By John Budnik
USACE Alaska District Public Affairs
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON – Much like the Chena River snaking through the heart of downtown Fairbanks, a passion for the outdoors flows through the veins of the park rangers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District’s Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project. The two are contributing members of a team overseeing 20,000 acres of multipurpose public land.
Jacob Kresel, senior park ranger and natural resource specialist, and Cole Van Beusekom, park ranger, are easy to recognize with their forest green uniforms, “Smokey bear” hats and Corps castle belt buckles. The opportunity to work at the Chena Project in North Pole is a fulfilling vocation for both.
“I have always loved being outside and in the woods. I grew up on a nice chunk of land in Elk Mound, Wis.,” Kresel, 27, said. “It seemed like becoming a park ranger for the Corps was that access to a career where I get to be an outdoorsman.”
Growing up in Delano, Minn., it only took a short time for Van Beusekom, 25, to realize his calling.
“I wanted to be a ranger since I was a young lad,” he said. “My office is the wilderness.”
During their childhoods, backwoods experiences that were filled with boating, hiking and subsistence expeditions shaped these two men into their current roles at the project. Kresel said his fondest outdoor memory was a 60-mile, six-day canoe adventure down the Flambeau River. Whereas Van Beusekom described a two-week family canoe and camping trip through the Superior National Forest as a rustic chapter during his upbringing.
“These two bring a special energy to the project which is especially enhanced by their high interests in hunting, fishing and the outdoors,” said Tim Feavel, Chena Project manager. “As every Alaskan knows, it takes a special breed to thrive in the Interior and park rangers are no exception.”
The two are equipped with educations that translate well into their daily duties of law enforcement and public safety patrols; community engagements; contract management for the Corps public land; special use permit issue and monitoring; and wildlife habitat enhancement to name a few.
Kresel studied conservation at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls with an emphasis in biology, environmental studies and outdoor education. Meanwhile, Van Beusekom earned his degree from the University of Minnesota in recreation and resource management.
Overall, the duo claims there is great satisfaction from interacting with visitors using the land.
“Since I have been working here, learning how to talk to people, whether to de-escalate a situation or answer general questions has provided me with the greatest lessons,” Van Beusekom said.
Furthermore, strong relations with the visitors and members of the North Pole and Fairbanks communities are critical to a successful mission for the Corps and its rangers.
“Maintaining a good rapport with the public and helping them understand how the gates and dam operate is important,” Kresel explained. “This way, people know what our capabilities are and what we are mandated to do at the project.”
The Chena Project is the most northern flood risk mitigation operation within the Corps and is responsible for protecting Fairbanks, North Pole and Fort Wainwright from high-water on the Chena River. In 1979, its construction was completed for $256 million in response to the devastating 1967 Fairbanks flood. During that event, heavy rains swelled the Chena and Little Chena rivers causing water to pour into downtown Fairbanks and the outlying region. Nearly 7,000 people were displaced from their homes and damage estimates totaled more than $80 million.
Located 20 miles east of Fairbanks, the key components of the Chena Project includes Moose Creek Dam, an eight-mile-long earthen dam, four large flood gates and a 3,000 acre grassy floodway. Since its completion, the dam has been operated successfully 22 times most recently in the summer of 2014.
Based on flood prediction and modeling charts, it is estimated that the culmination of these activations have resulted in a cost savings of more than $370 million in damage prevention, said Julie Anderson, civil engineer in the Operations Branch.
“The Chena Project dam is there for a reason, serving a purpose along with the floodway,” Van Beusekom said. “The dike systems are not just earth and embankments. There is a purpose to them.”
High-water events can happen due to heavy rain or fast melting winter snow and ice upstream. During an occurrence that requires lowering the gates, the Corps’ main objective is to regulate the Chena River’s flow to less than 12,000 cubic feet per second of water in downtown Fairbanks. On an average day, the water typically courses through the heart of the city at 1,000 to 3,000 cubic feet per second. Residents may notice that the river still rises downstream, but the chance for flooding is significantly diminished.
Depending on the severity of the event, the Chena Project’s 3,000 acres of floodway will fill as Moose Creek Dam begins to impound water. The project is designed to divert excess flood waters into the Tanana River to avoid Fairbanks or slowly regulate its release through the outlet works.
The integrity of Moose Creek Dam is critical to avoiding property damage or worse. Therefore, preservation of the embankment is a community effort that requires public understanding of the destructive impacts from all-terrain vehicles to its gravel surface and silt-blanket, Feavel said.
With more than 165,000 visitors each year, two rangers enforcing illegal off-road use on the dam cannot stop the problem, but can help slow it down, Kresel said.
“We try to reduce the amount of ATV traffic in the floodway to protect the area from damage from the tires that may cause rutting,” Van Beusekom explained. “Otherwise, it increases the risk of dam failure.”
Ultimately, as part of an engineer team that monitors and regulates river flow during high-water events, the rangers’ primary duties are to manage all public use of the land, enforce rules, answer questions, crowd and traffic control. Also, they help project and district staff observe water levels, embankment and floodway conditions as well as manipulate gate functions.
“Flood risk management becomes the number one priority and recreation second,” Kresel said. “However, we do not shut down recreation during an event.”
The Chena Project offers a myriad of recreational opportunities such as hunting, hiking, fishing, horseback and walking trails, paved bike paths and excellent wildlife viewing. Through a partnership with the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Chena Lakes Recreation Area offers a boat launch, camp sites, cross-country trails, picnic spots, playground, non-alcohol beach, swimming, volleyball court and restrooms.
Special use permits also are available to groups wanting to use the land for special events. In the past, the project has been used by groups such as historical societies, dog trainers, mushers, snow machine races and the Bureau of Land Management’s fire service smoke jumpers.
If water conditions are right, throughout July, salmon can be seen swimming up the Chena River to spawn and the top of the outlet works control structure is an excellent place to see them. Project staff sets up displays, star tent and picnic tables on the deck to encourage the public to view the migration upstream, Feavel said. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also establishes a counting station every year. In previous years, about 10,000 salmon have passed through the dam on their way to their spawning grounds through mid-August.
In the fall, the Corps issues personal-use firewood permits to the public to take advantage of flood debris logs bailed from the Chena River during the flood events.
Certainly, the rangers’ strong friendship helps them achieve success during the tense moments of a dam operation or while conducting general oversight of the land. Growing up in the same part of the country, sharing a love for their professions and partaking in the occasional hunting and fishing trip together has strengthened that bond, Kresel said.
“He is a great role model to look up to,” Van Beusekom said. “Kresel has been here a few more years than I have, so he is a great resource of information about the dam and area.”
Together these rangers have driven ATVs hundreds of miles into remote parts of the Chena Project to root out timber poachers, squatter shacks, dumped vehicles, land encroachments and off-road violators, Feavel said.
“We went up river on a boat patrol to check out the bear and moose camps,” Van Beusekom explained. “We look at those to ensure there are not residential cabins or trash left behind on the project boundaries.”
During off-duty hours, these rangers are united by a common interest in training their hunting dogs. Kresel has a Brittany spaniel, Mac, and Van Beusekom owns a German shorthaired pointer, Smokey.
Indeed, their passion for the outdoors and fulfilling the Chena Project’s mission is what drives these men.
“We are here to protect Fairbanks,” Kresel said. “An understanding of what we do here and sharing that with other community members is ideal. That way, we can be as helpful as possible to the public.”