The signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964 legally mandated the preservation of designated wilderness areas throughout the United States. Section 2 (c) elegantly defined wilderness to be “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” as well as “…an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” In regards to managing these wilderness areas, two contradictory phrases emerge from this definition: “untrammeled by man” and “natural conditions.” They may not seem to be inherently contradictory, but even with minimal human activity, over time the idea of “wild” and “natural” have begun to clash.
In order for an area to be wild, it must be unfettered by human control and manipulation. Wilderness areas, however, are frequented by visitors whose visits, sometimes quite negatively, impact the area. As a result of all this human interaction with wilderness, native species, patterns and ecological processes change. So the question arises, in these circumstances, where the natural conditions of the wilderness have been unsuccessfully preserved, should people enter these areas and attempt to restore them to their natural condition?
Ecological restoration is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration as an “intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability.” Thus, restoration with its innate quality will bring conservationists into wilderness areas, compromising the wild aspect of the wilderness. Still, if restoration is not pursued, the naturalness of the area may be further diminished, as native ecosystems degrade. So, herein lies the management dilemma for restoring wilderness—striking the balance between wild and natural. The vague definition of wilderness adds to the management conundrum, as what aspect of wilderness takes priority (being “wild” or “natural) is up for interpretation.
The Tongass, with 18 wilderness areas spanning 5,746,000 acres, presents a unique vignette of this dilemma. Recently, a group consisting of Scott Harris (SCS’s Conservation Science Director), Kitty Labounty (SCS board member and Botany Professor at University of Alaska Southeast), Jen McNew (Botany Intern) and myself ventured to Rust Lake, located in the West Chichigof Wilderness area, to take our stab at wilderness restoration. Our task was to locate and eradicate non-native dandelions (Taraxacum officnale).
This recent trip was the second time that Kitty had been to Rust Lake this summer. The dandelion population was present but not overwhelmingly so. During our three days at Rust Lake we pulled over 1,000 dandelions from gravel bars along the Rust Lake stream. One thousand plants may seem like a lot, but it is likely that your backyard has over 100 individual dandelion plants. Still, dandelions are well adapted to distribute hundreds of seeds great distances and are capable of outcompeting the native plants at Rust Lake. This is why we were motivated to manage the population. That being said, the native flora, including monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) and alpine bog swertia (Swertia perennis), currently appear unharmed. Thus, with two trips per year to Rust Lake to pull dandelions, the native ecosystem will likely flourish.
Rust Lake offers another possible wilderness restoration project, because it has a “tap” for a hydroelectric plant that used to provide power to the historic Chichagof mine. The hydroelectric plant and mine are both inoperative, but the tap continues to function, significantly lowering the Lake’s water level below its natural level. In fact, the water level is so low that our floatplane pilot remarked that landing in Rust Lake is “always an experiment.” Plugging this spigot appears to be a straightforward project that would not be too difficult, but go a long way in restoring Rust Lake to its natural condition. This brings me back to my original point, what takes priority? Restoring the lake to its natural condition? Or keeping it “untrammeled” by human activity?
The majority of my knowledge stems from learning about and working to restore highly degraded environments. Here in Southeast Alaska, I have spent the bulk of my time monitoring restoration of forests and streams in areas that were once clear-cut. The idea of restoring wilderness vastly differs from these kinds of restoration projects. These areas are not completely degraded by the interruptions of humans. These areas are the last stronghold of what once covered the earth—natural and unhampered ecosystems. The unique habitats found at Rust Lake include many magnificent sub-alpine wildflowers that must be protected from weed invasion. Wilderness areas are the last refuge for countless species and ecosystems and in order to best protect these areas, managers must work to find that balance between wild and natural. The fact that these areas are so extraordinarily sparse is exactly why I think we should cautiously pursue wilderness restoration.
Is it possible to restore clear-cut areas of the Tongass National Forest back to their original composition? While this question will remain unanswered for generations, we do know some things about restoration in the Tongass. Trees regrow in logged areas, with the assistance of people or not. However, the natural succession of second-growth forest in the Tongass results in a dense forest filled with numerous spruce stems and little to no understory growth. The characteristic moss, fern, and shrub understory that illuminates the forest floor in old-growth forests is replaced with bare ground and needles. This not only decreases the biodiversity found on the forest floor, but it also provides poor habitat to many species. There are techniques being used to restore the ground cover of second-growth forest in the Tongass, and we at SCS are committed to making sure these projects continue to be implemented and monitored.
My most recent endeavor involving the restoration of the Tongass National Forest was at Kruzof Island. Kruzof Island is an important neighbor to Sitka that offers recreation activities, tourist attractions and an area for subsistence hunting. Still, this island is scarred from the clear-cutting that occurred in central Kruzof. Of course, as the forest on Kruzof Island regrows, central Kruzof Island becomes a great location for restoration work.
On my trip to Kruzof, Scott Harris (SCS’s Watershed Program Manager) and I ATVed and bushwacked our way to artificial gaps cut in Kruzof’s second growth forest. These gaps are part of a program to restore wildlife habitat in logged forests, and we were monitoring the effectiveness of these gaps. An effective gap would be filled with shrubs like blueberry for deer to browse on, while an ineffective gap would be overrun with salmonberry or hemlock flush. After collecting countless scratches on our arms from crawling through the dense spruce forest to get to these gaps, we were able to draw some conclusions about the forest succession occurring at Kruzof. Where thinning of the forest or artificial gaps were cut, the forest was filled with shrub thickets, while moss, ferns, and forbs covered the forest ground. Thus, these artificial disturbances appear to be working as designed! They are providing space for the young trees to grow, while improving shrub growth. However, there is still a lot of unthinned forest on Kruzof and some of the gaps are filling in, meaning there is still a critical need for further restoration work. If restoration projects continue to be implemented on Kruzof and throughout the Tongass, we may be able to catalyze the establishment of healthy secondary forests.
