Sitka Conservation Society
Sep 18 2014

Stand Up to Corporate Influence!

Sitkans hold a fake check made out to ConocoPhillips, BP, and Exxon at an SB 21 Rally on April 4, 2014.

This year’s primary election was one for the record books. Financial record books, that is. Over the last few months, Alaskans witnessed the most expensive primary campaign in state history. Where is all this money coming from? Corporations. And not just any corporations – some of the richest corporations on earth.

In order to secure their billion dollar tax break, oil companies contributed nearly $15 million to the Vote No (on Ballot Measure 1) campaign. According to campaign finance reports published by the state of Alaska, the top six contributors to the Vote No campaign were BP Exploration Alaska Inc. ($3,625,408), ExxonMobil ($3,606,132), ConocoPhillips Alaska ($2,541,584), ConocoPhillips ($1,471,077), Repsol ($729,432), and Chevron ($300,000). Less than 25 individual Alaskans contributed to the campaign. The Vote Yes campaign, on the other hand, received financial contributions from over 1,000 individual Alaskans.

The troubling statistics continue. Stockpiled with big oil money, the Vote No campaign spent $170 per vote. The Vote Yes campaign, which relied primarily on contributions from individual Alaskan donors, spent $8.

This is an example of corporations asserting undue influence in the political process. In a country that calls itself a democracy, corporations should never be allowed to pay their way into the political system. In Alaska, however, they are.

How do we stop corporations from dominating Alaska politics? We stand up to them. We use our individual and collective voices. We form coalitions and citizen movements that demand corporations to serve the public good, not the Gods of Profit.

Leading up to the primary election, the Sitka Conservation Society mobilized Alaskans across the state to take action on Ballot Measure 1. We made phone calls, knocked on doors, distributed lawn signs, and had meaningful conversations with community members about what’s at stake when corporations dominate our political system. Many Sitkans voiced their concerns about SB 21 via radio waves and newsprint. A giant thank you to Steve Paustian, Mary Beth Nelson, Cindy Litman, Libby Stortz, and Anthony Guevin for submitting Letters to the Editor about the importance of repealing the oil tax giveaway.

Our efforts paid off.  While the repeal failed statewide (52.5 percent of Alaskan voters voted No), Sitkans voted 3:1 in favor of the repeal. On Election day, some 1,315 Sitkans checked the “yes” box, compared to only 448 people who checked “no.” Every single precinct in the district voted in favor of the repeal.

What do these results reveal? They show us that we Alaskans are deeply divided on how we should manage our natural resources. They show us that thousands of Alaskans (90,150 to be exact) are willing to vote for oil company tax breaks, leaving less money for the state to fund public schools, hospitals, and necessary public services. But they also show us that thousands of Alaskans (nearly 82,000 voters) are deeply concerned about the excess role corporations play in the management of our natural resources.

The oil in our state ground belongs to the people of Alaska. We, the people of Alaska, must continue to mobilize against corporate oil giants that take our oil without investing in our state. Join us in our campaign to fight corporate influence and keep our natural resources in public hands.

To get involved or receive more information, email or call 907-747-7509.

Corporate spending in Alaska’s 2014 primary reached record levels. The Vote No campaign spent $170 per vote, compared to the Vote Yes campaign which spent $8.

Jul 29 2014

Group Working to Save Yellow Cedar

As published in the Daily Sitka Sentinel on July 16, 2014

Local carver, Tommy Joseph, stands next to some of his yellow cedar carvings.

Four environmental groups have filed a petition to make the Alaskan yellow-cedar, an important tree to Tlingit carvers, an endangered species.

However, some petitioners believe that the protection might not be enough to save the species.

“It’s almost like we’re too late with the petition, but hopefully not,” said Kiersten Lippmann of Anchorage, who is with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center, along with the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, Greenpeace and The Boat Company, an organization that runs charter tours through Southeast waters, submitted a petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service last month asking for federal protection of yellow-cedar under the Endangered Species Act.

“They are on the downward swing, very dramatically, so something needs to be done,” said Larry Edwards, of Sitka, an Alaska Forest Campaigner of Greenpeace.  “We’ll do whatever we can to help the process along.”

Yellow-cedars have been dying off for about 100 years, U.S. Forest Service research finds. There is now more than half-million acres of dead cedar forests. The preliminary conclusion is that climate change is the cause.

