Two more acres of land protected at Potter Marsh wildlife refuge

One of Anchorage’s most popular birding spots, Potter Marsh gets more than 150,000 visitors each year. (Emily Russell/APM)

In Alaska, conversations about land conservation often involve thousands of acres that are hundreds of miles from the nearest city. But sometimes just a couple of acres can make all the difference. Community members in Anchorage rallied together recently to help protect one of the most popular birding spots in the city.

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Potter Marsh sits at the base of the Chugach Mountains. It’s a foggy day in early November and the burnt orange colored-grasses wrap around the glassy, open water. This is one of the last places to freeze before winter, which is why so many birds come to visit.

“We got your standard ducks that you might call Mallards, Pintail, Green-winged Teal.  There’s Snow Geese, there’s Canada Geese, [and] Sandhill Cranes come through here,” Joe Meehan said. Meehan is with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The season is passed now, but a video from the spring migration shows two of those Sandhill Cranes tilting their red heads back and opening their beaks wide.

It’s sights like this that Meehan says attract more than 150,000 visitors each year to Potter Marsh. But those visitors probably don’t know that in the woods around the marsh there’s junk– big cast iron boilers, stacks of sheet metal, a toilet or two and a seemingly endless supply of bathtubs.

There used to be airstrip here, so Meehan says the junk just started piling up.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Joe Meehan surveys the land with John Wros from the Conservation Fund. (Emily Russell / APM)

Meehan is here today with John Wros from the Conservation Fund.

All the trash here– it’s unsettling, but there’s an even bigger threat. It turns out, all around the marsh is private land. Wros said until recently, there was a fear the land could be turned into condos.

“Part of the ambiance is that there’s not somebody’s house here,” Wros said. “It’s this wooded, marshy environment rather than [a] development.”

Fish and Game won’t have money to buy the land until a federal grant comes through in the Spring, so in the meantime, the Conservation Fund stepped in to help. The current property owners agreed to lower the price and private donors also stepped up to secure the sale.

Joe Meehan said people in Anchorage have a real connection to the place.

“There was one gentleman who walked the marsh almost every day with his wife, who had cancer. She eventually passed away, [but] for the last few months of her life– it was spent at Potter Marsh,” Meehan said. “It was just a special place for him and he wanted to see it protected, so he was interested in helping protect it.”

Meehan says before the sale was finalized, a crew hauled away nearly 20 tons of trash and another 50 tons of recycled steel. Now Fish and Game will make sure Potter Marsh and the land around it stay wild.

After all, Meehan says that’s the way the community wanted it.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.