Sitka Conservation Society
Aug 29 2013

Guest Post: From the Waters of Alaska to the Cornfields of the Midwest

By. Nora McGinn, Sitka Salmon Shares Organizer

The author with a Sitka Salmon Shares member

The Sitka Salmon Shares office sits on Main Street in Galesburg, Illinois, approximately 3,000 miles from the Tongass National Forest and the communities of Southeast Alaska. Despite this distance, we share a commitment to the salmon, fishermen and public lands that make up the Tongass National Forest.

As we at Sitka Salmon Shares navigate connecting socially and environmentally conscious consumers in the Midwest with small boat fishermen in Sitka and Juneau we have continued to return to the story of the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass poses a particularly compelling connection for many people out here in the Midwest.

In the conversations I’ve had and the advocacy letters I’ve read I have learned that, as proud Midwesterners, our members understand they need to support their fellow citizens and public lands beyond their regional borders. They identify with the inextricable connection between place, culture and livelihood. They can relate to the fine balance between stewardship and reliance on resources. And just as they enjoy supporting their local farms, dairies and breweries, they appreciate supporting their fisherman, who although not as local is just as fundamental to their food system.

Sitka Salmon Share members at a letter writing event

But, for most of our members, their growing reverence for the Tongass National Forest comes down to something much simpler: the taste and quality of the wild salmon we deliver to their doorstep during the summer months. They know that the bountiful streams and rivers of the Tongass National Forest reared their wild salmon. They understand that the delicious and nourishing salmon that ends up on their dinner tables had a long journey — a journey that connects them to their fishermen and to the Tongass as a whole.

When Midwesterners join Sitka Salmon Shares, we help them become aware of the Tongass National Forest as a national treasure. And for these reasons, they feel a responsibility to safeguard it for both those that rely on the Tongass for their livelihood locally, and for folks like them, thousands of miles away, fortunate enough to share in its bounty.

Therefore our members in Minnesota have been writing to Senator Al Franken, our members in Wisconsin have been communicating with Senator Tammy Baldwin, and our members in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana have been contacting the Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell in order to advocate for the Tongass and the Tongass Transition. They all write to share their hopes for a healthy, sustainable future in the Tongass by prioritizing funding for watershed restoration, caring for salmon habitat and making sure fisheries remain strong so that communities, near and far, can thrive.

Sitka Salmon Shares members tell us why they love WILD salmon from the TONGASS

Aug 27 2013

Hunting for Meaning

If you had asked me a few years ago what I thought about hunting I probably would have said I didn’t like it. I appreciated the whole wild food thing but hunting = killing. And that was bad. Or wrong. Or something. But today I was called a huntress…let me explain.

Saturday was the day of the hunt but we woke to heavy raindrops and mountains hidden behind thick clouds. We weren’t going anywhere. So we snuggled deeper into our sleeping bags and let our heavy eyelids close. After a bit more sleep, we had pancakes smothered in peanut butter and homemade jam, a gooey blend of rhubarb and wild blueberries. We spent the next few hours playing cards and reading aloud from the “Princess Bride.” Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon.

The rain eventually let up enough for a little peak outside, so we pulled on our rain gear; my partner grabbed his rifle and I slung a pair of binoculars around my neck. I was the designated scout. We trudged through wet muskeg and noted fresh deer sign. We walked slowly scanning our surroundings, pausing occasionally at the edge of an opening or on a small rise for a better look. We saw plenty of sign but no deer–we would try again in the morning.

The four of us woke before sunrise and stumbled sleepily outside. We made a quick scan of the muskeg before climbing up a series of muddy deer trails, bushwhacking our way into the alpine. After a slippery few miles, the forest opened up into a rolling alpine. We fell silent. Silent because it was so beautiful and silent because we were hunting. I got flustered when we saw our first deer, how exciting it was! She was the first of many does we admired from afar (it’s buck season).

Is this how people used to interact with the land? Quiet, attentive, searching… hungry? I was different out there or perhaps more fully aware of myself. I was in tune with my surroundings, each step thoughtfully placed. My eyes active. Instead of taking up space, I became a part of it.