The research has shown that decreasing snowfall in the region is allowing the shallow roots of the trees to freeze, causing the trees to die.  Snow acts like a blanket and insulates the soil beneath, and also provides more water for the trees in the springtime when it melts.

Yellow-cedar trees can live to be more than 800 years old and are naturally very resistant to rot and disease.  These qualities make its wood ideal for use as a building material that will be exposed to water and Southeast Alaska’s rainy climate.

Its soft wood and fine grain make it a favorite wood for Native carvers.

“It’s not just a natural resource, but a cultural resource,” Janet Drake, a park ranger at the Sitka National Historic Park, said.  With no red cedar in the area, the yellow-cedar is a beautiful, local wood for people to use, she said.

Obtaining endangered species status for a plant or animal takes more than one and a half years if the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. meets all deadlines for acting on the petition.  Unfortunately, Lippmann said, usually those deadlines are not met on time.

And on top of that, the federal protection cannot stop the effects from climate change.  It would only live trees from being cut down.

At present the Aleutian holly fern is the only federally protected plant in Alaska, says the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While conservation groups spearhead the petition efforts, some local carvers worry about the classification of yellow-cedar as endangered.  Tlingit carvers Tommy Joseph and Robert Koffman, both of Sitka, voiced concerns about losing access to wood supplies if the petition should succeed.


Joseph said that he likes using yellow-cedar because of its durable qualities.   “It’s softer but it will outlast all the others,” he said.

Koffman, who also works at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, said the tight grain of yellow-cedar allows him to put more detail into his carvings.  He said it would be best if there is a clause allowing subsistence harvest of yellow-cedar in order to protect carvers’ livelihood.

“If it is a disappearing species there should be protections,” Koffman said, but added:  “I think a limited amount of wood should be made available to Native artists.”

Petitioners argue that the real enemy is commercial timber sales, not the amount used for carving.

“If you can at least limit logging, you can give the species a little bit of resilience in the face of climate change,” Lippmann said.


Jul 21 2014

Tourism in the Tongass: The Mendenhall Glacier

Alaska hosted close to 2 million visitors between May 2013 and April 2014, shattering its previous annual visitor record by more than 5,000 people.  Not surprisingly, about 1.7 million of those visitors came in the summer months, but last winter did see a 4 percent increase in out-of-state visitation, according to statistics published by the Alaska Department of Commerce.

“Alaska is a worldwide recognized brand,” Dan Kirkwood, outreach director for the Alaska Wilderness League said. When people hear Alaska they think wilderness, adventure, landscapes, hiking and outdoor activities, he explained.  “The market demand is for the natural beauty and for this wilderness experience”

Here in Southeast Alaska, where 17 million acres of the region is the Tongass National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service is the most important player in determining how tourists and residents alike use and experience the wilderness.  The U.S. Forest Service governs everything from timber sales to hunting to recreation.

Tourists from all over the United States venture to Southeast Alaska to see and experience the beauty and vastness of America’s largest national forest.  The U.S. Forest Service provides important and meaningful ways for people to experience the Tongass and one of the most visitor-friendly places is just 12 miles from Juneau at the Mendenhall Glacier visitor’s center.

The Mendenhall Glacier visitor’s center was built in 1961 and is the most visited attraction in the Tongass National Forest today, with tourists traveling from all across America for an amazing view of the river of ice.

The U.S. Forest Service built the Mendenhall Glacier visitor’s center in 1961.  It is the oldest Fores Service visitor’s center in the country and the most popular in Southeast Alaska today.   The glacier has retreated at an alarming rate in recent years.  Glaciers retreat when the ice melts at a faster rate than it is replaced every year.  While Mendenhall has been retreating since the mid-1700s, it has certainly sped up in recent years.  About 50 years ago, the glacier moved about 60 feet every year.  In 2011, the glacier retreated 437 feet!

Despite how far back the glacier has moved since the visitor’s center was built, the U.S. Forest Service has created a very visitor-friendly experience for people with varying degrees of outdoor experience.  Even closer and more astonishing views of the glacier are just a short walk up the path from the visitor’s center to Nugget Falls.  This short trail one of the most popular in Juneau.

The Mendenhall Glacier was named for Thomas Mendenhall, a former superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard and Geodetic Survey. The original name of the glacier was Auke Glacier, named by John Muir in 1879 for Aak’w Kwaan of the Tlingit Indians.

While the Mendenhall is retreating, it is far from disappearing and he number of visitors to the glacier is continually increasing.  Statistics provided by the Alaska Wilderness League show that in 2011 tourism contributed $1 billion and provided more than 10,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska.   And the most popular city to visit in the Southeast is Juneau.