Logging Kruzof Island not only affected its terrestrial ecosystems, but the streams were greatly affected as well. While streams running through old-growth forest are filled with fallen trees and root wads which provide great habitat for salmon, the streams we walked through in central Kruzof are deprived of fallen trees, leaving the salmon habitat highly inadequate. These streams offer ideal locations for future stream restoration work. They are located near trails used by Alaska ATV tours (among other users) and allow easier access to possible restoration sites, allowing more restoration work to occur for less time and money. In order to restore Kruzof’s terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, trees must be placed into the streams and the forest should be thinned. Thus, the trees cut to thin the forest surrounding the streams may be placed into the stream. In this way, both the stream and forest may be restored together.
Kruzof Island offers a great opportunity to implement restoration projects and bring a clear-cut island back to an island dense with shrubs, deer, and salmon. The time frame and viability of restoring Southeast Alaskan ecosystems back to their original structure may be unknown, but we are capable of propelling the process forward. As natural resources continue to deplete and climate change adds to the insecurity of the environment we live in, we must not watch the world go by. Instead, we must actively work together to help conserve and restore the Tongass National Forest, our forest.
My title for the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is “Wild Salmon Conservation and Restoration Intern”, and yet, outside of taking a couple of water samples, I have not directly worked with salmon or rivers. How is this possible? How can I spend a majority of my time in the forest while emphasizing in my title that my work is dedicated to conserving and restoring wild salmon? Well, many Sitkans know the answer. They will tell you that the salmon are in the trees. In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Greater Sitka Arts Council and Sitka Summer Music Festival held an art event called “Salmon in the Trees.” This slogan is wonderful because we too often forget that all of our actions are connected to ecosystems, and the salmon and the trees reminds us about how we do have this connection. So as the salmon are in the trees, my work for salmon takes me to the forest.
The mutualism between salmon and trees is fascinating. Old growth forests provide great habitat to salmon by providing shade to stabilize stream temperatures, while fallen trees and broken branches form pools giving shelter to salmon. The trees benefit from the salmon as well. This is because as salmon swim upstream, they take with them the prefect fertilizer package, filled with protein, fat, nitrogen and phosphorus. Bears, eagles, and other dispersers move salmon throughout the forest, fertilizing trees far from the stream. So not only are the salmon in the trees, but the trees need salmon.
I recently went on a collaborative trip between SCS and the U.S. Forest Service to monitor gaps cut in a second growth forest at Todd, near False Island. The purpose of this trip was to monitor gaps cleared in the 1990s in order to see if these small gaps, designed to mimic natural disturbances that occur in old growth forests, are actually providing forage vegetation to deer. From our work, it appears that the gaps are working great and providing deer with great forage vegetation. However, these gaps must influence other species besides deer and little is known about how these gaps affect other species.
I arrived in Sitka a little over a week ago, and since arriving, the stunning sights around me have constantly amazed me. I am surrounded by beautiful scenes of mountains, forests, and maritime infrastructure that drastically differ from the everyday sights of my Wisconsin upbringing. Luckily, I will be immersed in the natural beauty of the area all summer, as my summer position with the Sitka Conservation Society will involve a good amount of fieldwork. For my position as the wild salmon conservation and restoration intern, I will need to familiarize myself with the Pacific Northwest ecosystems, and considering I have never been west of South Dakota, I have a lot to learn.
Reading about ecosystems is an excellent beginning step in the learning process, but I think in order to best understand an ecosystem, you must physically venture into the ecosystem. Luckily for me, I am surrounded by largest national forest in the United States, the Tongass National Forest, giving me a classroom of 17 million acres.
One particular area of the Tongass National Forest where I will be spending a lot of time this summer will be at Starrigavan, a site that was extensively logged in the 1970s and is now a second growth forest. At Starrigavan, the U.S. Forest Service cleared eight gaps in an attempt to help improve the understory vegetation, which in turns helps provide forage vegetation for deer. One of my projects this summer will be helping to create small (5m X 5m) deer exclosures in six of these gaps in order to study how deer foraging affects the understory development. The most difficult part of this project has already proven to be hiking all of the equipment through the dense second growth forest to the gaps.
A different task this summer will be setting up and collecting data for a study looking at the insect diversity and abundance found in second growth forest. Due to the fact that most restoration projects are geared towards salmon and deer, little is known about the habitat suitability of second growth forests on species other than salmon and deer. For this reason, this work is extremely compelling and relevant. In fact there is not even a good list of possible insects that could be found in the pit-fall traps we are setting up!
All in all, this summer looks like it is shaping out to be an experience of a lifetime, an experience that will be mentally and physically challenging at times, but one that will be perpetually rewarding. I look forward to becoming a better field biologist and conservationist, and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from my colleagues at the Sitka Conservation Society. I also look forward to learning from listening, feeling, and experiencing the wilderness of the Tongass National Forest.