Robert Ruffner, Executive Director, Kenai Watershed Forum (AK). A native of Texas, Robert Ruffner learned to love rivers while canoeing the local waterways with his family and friends. He moved on to kayaks and whitewater, spent time in Minnesota getting degrees in geology and civil engineering, and further honing his whitewater skills, before moving to Soldotna, Alaska on the banks of the Kenai River.
Almost immediately, Robert began volunteering for a local group of citizens who were working to start a non-profit organization to care for the Kenai. In the summer of 1997, the Kenai Watershed Forum became a formal organization, and the board hired Robert as its first director and only employee. Robert had quite a job ahead of him. The Kenai River Watershed covers 2,200 square miles and includes ice fi elds, estuaries, high mountains, wide lowlands, federally designated wilderness and areas facing rapid development. It also faces pressure from tens of thousands of annual visitors, many arriving to enjoy one of the last great wild salmon runs in the world.
In the past ten years, Robert has transformed the organization from a fledgling group with a budget described as “seed money,” to a highly respected entity with nine employees and an annual budget of approximately two million dollars. A few of the accomplishments under Robert’s leadership include: the first systematic water quality collection program and baseline study of the Kenai River; the first large-scale culvert assessment of the Kenai Peninsula; implementation of a fish passage restoration program; a wetlands mapping and functional assessment; development of a peninsula-wide watershed education program for K-12; and the inception of the Kenai River Festival, an annual event that brings more than 5,000 people together to celebrate the Kenai River.
Robert has truly crafted the Kenai Watershed Forum into an organization where all stakeholders in the watershed can have a voice, and the emphasis is on solid science and recognizing the ties between ecological and economic health.