Recent budget cuts to the recreation programs and the current management strategy of the U.S. Forest Service have made it very difficult for the agency to adjust to the growing demand of visitors in the area.  As tourism easily becomes the second most important industry for the Southeast Alaskan economy, behind sport and commercial fishing, the U.S. Forest Service is in the unique position to greatly impact how much this industry grows and contributes to the welfare of the region.

Travelers from all over the United States come to visit the very first visitor’s center built by the U.S. Forest Service.  Stars indicate where all of the following tourists traveled from.

Many tourists traveling through the Tongass do not know much about the nation’s largest national forest before they arrive.  But, through programs, films, exhibits, pamphlets, guides and talks provided by the U.S. Forest Service, visitors learn more and more about a forest that they can call their own.  After spending even just a short time there, they all agree it is beautiful and unlike any other forest they have ever seen.  Continue reading to meet some travelers from all over America and see what had to say about their trip to the Southeast.

Meet Mr. and Mrs. Sam Tortora from New York!

“We have never seen anything like this!  We don’t have this in New York,” the couple said of their first trip to Alaska.  Despite the pricey airfare, they both said they would come back.  ”It’s like being in Paradise!”



Meet Mary and Collette from Wisconsin! 

Mary is a former travel agent and has been to Alaska four times.  ”I just love Alaska,” she said.  ”It’s God’s country!”  Mary and Collette came in on a cruise to Juneau and spent their morning exploring the Mendenhall visitor’s center.



Meet Mike and Debbie from Oregon!

“I’m burnt out on the boat,” Mike said of his cruise experience.  ”I like being out.”  Mike and Debbie did not know much about the Tongass before they took a cruise to Alaska from Seattle, but they were enjoying what feels like countless views of glaciers and waterfalls.



Meet Lynnette and Teresa from Nebraska!

“This place is HUGE with all capital letters!” Lynnette said of the Tongass.  They have really enjoyed their trip to Alaska and are looking forward to the rest of their travels.



Meet Lynn and George from Florida!

Lynn and George have been to Alaska three times.  This time, they decided to travel more of the land and less of the sea and opted for independent travel, rather than a cruise ship.  They returned to Mendenhall Glacier to stay up to date and aware on the effects of climate change on the region they said.



Meet Peggy from Texas!

Peggy came in to Juneau on a cruise ship.  It’s her first time in Alaska and she described the Tongass as a “beautiful and huge ecosystem” unlike any she had ever seen before.



These are just a few faces of the thousands of visitors that venture to the Mendenhall Glacier this summer and there will be thousands more that will visit this public and pristine wilderness before the season is out.

Apr 23 2013

“Do the Math” Film Screening – Thurs. April 25th

In honor of Earth Week, the Sitka Conservation Society invites folks to a screening of “Do the Math,” a thought provoking and action motivating film about the battle between the fossil fuel industry and our future as a species.  This film showing is free and open to the public.

Thursday, April 25th, 7:30 pm

Larkspur Cafe
Watch the trailer:
Event details:

Jan 22 2013

Climate Change on the top of President Obama’s “To-Do” List

In his inauguration speech yesterday, President Obama made clear the key issues that are of the most concern and importance going into his second term in office. Of those handful of issues, addressing the threat of climate change was arguably the most important – both to the President, and to our planet. After so many years of stagnant, and often non-existent, discussions and attempts at creating policies to address climate change, President Obama made it quite clear that this inactivity will not continue. Addressing climate change is not just something we “must” do, it is something we “will” do.

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

Now, more than ever, we need to keep vigilant in our efforts to make sure that our Senators Begich and Murkowski know that climate change policy should be at the top of their “to do” lists as well.  Writing a letter, sending an email, making a call –  all are important actions that everyone can and should do to make sure our representatives in Washington DC know what their constituents value and want to see addressed in this new term.  It only takes a few minutes, and we already have a page set up to get you started.


If you missed the President’s speech, you can read a transcript here

Jan 10 2013

Position Announcement: Climate Change Internship

We’ve been spreading the message for a few years now that Sitka is a national leader at countering climate change through its commitment to renewable energy and energy independence.  In the past we’ve touted Sitka’s investment in hydropower and the many efforts Sitkans have taken to reduce their carbon footprints.  We are now pleased, but not entirely surprised, to share a link to the National Park Service, which is seeking summer staff to work on climate change issues in Sitka.