We never did see a buck but it didn’t take away from the trip. Hunting creates a space for deeper connection to place and that is enough. I kind of like being called a huntress because for me hunting is a process–an experience. It’s exploration and adventure. It’s intentional and fun.

Ask me now what I think about hunting and I’ll tell you I like it. Ask me again when I get a deer.

Alpine hunt in the Tongass National Forest. Photo Credit: Caitlin Woolsey.

Jul 30 2013

Fishing Lines and Family Ties

The hook is out, but the gaff is in. Photo by Berett Wilber

I wake up groggy, almost hit my head on the fo’c's’le ceiling when I climb up the ladder into the pilot house. When Dad sees me, he says “Hey! Get your rain gear on! We need your help!”

And then ten minutes later, I’m out in the pit, my gloves wrist deep in the belly of a king salmon, no trace of breakfast in sight – not that I would be up for eating it if it was. The fish are pouring in over the side, and I think about my camera, laying abandoned in my bunk. Wasn’t that supposed to be my tool here, not gaff hooks and knives? What was I doing covered in fish blood and salt water, in the exact place that, at the ripe old age of 14, I swore I would never come back to?

The Alexa K at anchor. Photo by Berett Wilber

   My dad has been a commercial salmon troller out of Sitka, our small town in Southeast Alaska, for the last thirty-four years. Other fisherman recognize me around town sometimes, stop me and shake my hand: “You’re Charlie’s daughter,” they say. “Man. Your dad knows how to catch a fish.” The last time he wore a suit was at his own wedding, almost twenty-five years ago: and his tie was shaped like a fish. I did my first stint as a deckhand at age eleven: cleaning and icing before I was actually strong enough to haul a fish aboard myself. My friends from the Lower 48 love this story, impressed by the romance of it all: this makes me feel a lot like I am deceiving them.

I hated fishing. I alternated seasick or bored. And to clarify: there is little romance in being eleven, or setting up a steady rhythm of puking over the side in between cuts. I wanted to escape salmon entirely. I quit fishing, and got a job on dry land. When I left for a college on the other side of the country, I was certain that there was nothing I would miss less than fish, whether spawning in the forest, stacked in the fishold, or cooking on the barbecue.

   And then the dreams started. I have always loved the visuals of Southeast Alaska: they’re part of why I became a photographer in the first place, but this was overwhelming. Three or four times a week I would close my eyes and I would find the ocean stretching out from the bow of the boat, salmon swimming through the air around me. I doodled salmon in the margins of my notebooks, wrote poems about salmon running upstream, essays on deckhands and sea lions. When I came home, I found myself photographing spawning salmon; the shape of fishing boats; the different colors of the ocean: it all rattled around in my mind, requiring my attention.

It drove me crazy. What was happening? I hated fishing, so how did I feel such a strong connection to salmon? And how could I feel so attached to a community that was economically and environmentally dependent on salmon, especially when I had left it three thousand miles behind?

That question was the reason I found myself back on the deck of the F/V Alexa K, gutting fish before breakfast, back to the place where my grudge against salmon had been instilled in the first place.  After eight days of work –  cleaning, icing, photographing, and a lot of thinking – I still didn’t like fishing. But I realized that just because I didn’t want to slay salmon on the high seas, it didn’t mean that I could get away from them. The more I thought about it, the easier it became to justify why salmon were important to me, even if I wasn’t fishing for them: whether or not I had a gaff in hand, I was born locked in to the salmon cycle of Southeast Alaska.

A good haul. Photo by Berett Wilber

   Salmon aren’t just my family’s livelihood. They’re the backbone of our local economy. Southeast Alaska is the world’s most productive and valuable salmon fishery in the world. If you were raised in the Tongass National Forest, chances are you’re a newcomer to what has been the spawning ground of salmon ancestors for 50 million years. The influence of the salmon that die on the banks each year ranges so far it’s impossible to trace them to an end. From fertilizing the forest, to feeding the wildlife, even changing the chemical composition of the soil, dead salmon help create one of the most unique and biodiverse biomes in the world – and they feed everything from Alaska’s tourism industry to new generations of fish in the streams.

