crew saved all three cabins at risk. Since July, acreage burned increased 60% from 100,000 acres to 160,000 acres but by Labor Day, the fire had once again slowed to a crawl and efforts moved from firefighting to mop-up.
As I write this the rains are falling, temperatures are dropping with the move into fall, and hours of daylight are decreasing by five minutes a day.It is unlikely that this fire will kick up again this year given this seasonal change, but then again nothing about it has been typical.From its beginning in June the Swan Lake Fire displayed extreme behavior such as burning in tundra above timberline, burning several feet deep into the duff, and burning over rock piles.This can best be attributed to the extreme weather of this summer and the flammability of black spruce which has been referred to as “gasoline on a stick”. According to Leah Eskelin, Kenai Refuge Public Information Officer, even winter won’t completely put out this fire and smoke from hot spots will be visible next summer and maybe even longer.However, those hot spots will be within the burned area and are not likely to have the fuels available to spread.She explained that the fire containment lines near the towns are being checked by infrared sensors and human hands to ensure there are no hot spots within 100 feet of the fire’s perimeter.
Thanks to the efforts of the fire crews, there have been no casualties.However, the fire took an enormous toll on people, particularly those in Cooper Landing and Sterling, who feared for their homes. Smoke and highway shutdowns canceled all kinds of travel plans and events from medical appointments to schools to business meetings to the Friends Kenai River cleanup.The tourist economy from Homer to Cooper Landing took a hit as visitors did not want to chance driving the highway or breathing smoke.A big area of the refuge and the adjacent Forest Service lands as well as the famed Kenai River were closed to all recreational use for several weeks.And, of course, fire suppression costs an incredible amount of public money which is yet to be tallied.The good news is that no homes or lives were lost and the long-term risk of fire in these communities in greatly reduced now that the mature black spruce trees have been consumed by this fire.
The refuge is just beginning to get a look at the results of the fire.The cabins were spared but many popular hiking trails and recreational access roads were burned over resulting in downed and hazardous trees and areas where hidden pits of burning ashes pose risks to the public.Dozer lines mar the landscape in many areas.The once beautifully forested Skilak Lake Recreational Area is a little heartbreaking to look at now, but life will return with a new and wildlife-friendly young forest.Mushroomers and moose hunters are enthusiastic about hunting prospects as a result of the burn and the regrowth to come.Leah reports that bear and wolf cubs have already been spotted in burned over areas. “And, it is really easy to spot wildlife now,” she added.“The mix of burned and unburned landscape means many more species are going to find their future homes inside the fire’s perimeter.”
Village kids on the Tetlin Refuge will be peeking under the ice next winter and learning to fish this summer with equipment purchased through a grant Friends secured from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Friends were awarded a $6800 grant for a special initiative to enhance fishing and hunting on refuges. Tetlin Environmental Educator Tim Lorenzini sought the Friends help:
to expand his school field trips
increase the courses he could offer at Native Culture Camps, and
create new Refuge sponsored community events.
In addition to the fishing equipment, the grant purchased a regulation teaching archery set complete with targets, and the all-important ice fishing tents in a climate where school field trips often take place in below zero temperatures. Competing for grants is one thing Friends can do to help refuges but it takes volunteer grant writers and volunteer refuge liaisons to work closely with “their” refuge to make this happen. If you have these skills, or would like to learn, contact us at email@example.com.
According to Tetlin Refuge Liaison, Poppy Benson, “The grant writing seemed like a huge amount of work but now that it is done, I feel like I really accomplished something. I have great confidence that the Tetlin Refuge will put the equipment to good use to strengthen their relationship with their communities and how can that not be good for wildlife?!”
But grants aren’t the only way Friends helps refuges financially. With our membership fees and generous individual donations at the $100, $500 and $1000 level, Friends have been able to donate $1000 to help the Kenai Refuge fund school buses to bring kids to the refuge for field trips, fund all the prizes for the Migratory Bird Calendar contest which is so important to rural schools, buy wood chips for a new trail at Tetlin Refuge Headquarters, bring a dozen urban youth to Homer for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, send volunteers to science camps, and pay for travel for Artist in Residence Lindsay Carron to capture in paintings the Yukon Flats Refuge.
And then there is the cookie money. What is cookie money you ask? Well the Fish & Wildlife Service cannot legally buy food for a public event but if a Refuge Manager is flying into a village to have a meeting with the elders, he or she had better be bringing coffee and cookies! Last year we provided funds for refreshments for six refuge events. Friends is able to do this because of your membership fees and donations. You can be confident we use your money for the refuges wisely and generously. To join, renew, or make a donation, CLICK HERE .Thank you on behalf of Friends and the 16 Alaska Refuges!
January: We had a Friends Board Retreat and 5 of us went to Hawaii for the Peer to Peer Workshop with the Friends of the Pacific Islands Refuges
February: No Report
March: has been a busy month as the Friends have approved the Refuge Requests to date and new Volunteer Opportunities have been posted on our website. Friends had a table at Homer’s Volunteer Fair at Islands & Ocean on March 21 and 22. The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Volunteer Sign-up recruitment at the fair resulted in a dozen or more members and interested non-members signing on to help. To date, 21 individuals have volunteered for 62 events. Of the 21, at least 13 are current members while the rest are interested in joining Friends or receiving more information about our organization.