At just 113 acres, the Sitka National Historical Park is among the smaller national parks in the country, but, like the small community of Sitka, it recognizes that seemingly small steps are crucial in taking on climate change.  The park’s summer 2013 intern will be conducting stream flow and water quality tests in the Indian River as part of an effort to document the impacts of climate change in Sitka.  This is critical work, particularly given the potential influence the Park Service has on driving policy.

In order to fight climate change, we need scientifically valid evidence of the impacts on climate change, and, as much as we wish we were not seeing the impacts of climate change in Sitka, we are grateful the Park Service here is stepping forward and investing resources.  For more information on the program:  Visit the NPS Position Description


Jan 04 2013

Sitka Gives a Dam

Background: In Sitka, we take climate change seriously–so seriously that the community just invested $96 million dollars into a hydroelection project at Blue Lake that will greatly cut our fossil fuel consumption.

The project came at an enormous price, but the benefits to the climate and our quality of life are worth the price.  Unfortunately, most of that cost has fallen on the shoulders of our community.  Despite efforts by SCS and the City of Sitka, the project has received no money from the federal government and only a small amount from the State of Alaska (which is a small fraction of the subsidies and support given to oil corporations every year).  For the most part, the burden has fallen to the community of Sitka because oil companies have invested so much of their resources into convincing politicians that funding big oil is more important than funding sustainable communities.  The result is that we are far behind where we need to be in moving our country and our economy in a direction away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy based economy.

Check out this Op-Ed in the Juneau Empire.

Take Action: SCS is asking Senator Murkowski and the Senate Energy Committee to stand up for small towns, the climate, and a sustainable future.  Please help us take action to demand that our politicians take climate change seriously.  Write or call Senator Murkowski today.



Senator Lisa Murkowski
709 Hart Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510


D.C.: 202-224-6665
Juneau: 907-586-7277

Check out the letter we wrote below for ideas.

Dear Senator Murkowski and Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee:

                Climate change is the greatest threat to our way-of-life and national security.  Climate change is caused by human activity that put amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at levels that are changing global climate and weather patterns.  We know that these changes are disrupting agricultural production, global shipping, and causing more extreme weather events that put our coastal cities at risk.

                Human caused climate change is happening because of our use of fossil fuels.  Oil, gas, and coal have formed through biological and geological processes over millions of years.  Human activity in the last 300 years since the beginning of the industrial revolution has burned a large number of those deposits of fossil fuels and put amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere far above normal natural/geological processes.  It is known that the burning of fossil fuels has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 275 Parts-per-million to 390 parts-per-million.  It is impossible for this change to happen without severe side-effects.

                At the same time that the impacts of climate change are becoming apparent, we are seeing the end of fossil fuels.  At this point, we must make greater investment and go to greater lengths to extract oil, gas, and coal from the earth.  We are being forced to go into extreme oceans like the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea where conditions are extremely difficult and risky to operate in.  We are forced to drill much deeper into the earth in areas of extremely high pressures as well as drill in very deep ocean waters.  We are forced to use techniques like fracking that have consequences that we aren’t even fully aware of to access oil and gas.  All of the above is being done without acknowledging the inevitable fact that fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource that will run out.

                American citizens are relying on your leadership.  And yet, more and more it seems that Congressional policy seeks to favor the biggest corporate donors rather than take action that equates to good policy for the future of our nation.  We have known about climate change for decades.  Oil companies have invested in distracting the public and calling into doubt the science—just like big tobacco did when public policy to reduce tobacco deaths was being initiated.  The result is that we are far behind where we need to be in moving our country and our economy in a direction away from fossil fuels and carbon emissions to a renewable energy based economy.

                Despite the lack of significant and meaningful action from our elected leaders in Washington, DC, Americans across the country are stepping up and taking action.  Here in our small town of Sitka, Alaska, where we live very close to the natural environment and can see the changes and impacts of climate change first-hand, we have decided to take action in a big way.  This past December we broke ground on a $96 Million dollar, salmon-friendly hydroelectric expansion project.  Most of the cost of this project is on the shoulders of the community members in Sitka.  We have received support from the State of Alaska (which is a small fraction of the subsidies and support given to oil corporations) but we have received no help from the federal government.

