Story last updated at 1:59 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2002

'Coastal' fascination goes back 20 years at center
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: outdoors
  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
A group with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies checks out the sea life on the rocks protecting the cover where the center has its Peterson Bay Field Station.  
As if on cue, a minus 3.6-foot tide revealed the intertidal life of Southcentral Alaska's coast Saturday morning as it pulled back from the rocks and beach surrounding Otter Rock just inside the mouth of Peterson Bay. Sea stars were everywhere, and minuscule hermit crabs, and mussels by the score. In the tide pools tiny sculpin darted.

A group of people moved across the rocks, bent at the waist, peeking under rocks. This tide pool excursion was happening in honor of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies' 20 years in environmental education. But, for the moment, the center's anniversary seemed to take a back seat to the show offered among the rocks of Peterson Bay.

Naturalist DeWaine Tollefsrud held up a clear plastic container, in which he'd placed a tiny opalescent nudibranch, an otherworldly looking translucent mollusk. The little carnivore, which sports no shell, eats the stingers of sea anemones and then incorporates the poison into its own tentacles, Tollefsrud explained.

Eight-year old Patrice DeCorrevont of Chicago peered out curiously from under her pink visor, which was labeled with the word 'Mudd.'

"Hey, Mom, look what we found," she called, excited to share the discovery.

In an attempt to chart some of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies' 20-year journey, Michael McBride sat in his Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge office Monday night overlooking China Poot Bay and recounted the early days of the nonprofit he helped forge two decades ago.

He recalled the far-reaching political and legal campaign to preserve Kachemak Bay and its environment in the late 1970s, when many people in the area pushed to maintain it not just as an ecological and recreational treasure, but as the heart and life blood of the then-thriving commercial fishing industry. He recalled the science of the state fisheries biologists, which heralded the bay's biologic and economic richness. He recalled winter nights spent discussing the mission and attendant policies of the organization that the founders later christened the China Poot Bay Society.

But mostly, he described a need to champion a single feeling -- the incredible sense of wonder he felt as he explored the water's edge at low tide, with its intertidal sea life hanging off rocks and churning tide pools that reflected the forests and glaciers of the Kenai Mountains.

Now, two decades later, after the McBrides and other founding members Steve Yashida and Janet and Bob Klein handed the reins of their environmental education center over to a new group of stewards, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, as it is now called, continues to facilitate the process.

Over the years, visiting school groups have brought an estimated 10,000 people to the Peterson Bay Field Station, which is housed in a building purchased in the early 1980s from the McBride's friends, James and Donna Wong of Hawaii.

The McBrides and the current board members of the center see the purchase of the building as a fortuitous step -- the Wongs had begun constructing a retirement house on Peterson Bay, when health and financial trouble caused them to reconsider.

photo: outdoors
  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Naturalist DeWaine Tollefsrud poins out an opalescent nudibranch.  
"Here was a guy who was in financial trouble himself," McBride said of Wong and the eventual deal which gave the nonprofit a building for no money down, $1,000 a month and no interest. "He was in no position to be the philanthropist. But he did it."

In addition to the schoolchildren who visit Peterson Bay each spring, Executive Director Marilyn Sigman estimated another 14,000 people have crossed Kachemak Bay to learn about the marine and coastal ecosystems in the tours the center runs from the Homer Spit. The Peterson Bay facility operates each year from mid-April through mid-September.

The 20-year-anniversary celebration -- which took place Saturday at the Peterson Bay Field Station and Sunday at the center's Wynn Nature Center atop the bluff above Homer -- proved the founding principal still applies, perhaps more than ever.

While the center did enlist some special guest naturalists for the two-day celebration, it stuck to very much the same program it offers every other day of the week at its two field facilities.

Kids pointed wide-eyed at the life clinging to the underside of intertidal rocks overturned by an equally excited Sigman. Adults gasped audibly as ecologist Ed Berg explained the destructive appetite of the spruce bark beetle, then gasped even more audibly when a bald eagle alighted effortlessly in dead spruce overlooking a quiet forest pond. U.S. Forest Service biologist Lori Trummer raised eyebrows with a description of the ways in which the forest fungi rot and break down the beetle-killed trees.

A pair of 20-year-anniversary candles were blown out by a group of kids during the lunch talk featuring Sigman and president of the board David Raskin, who both talked of the center's past and its future.

The center has gone from an all volunteers, to a single half-time employee, to a summer staff of eight.

Now, with a membership of more than 300 people, dozens of volunteers and two year-around employees on board, Raskin said the center hopes to continue building on its successes.

"We've doubled our budget and in the process we've doubled our budget deficit. So basically we're following the federal model," Raskin joked.

While education continues to be the main thrust of the organization, and tourists will continue to provide a revenue stream, Raskin said the board hopes to see an increase in the amount of research taking place at the center.

In conjunction with the anniversary celebration, the center has begun a $20,000 fund drive, in part to help with repairs and improvements at the Peterson Bay facility. In September, flamenco guitarist Gordon Rowland and Mary Wright will play a benefit concert at the Mariner Theater.

The general idea is to continue to increase our membership, Raskin said.

Before the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge found its way onto the center stage of the national environmental debate, Kachemak Bay made headlines when the state of Alaska, under Gov. Jay Hammond in 1978, repurchased the oil and gas leases it had previously sold here.

McBride said this political push to withhold Kachemak Bay from oil and gas development and to create a critical habitat designation for its confines provided some of the fertilizer for the seed that grew during the past 20 years into the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.

"It wasn't just a matter of being opposed to the oil industry, or being opposed to the development in the bay," McBride said. "But given that the bay produces an enormous amount of food and provides a living for those people in the seafood industry, it's a matter of wanting to protect the people and the food itself.

"All this begs the question: how do you transact that?"

The answer is education, McBride said.

And how do you best facilitate that education? McBride said it begins with an awareness of the beauty and complexity of the coastal environment.

"It seems to me, to the degree that a person can have a sense of wonder about a marine ecosystem, everything can become a source of wonder," he said before pointing out that a flock of seabirds was wheeling across the water of China Poot Bay. "I feel the same sense of wonder now looking out on this bay that I felt 20 years ago when the (center) got its start."