April: Volunteer recruitment for for Dalton weed pull, Camp Goonzhii: Christina Whiting, and for Tree Swallow Banding; Volunteers recruited for Shorebird Festival, 41 at this time, with over half being Friends members; Other volunteers recruited for Attu 75th in Anchorage and Mat-Su Valley area, but these go directly to the Attu 75th coordinator.
May: has been a very busy month for Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Friends volunteers at two major events: Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer (May 10-13) and Battle of Attu 75th Anniversary Commemoration events in Anchorage (May 17-19).
As the Volunteer Coordinator for the Shorebird Festival, I utilized 45 volunteers in various jobs throughout the four days, including the Viewing Stations, Friends Coffee, and event management duties for workshops, lectures, programs, bird walks, and much more. They put in more than 150 volunteer hours and received a free festival poster and a complimentary ticket to a keynote address. The festival could not occur without the support of these awesome volunteers. Thank you, one and all! (Probably half were Friends members!)
For the Attu 75th events, I advertised and recruited volunteers to assist Susan Churchill, the event volunteer coordinator. Although this was not a Friends volunteer opportunity, three Friends did work all three days for a total of 30 hours each. Thank you Chuck Iliff and Tom Choate! We three were honored to have been a part of this memorable event organized by Alaska Maritime NWR (and various other partners).
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge requested our help in advertising and recruiting volunteers for two events in June: Trail’s Day and Kenai River Festival. We recruited the leaders and all the volunteers for both events. Thank you Tony Munter, Sharon Baur, and Tara Schmidt!
USFWS Region 7 requested advertising and recruitment on our website for the Watershed/Salmon Education Project in Anchorage (April and May). Three Friends volunteered: Susan Pope, Jim Theile, and Dave Schroyer. Thank you!
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: We advertised and recruited applications for Camp Goonzhii (August/Sept), Christina Whiting and Cindy Sisson.
Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge: We advertised and recruited for the two Dalton weed pulls (June and July), receiving applications from two new Friends members, one for each month.
June: Kanuti NWR sponsored the 24th Dalton Highway Invasive Plant project the week of June 18-22. Three Friends volunteers pulled white sweet clover and bird vetch along the Haul Road river crossings between the Kanuti River just south of the Arctic Circle to the Dietrich River, north of Wiseman. This will be the last year of this project. Staffing shortages and cuts in many programs continue even as the invasive plants proliferate in the absence of more drastic strategies. The plans for next year will likely only involve monitoring down-river from the highway in a few rivers or creeks each summer.
Dragonfly Day was held on June 23 in Fairbanks with a local Friend (Joe Morris) staffing the Friends table and selling books for the dragonfly expert John Hudson. John contributed 50% of the sale price to Friends. This popular event was sponsored by the three Fairbanks refuges: Arctic, Kanuti, and Yukon Flats, with funding provided by Friends for the venue, advertising, and other expenses. There were @ 350 in attendance.
July. A previously approved project, Dalton Invasives- July, was canceled. The Kaktovik Polar Bear Viewing project was filled. Preparations for travel for Arctic’s Camp Goonzhii are underway for the two volunteers. Discussion continues with Tina Moran of Kanuti for winter opportunities at the Coldfoot Winter V.C.
August: Camp Goonzhii in Arctic Village, was postponed until Sept. 12 due to a death in the village.
Many Friends have been busy, however, organizing outreach events, writing grants, planning a workshop for 2019, advocating for Refuges, and getting out the newsletter and social media posts.
September: There was one volunteer opportunity, Camp Goonzhii, which Cindy Sisson attended. Thanks, Cindy, for representing Friends for this annual Arctic Refuge project: the science and culture camp in Arctic Village.
In early Sept. I was invited to Fairbanks to accompany Tina Moran, Acting Manager of Kanuti NWR, and Kris Fister, National Park Service Chief of Interpretation, Gates of the Arctic and Yukon Charley National Parks and Preserves, on a two day trip to Coldfoot to discuss/brainstorm staffing and operation strategies for the Coldfoot Field Office (CFO) Winter Visitor Center.
We discussed Staffing (both Refuge personnel and volunteers), Operation dates and times, Housing, Activities, Transportation, Alaska Geographic, Security considerations, etc. This is a potential Friends Volunteer Opportunity once all the details are worked out. The tentative dates are February 16 through April 6, 2019 when Arctic NWR’s new visitor services position filled Two Volunteers would greet the tour company vans of Aurora Viewing visitors from all over the world who come up to Coldfoot and Wiseman. This will be an exciting opportunity for volunteers to have the same aurora experience these visitors have at no cost! Stay tuned for more information as plans progress.
October: We have received notices from 12 interested members who would like to volunteer for the winter visitor center in Coldfoot next Feb.-March-April. These included 5 couples and 2 single individuals. Thanks to all who wish to volunteer! We will attempt to accommodate as many as possible during the approximately 7 week period the center will be open.
November: No new projects. I have been working out the scheduling for the Coldfoot Winter Visitor Center with the 16 Friends who have volunteered or expressed an interest in staffing it for a week or more at a time.