                We are asking you what you are going to do in this next session of Congress to take meaningful action to move our national energy policy in a direction that moves us away from a reliance on fossil fuels and reduces carbon emissions?  In Sitka, we are tired of waiting for you to take action and we did it on our own.  We are tired of the dynamic in Washington, DC and we implore you to take action for the sake of the future generations of our nation.


The Sitka Conservation Society


Sep 02 2012

The Summer of the Bear: A snapshot of climate change in Southeast Alaska


Standing on top of one of the Pyramid mountains, gloved hands stuffed into my orange raincoat, I look out over a sea of pink and yellow clouds as the sun sets on the low evening ceiling that settles over Sitka Sound. Alaska is not always the easiest place to call home, but moments like these make me forget the rain and cold. They fill me with awe that presses out against my ribs, bringing up a line from a James Wright poem, A Blessing: “Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom.”

When the sun shines in my hometown, Sitka, I know I am in the most beautiful place on earth. Sitka is a bustling rural metropolis hugging twenty miles of shoreline on Baranof Island, in Southeast Alaska. The southeast “panhandle,” sandwiched between British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska, is made up of eleven hundred islands called the Alexander Archipelago. Baranof is one of the largest, reaching one-hundred miles long and thirty miles across at its widest point. Like almost all of the other large islands, Baranof is covered in mountains and has year-round ice fields at high elevations.  

Southeast Alaska is in the Tongass National Forest. Just shy of seventeen million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the country, and is part of the largest area of temperate rainforest on the planet. Temperate rainforest is a very specific and interesting ecosystem,  defined by high annual precipitation, mild climate, and tree populations that do not require fire to regenerate.

Fifty degrees and overcast with a seventy percent chance of rain could be the forecast any day of the year in Sitka. Sitka gets about eighty seven inches of rain per year, and there are other towns, both north and south of us, that get up to one hundred-fifty inches annually. Rainfall varies throughout the region due to mountains and wind patterns.

Climate also varies throughout Southeast, but in general it is pretty mild. The ocean keeps the islands cool and wet in the summer, and warm and wet in the winter. Air temperatures range between forty and sixty degrees fahrenheit in the summer and twenty to forty degrees in the winter. Warm Japanese ocean currents keep the water around forty-five to fifty-five degrees, depending on the season.

Finally, temperate rainforests have little to no forest fires. In some places, like California, fire is part of the life cycle of the forest that allows plants to regenerate and be productive. In Southeast Alaska, wind is the change agent that keeps the forest going. In October and November, our stormiest months, straight winds of up to eighty or ninety miles per hour sweep through Southeast, taking out power lines, keeping people off the water, and blowing down trees. When trees get knocked over, the canopy opens up, allowing young trees to grow and providing light to the ground cover plants. The fallen trees themselves become “nursery logs,” providing nutrients to new trees and plants.

While Southeast is not the dramatic icy tundra that many people imagine when they think of Alaska, its majestic mountainous islands make it beautiful in its own way. The mountains are one of my favorite features of the islands, and they have an interesting history. The islands did not all form in the same way, but are the result of a few different geological processes that gathered together over millions of years. At one point, the whole area was covered by glaciers, resulting in the topography we see today.

The Alexander Archipelago is made up of three different types of islands called Wrangellia, Stikine, and Alexander. Two-hundred and twenty million years ago, all three “terranes” were scattered off-shore, separate from each other. The Stikine terrane, made up of volcanic flow, paleozoic sedimentary rocks, and marine sandstone, probably started out as a chain of volcanic islands much like Hawaii. As the plates shifted 200 million years ago, the chain collided with ancient North America at what is now British Columbia. Wrangellia also started as a volcanic chain, but these islands sank below the surface and became a shallow reef covered by marine shale. After a while a rift in the ocean floor produced a large amount of volcanic basalt that covered the reef. Later still, copper was deposited on Wrangellia, and that is why today, the Wrangell mountains have copper deposits. The Alexander terrane, distinguished by its marble and limestone, joined up with Wrangellia off shore in the Middle Jurassic period. Together they made a subterrane that collided with the North American plate in a region of subduction. The collision caused metamorphic and igneous rocks to be formed, and the was begining of the region’s mountains. Over the next 200 million years the land continued to shift, with rocks being added, and some rocks breaking off, forming the archipelago. Today the mountains are still growing, possibly rebounding from ancient glaciation or as a result of continued subduction. [2]

