The Copper River Watershed is a pristine expanse of forest and wetland — and some might say that’s its biggest problem. Compared to raising funds for a dramatically pollution-ravaged landscape, keeping a healthy ecosystem the way it already is can seem unexciting.
“It’s a lot sexier to say, ‘This is in horrible shape, and we need to restore it!’” Kristin Carpenter said. “That’s a huge issue. Everyone says, ‘They’re still good. They have a commercial fishery. They don’t need our help’… It’s tough to get money. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Carpenter, who retired as executive director of the Copper River Watershed Project in early November, spent 21 years fighting to bring public attention to the watershed’s needs. The CRWP began as a series of economic development workshops hoped to reverse the economic tailspin triggered by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Carpenter joined the organization shortly after its 1997 incorporation, and set about opening communication among previously isolated communities around the watershed.
“It’s great if we talk about it down here in Cordova, but it won’t amount to a hill of beans if we don’t talk to the people who are upriver,” Carpenter said. “When I traveled up- and downriver, I heard people in all communities pointing fingers at each other. People upriver saying, ‘You commercial guys are taking our fish!’ and commercial fishers saying, ‘We can’t fish where we used to!’
“Personally, I think we are all missing the boat about what’s happening in the ocean if we’re squabbling over who’s taking whose fish. Seeing people come together and recognize that there’s value in learning about each other’s fisheries and thinking together about pollution and filling data gaps — that’s very rewarding, hearing a positive response like that.”
By connecting fishermen and researchers across the region, the CRWP has become recognized as a reliable source for data on the watershed. Carpenter recalls meeting one Alaska Department of Transportation employee who remarked that he looked to the CRWP for accurate information before consulting the DOT’s own records. Meeting with the CRWP has become virtually mandatory when starting any new environmental project in the watershed.
The Copper River Watershed covers 26,500 square miles and is a habitat for quintessentially Alaskan wildlife like moose, bears, wolves and, of course, salmon. Critically important salmon spawning grounds are found throughout the watershed, and a failure to maintain them could undermine the fishing industry on which the region relies.
Pollution isn’t the only threat to salmon — at one point along the Little Tonsina River, spawning has been unexpectedly interfered with by a pair of culverts. The two 11-foot culverts, installed across a 45-foot expanse of river, have increased the velocity of water traveling through, in the same way that putting one’s thumb over the end of a hose causes water to shoot out more forcefully. Now, juvenile Chinook salmon, unable to swim against the intensified current, have been cut off from about 40 miles of upstream spawning habitat. These are the seemingly intractable problems that engage Carpenter’s headstrong and detail-oriented personality.
“When we started talking, I was like, ‘It’s a pipe in the ground — how hard could it be?’” Carpenter said. “But you just never know what you’re going to find when you start digging … There’s a satisfaction to untying the Gordian Knot and making it happen, despite all of the complications.”
If Carpenter has shifted the foundation of the watershed a little during her 21 years, the work has also changed her leadership style.
“I didn’t have a full appreciation for how slow social change can be,” Carpenter said. “You’re working at the speed of trust. It’s not just about having a great idea and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go do it!’ You have to have other people coming along with you. It’s my personality to be impulsive, but I’ve grown into it and developed a little bit of patience — that’s something I’ve developed after a few hard knocks.”
As Carpenter departs Cordova for a loosely scheduled road trip across California, she’s forced to leave problems like the Little Tonsina River culverts to her colleagues and to Lisa Kennedy, her successor.
“It would have been a lot harder to leave if I didn’t feel that we had a strong organizational culture, a culture of pitching in and doing the work of partnership,” Carpenter said.