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Special refuge in Anchorage to view sandhill cranes, snow geese

Rick Sinnott
Carl Johnson photo

One of the last unprotected estuaries in the Municipality of Anchorage, the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area (CCENA) has been added to the city’s roster of parks and natural areas. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the area’s master plan last week. The 60-acre parcel is located near the mouth of Campbell Creek.

The property was purchased from private owners by Great Land Trust in 2010. Abutting the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, about a third of the parcel is estuarine wetland. The remainder is mostly upland forest. Great Land Trust initiated the effort to preserve the property’s natural assets in 2001, first broaching the concept of a conservation easement with the owners, then raising more than $7.7 million to purchase the property and spearheading the effort to develop a master plan.

Great Land Trust and a group of committed citizens crammed a lot of hard work into the past two years. During the summers of 2011 and 2012, when the issue was cropping up in the news, the executive director of Great Land Trust, Phil Shephard, led several groups through the area, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and U.S. Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe. Public dialogue about the natural area waned in late summer after the last public comment period even though the proposed master plan percolated through a series of public and agency filters. The Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision gives the Department of Parks and Recreation a green light to use the master plan to manage the area.

A natural area, not a park

The public is unfamiliar with the difference between a natural area and a park, in large part because the municipality manages few designated natural areas.

City parks are usually established primarily for human use. Maintaining habitat for wildlife, though often an appreciated secondary purpose, is rarely the primary goal. Significant chunks of city parks often morph into public athletic fields, playgrounds, picnic areas, or networks of trails. Some wildlife species – particularly birds that avoid human activity or habitat “edges” – are adversely affected by trails, and trails exacerbate conflicts between humans and potentially dangerous wildlife, like moose and bears, which also use the trails.

One purpose of a natural area is to preserve a fragile habitat or wildlife assemblage. In this case, the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area protects, among other things, thousands of migratory snow geese and hundreds of sandhill cranes that depend on the property and the adjoining wildlife refuge every spring. A dozen or more pairs of cranes stick around all summer, nesting and raising their young colts in the wetlands surrounding the estuary. Snow geese and sandhill cranes are large, excitable birds; both species are vulnerable to human disturbance. Few, if any, other cities the size of Anchorage still support viable populations of these birds so close to urban neighborhoods.

A private-public partnership

Great Land Trust – recognizing the value of the property to wildlife and people who appreciate wildlife in and near the city – purchased the property from the Kyzer Group and McManamin family using private donations and federal and state grants. Shephard then offered the natural area to the city, free of charge, if the administration was willing to accept the terms of the conservation easement (pdf).

The conservation easement established an unambiguous purpose for the property and defined acceptable uses and activities. In the estuarine habitat below the bluff the single goal is “to protect natural resources to keep them in an undisturbed state except as required to promote and maintain a diverse community of predominantly Native Species.”  

The conservation easement was less restrictive in the upland area, however. It stated, “Activities and uses are limited to those permitted in this Article, provided the intensity or frequency of the activity or use does not materially or adversely affect the Conservation Purposes.” Because its primary purpose is preserving the property’s natural values in perpetuity, the conservation easement envisioned dispersed recreational uses such as birdwatching and hiking, not soccer fields or heavily used, paved trails. In fact, paved trails are specifically not allowed.

After review by the public and a variety of city, state, and federal agencies, the Anchorage Assembly adopted an ordinance (pdf) in October 2010, approving conveyance of the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area’s conservation easement, the first step in transferring the natural area to the city.

As promised, Great Land Trust demolished and removed several ramshackle homes and sheds and cleared other debris from the property. It also established several funds, totaling $1 million, to be used by the municipality to preserve and protect the property and to construct and maintain improvements.

Great Land Trust and others have touted this effort as a successful example of public-private partnership in conservation of important wetlands and wildlife habitat.  

Master plan

A time-tested method to engage the public in a planning process is to create a stakeholder group. Great Land Trust assembled a group of neighbors and other community members representing agencies with management responsibilities. The stakeholder group was charged with developing the master plan.

Basing the master plan on the provisions of the conservation easement, the stakeholders established rules for the area. The estuarine wetlands gained the most protection. The plan allows dispersed human use, but reserves the option to restrict some recreational activities -- even prohibit access -- during the sensitive migratory and nesting seasons.

Rules are less restrictive on the adjacent upland portion, but maintaining the conservation values of the property is still the top priority. Based on public input, the stakeholder group favored some recreational development – a small parking lot, unpaved nature trails, and viewing decks overlooking the estuary – but discouraged dog walking and bikes from March to December. Winter activities like cross-country skiing were also favored because the more vulnerable species of waterfowl and shorebirds wouldn’t be affected.

The master plan was completed two months ago. One final hurdle followed: a review of the master plan by city agencies and final approval by the Planning and Zoning Commission.  

Final flurry of conflicting ideas

Most agency comments focused on minor tweaks to the plan, but the municipality’s long range planning section and its non-motorized transportation coordinator asked that the master plan be amended to accommodate a future extension of the Coastal Trail.

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is the most popular trail in Anchorage. Begun in the late 1980s, stretching from downtown Anchorage to Kincaid Park, it’s considered by many residents to be a unique and world-class asset. A south extension of the Coastal Trail to the Seward Highway, more than doubling the length of the existing trail, was hotly debated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After nine years of planning, politicking, and contentious reviews of public documents, the Federal Highway Administration deemed the city’s preferred route, much of it through the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, to be untenable for a variety of reasons. However, interest in extending the Coastal Trail has never died out.

During last Monday’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, some members of the stakeholder group and others expressed alarm and irritation at what appeared to be an eleventh-hour attempt to pry the Coastal Trail door back open.

Routing a south extension of the Coastal Trail, with its anticipated intensity and frequency of use, through the property would be incompatible with the conservation purposes of the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area in almost every way imaginable. Requiring a cleared swath (or dike) about 27 feet wide, paved, heavily used, with no mandate or desire to restrict public access during the critical migratory or nesting seasons of birds in the coastal wetlands, the Coastal Trail, as it currently exists, couldn’t avoid violating the provisions of the conservation easement.

Dwayne Adams, a landscape architect with USKH who helped produce the master plan, told the commissioners that the issue was deliberately avoided during the stakeholder meetings. There didn’t appear to be strong support among stakeholders or residents who attended meetings on the plan for routing a south extension of the Coastal Trail through the natural area.

In response, Planning and Zoning commissioner Bruce Phelps said, “I don’t see any advantage to making this more difficult” by amending the plan to accommodate the Coastal Trail. Another commissioner, Stacey Dean, expressed a different perspective, noting her frustration with what she believed to be a lack of access. Dean believed the bicycle restrictions were “not fair.” After several other commissioners expressed support for the plan as written, the commission voted to approve it.

Great Land Trust and the municipality hope to have the nature trails, overlooks and parking area built by next summer. Adhering to plans of their own design, flocks of snow geese and cranes will begin to arrive shortly after the vernal equinox – as they have for the past 11 millennia or so – to thrill winter-weary Anchorage residents with some of the first sounds of spring.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com