The Alexander Archipelago is defined by its deep channels and steep mountainous islands. The channels, like Chatham Strait, often mark fault lines between chunks of islands. Their depth, and the dramatic contrast with the mountains, is a result of ancient glaciation. At the height of the ice age, Southeast Alaska was covered in thick glaciers that scoured the islands down to bedrock. The only exposed habitat, called refugia, were small areas of coastline and rocky nunataks that stuck up above the ice at high elevations. Both types of refugia were islands of rock in a sea of ice, and supported life, including mountain goats and bears that still inhabit the islands today [9]. When the glaciers melted, the channels flooded and the tops of the mountains became islands. Looking across Baranof Island on a clear day, you can pick out the sharp rocky peaks that must have survived above the ice, as well as the rounded mountains that were scoured down and made smooth by the heavy ice. There is a lake south of town, Blue Lake, where the deepest point is actually below sea level, probably because the valley was once hollowed out by ice.

It used to be believed that the islands were totally inhospitable during the ice age (Wisconsin glaciation), and all flora and fauna populations arrived and spread in the past 10,000 years [5]. However, because of fossil findings, we are now fairly confident that refugia supported life during the ice age. Sea level was about 300 feet lower, and the coastline was lifted in response to the pressing down of the ice. This created the coastal refugia where plants and animals survived. These areas existed on islands we still see today, but it also connected some landforms that are now separated by water. Fossils of black and brown bears have been found in caves along the coast, dating back to the time of the ice age. Arctic fox, caribou, and ring seal bones have also been found in coastal caves, which leads scientists to believe Southeast Alaska used to look a lot like Northwestern Alaska does today. No polar bear remains have been found, but ring seals are their main food supply, so it would make sense that they would have been in the area as well. [5]

During the ice age, species were isolated and then they distributed in different directions when the ice melted. In this way species variation developed. Coastal brown bears and grizzly bears are the two main subspecies of brown bears, but depending on who you talk to there are up to ninety subspecies. Coastal brown bear DNA is surprisingly close to polar bear DNA. Baranof Island had some coastal refugia during the ice age, and today the coastal brown bears on the island are their own subspecies [7]. Brown bears live on islands in the northern part of the archipelago, while black bears inhabit southern islands. After the ice age black bears spread south and inland, and the interior bears are now a distinct subspecies separated from the coastal bears, but by studying their lineage we can trace their movement and separation over time [10].

Southeast Alaska is not biodiverse, but it very diverse in the sense that there are many different ecosystems that exist closely with each other and form complex relationships. There are old growth forests, muskeg, alpine, coastal estuaries and more habitats that are home to many of the same flora and fauna. Because the same species exist throughout the ecosystems, the connections between animals and their environment can be seen, and sometimes they are surprising. The relationships between species and habitats also accentuate the impact of global warming in the Tongass.

The warming of the earth is a global phenomenon that disrupts localized ecosystems around the world. According to a study done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Alaska’s seasonal average temperatures have increased by as much as 5.6°F from 1949 to 1998. In Southeast Alaska, the temperature in the Tongass has gone up by 1.5-3°F in this time. The most warming was seen in winter and spring, and the only cooling was recorded in the fall [3]. The impact of climate change in Southeast Alaska is clear, but it can pop up in unexpected ways.

For example, let’s look at salmon. There are five types of Pacific salmon that spawn in streams throughout the Tongass. Around Sitka, there are a few pink salmon streams, a king salmon hatchery, and a great sockeye run at Lake Redoubt which is just a boat ride away. When salmon spawn in late summer, they return to the same river where they hatched, and swim up all the way to about the same spot where their parents spawned before. If they are not caught by fishermen or bears or impeded in some other way, they bury their eggs under the gravel in a hole called a redd, and then they die.  The eggs have to survive in the streambed through winter, and in the spring the baby salmon hatch and grow until they are ready to swim out into the ocean. They live in the open ocean for one to seven years, depending on the species, and then they return again to their original stream to continue the life cycle. Global warming, however, is bad news for salmon populations.
Because of global warming, the temperature of the streams has been increasing, and precipitation patterns have been changing. In the past few years Southeast Alaska has experienced periods of drought that are believed to have affected whole generations of salmon. A study done for the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, in 2009, looks at cases of poor pink salmon returns and their correlation to changes in climate. The pink salmon returning in 2006, which would have been eggs in the run of 2004, saw unpredicted low returns. According to the study, “Drought conditions and high stream temperatures in the late summer and fall of 2004 may have contributed to the poor year-class strength of pink salmon.” The drought conditions in late summer would have meant less water in the streams, making it difficult for salmon to swim up river. The warmer water may also have presented a challenge to the eggs that were laid.  They concluded that “poor marine survival as well as adverse freshwater conditions affected the 2006 returns.” [8]

Three years later, in 2009, Sitka experienced a warm dry summer that caused concern among locals that we would have another poor fishing season down the road [6]. I remember that summer because it was “the summer of the bear.” The early returning pink salmon (salmon who come from parents who returned early in the season will also return early) came late and couldn’t run upstream when they normally do because of the poor stream conditions. The bears (coastal brown bears) were not aware of the change in schedule, so they came down off the mountains in August just like they always do, expecting to gorge on salmon. Instead there were no salmon, and no berries either because of the dry weather. Grumpy and hungry, more bears than usual found their way into town. A mother with four cubs caused quite a lot of excitement around Sitka. Outside of town we saw bears everywhere. It was the summer of the bear.
The returns in 2011 (the generation of eggs from the 2009 run) were not poor at all, if you look at the pink salmon harvest data recorded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game [1]. However, the same data reveals that every return of the 2004 salmon descendants has been poor (2006, 2008, 2010). It is probably only a matter of time before climate strikes again and debilitates another batch of salmon.

Salmon are full of nutrients that bears store to make it through the winter, and the same nutrients support the terrestrial ecosystem in the Tongass. In Southeast Alaska there are over 5,000 salmon streams. Because there are so many streams, “47% of the forested area within the Tongass falls within 0.5km of a salmon stream and over 90% within 5km” [4]. Research is still being done on the effect of salmon derived nutrients in the Tongass. So far, we know that salmon bring in nitrogen, phosphorus, lipids, ammonia, and other nutrients that are consumed and distributed through many different pathways [4]. Studies have been done to try and trace salmon-derived nitrogen (15N) and carbon (13C) isotope distribution in the Tongass, but it is a challenging study. It is almost impossible to trace the phosphorus, but that doesn’t mean it is any less important. The problem is that we still don’t really know how salmon derived nutrients are used by in terrestrial ecosystems in the Tongass, but there is no doubt that they are there. At this point it is hard to know how the forest will be impacted if salmon populations continue to decline, but it is undeniable that, like so much of the world, these systems are intertwined with each other.

I would like to think that if everyone could wake up in the morning and see what I see outside my front door, more people would be passionate about conservation. Our social habits that are detrimental to the environment would be easier to change, because if you can love a place, you will want to make sure it is always there. That’s how I feel about Sitka, but I’m lucky. I grew up in a place where you can’t avoid the smell of spawning salmon, and bear sightings are small town gossip. The mountains are literally right outside my door; I don’t even have to get in a car, I can just climb to the top, eating blueberries along the way. I’m lucky that I can love my place first hand, when so many people don’t get the chance to develop a personal connection with the natural world. Even if you aren’t from a place, or have never even been to it, you can still fall in love with the mystery and beauty of a wilderness. More importantly, you can share your passion with others and spread appreciation for our planet. While Southeast Alaska is an isolated place of intricate connections, it serves to remind us that the entire earth is made up of a vast web of interacting ecosystems. When human impact disrupts one part of the system, effects radiate out in a chain of related reactions. If the whole world found its mountain sunset, real or imagined, maybe that would be enough to tip the scales of conservation and balance our delicate ecosystems for another few hundred years.


[1]  ”2012 Alaska Department of Fish and Game Southeast Alaska Pink Salmon Harvest Forecast. .” Alaska Department of Fish and Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <>.

[2] Connor, Cathy. ” Geology of Southeast Alaska: With Special Emphasis on the Last 30,000 Years.” . Raptor Research News, n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <>.

[3] “Evidence of Climate Change in Alaska.” Climate Change. N.p., 2009. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <>.

[4] Gende, Scott M. , Richard T. Edwards, Mary F. Willson, and Mark S. Wipfli. “Pacific Salmon in Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems.” Evergreen State College. Ebsco Publishing, 2002. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <>.

[5] Heaton, Timothy. “Mammal Fossils.” University of South Dakota. N.p., 2002. Web. 7 May 2012. <>.

[6] Schwing, Emily. “Drought Could Mean Decline in Pink Salmon.” KCAW. Raven Radio, 2009. Web. 5 Jun 2012. <>.

[7] Waits, Lisette, Sandra Talbot, R.H. Ward, and G.F. Shields. “Conservation Biology.” jstor. Society for Conservation Biology, April 1998. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <>.

[8] Wertheimer, A.C., J.A. Orsi, E.A. Fergusson, and M.V. Sturdevant.  2009.  Forecasting
Pink Salmon Harvest in Southeast Alaska from Juvenile Salmon Abundance and Associated
Environmental Parameters: 2008 Returns and 2009 Forecast. NPAFC Doc. 1202.  19 pp.
(Available at

[9] Woodford, Riley. “Alaska Black Bears and the Ice Age Newcomers to the Interior but Long in Southeast.” Alaska Department of Fish and Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <>.

[10] Woodford, Riley. “Uncovering mysteries: New research reveals much about life, history of Baranof Island goats.” Juneau Empire. Alaska Fish and Wildlife News, 26 November 2010. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <>.

Aug 09 2012

Saint Lazaria



We sat quietly in the colony struggling not to make noise for fear of scaring the birds.  It was about ten o’clock at night and the sun was still setting.  To the west the sun sank over the horizon and the last few flickers of light colored the approaching clouds.  To our east and south the full moon rose in a brilliant orange, promising to illuminate our night’s work. The scene was dreamlike, surreal.

Part of what makes Saint Lazaria so unique is its somewhat unusual land use designation.  The island of Saint Lazaria is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Homer, AK.  It is also a designated Wilderness Area protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System.  This multi-level protection has kept the island in pristine condition.

My work with SCS brought me to Saint Lazaria to learn about Alexis Will and the research she is conducting on the island.  Will is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she is working towards her Masters’ of Science in Biology and Wildlife.  For her thesis she is trying to determine the diets and foraging grounds of Rhinocerous Auklets (i.e., Cerorhinca monocerata).  Will believes that by better understanding this species’ diet and foraging grounds, we will better understand how these birds may adapt to an increasingly variable environment.

Will’s research is also part of a bigger study.  In recent years the population of five key groundfish species in the Gulf of Alaska have been significantly lower than in previous years.  This is particularly alarming as these five fish species are all commercially important to the state.  To determine what is causing this decline, the North Pacific Research Board is currently in the process of conducting a Gulf of Alaska-wide study. Their goal is to better understand the causes for these declining populations.

So how does Will’s research fit in to this bigger project?

Here’s the thing.  Rhinocerous Auclets feed on the same fish that the five groundfish species feed on.  If Alexis can determine where and how much fish the Saint Lazaria Rhinocerous Auclets are eating, then we will have a better picture of the food base in the Gulf, at least, theoretically.  With better information on the health of the food base in the Gulf, the state of Alaska will have better science with which to base their fishing quotas.  It’s cool research and I was glad to have the opportunity to learn more about it.

However, what intrigued me most about Saint Lazaria was my experience in the Rhino colony.  The Rhinoceros Auklet colony is located at the edge of a very steep and menacing cliff.  Below the cliff we could see the commercial salmon fleet at anchor, protected in the lee of the island. As the Rhinos arrived at their nest to feed their chicks, the commercial trolling fleet sat below bracing for the approaching gale, and in the distance the lights of Sitka illuminated the night sky.  As I sat in the darkabsorbing the night’s activities, I was reminded of the simple fact that we are ALL part of this global ecosystem.

May 03 2012

Weatherization 101: Programming You Heater

Weatherization 101 is a six part series produced by the Sitka Conservation Society and the City and Borough of Sitka Electric Department to help Sitkans increase their energy awareness, conserve electricity, and save money.  Links to all six videos are below.

The State of Alaska has set a goal of achieving a 15% increase in energy efficiency per capita by 2020.  This effort is especially important in Sitka because the demand for electricity exceeds supply.  This effort is also important because the community has set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  In an effort to help Sitkans take steps to reducing their energy use and save money on energy costs, SCS has teamed up with local partners to create a series of “how-to” videos.  The partners in the project include the City of Sitka Electric Department, Sitka Girl Scout Troop 4140, and local contractor Marcel LaPerriere.

Weatherization 101:  Programming your Heater

You can save up to 10% of your space heating bill by turning your heater 3 degrees lower for only 8 hours a day.  This video demonstrate how to use a programmable thermostat on a Toyo Heater.


Weatherization 101: Lightbulbs

Weatherization 101: Hot Water Heater

Weatherization 101: Choosing the Right Type of Caulking for SE Alaska

Weatherization 101: Caulking with Troop 4140

Weatherization 101: Home Breaker Panels

Video by Andre Lewis.


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