   As a result, salmon are run deep in my conception of my community and my environment. There’s a connection I have to the forest and the ocean that feels just as strong when I am thousands of miles away as when I am asleep in a bunk that rests below the waterline of the Pacific. So while my dad trolls for bites and poundage, I look for shots and frames. I can’t make anything that would fill a freezer through the winter. But I can still have an affect on the resources on which we both depend: I can share the stories of people who make the Tongass their home, who make fishing their lifestyle. People like my parents. My dad will be the first to tell you – nobody gets rich trolling for salmon. You can only succeed at it if you love it, because otherwise it would drive you insane. But there’s a reason that sustainable fisheries were written into Alaska’s state constitution: not only do we care about catching fish this year, but we care about being able to catch fish twenty or fifty years from now.

Hauling a salmon aboard. Photo by Berett Wilber

The future of my family, and many families like mine, depend on the fisheries, which depend on the salmon, which depend on the forest. And it’s only by making these connections visible to the rest of the world that we can help protect them – to sway federal management of public lands, to make sure logging doesn’t ruin salmon habitat, to ensure sustainable catch practices. We’re one piece in an environment that has been raising salmon, trees, and people in conjunction for longer than anyone can remember. And even if we seem small in the face of all that ecological history, the importance that comes with being a link in that chain is not one we can take lightly. If everyone made the mistake that I made, if we considered the forest, the fisheries, even our families, disparate parts, each part would suffer the consequences.

Which is why instead of struggling to get away from salmon, I now find myself arguing for them. I don’t need to spend all my days on a boat to know that any chance we have to show the connection between the economy and the environment, the fisheries and the forest, is a chance to preserve the place that has always been home. In Southeast Alaska, the people, the fish, and the forest share a future. Just because I’m the world’s worst deckhand doesn’t mean that I can’t help shape it.

 Out on the ocean, where we’re trolling past cliffs covered in trees, whose roots reach down to the rivers where the salmon spawn each summer, the sun is finally coming up. It’s likely that no one has ever set a foot on land here, but it doesn’t matter. Even without breakfast, even slightly nauseous, with water stretching to the horizon on three sides – it’s impossible to feel isolated. Because that’s what salmon do for the people of the Tongass: they make one the planet’s most remote corners feel like a home.

Trollers at anchor before the opening. Photo by Berett Wilber

May 17 2013

Wild Foods, A New Relationship

Arguably, to know a place is to know the plants. It’s one thing to appreciate the aesthetics of a certain habitat but another to really know the plants within it. To really know a plant creates a relationship. One that’s based on an understanding and appreciation of seasons, habitat, and life cycle. It’s a give and take—food and medicine (among others) for protection and stewardship.

The Sitka Conservation Society created an opportunity for community members to deepen their relationship to the land through a “spring edibles plant series.” This class explored edible plants in three different habitats: the forest, estuary, and coastline. Students learned how to identify plants, where they are commonly found, harvesting techniques, and preparation methods. And now, we hope, they have a deeper appreciation and connection to the Tongass National Forest.

This course was a partnership with the Kayaani Commission, which was established in 1998 to “preserve and protect the historical and traditional knowledge of the way plants are used.” Kayaani Commissioners shared a customary wisdom, complementing instructor Scott Brylinsky’s extensive knowledge of edibles and plants.

Click here for an online field guide to the wild edibles in the Tongass. Enjoy the tastes of the Tongass!

May 16 2013

SCS & JVC Northwest: Rooted in the Same Values

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest has placed volunteers in various organizations all over Sitka for nearly two decades, focusing on issues of social and ecological justice. This year, I joined the Sitka Conservation Society team as their first Jesuit Volunteer (JV). Many of the core values of the JVC Northwest program align closely with those of Sitka Conservation Society. Social and ecological justice are important aspects of the work I do at SCS and are crucial values in the JVC Northwest program. My position, Living with the Land & Building Community Jesuit Volunteer, works toward ecological and social justice in several capacities.

My involvement with the Fish to Schools program at SCS is one of many examples of these two organizations, JVC Northwest and SCS, working to achieve the same goal. Fish to Schools coordinates local salmon and rockfish to be served in five Sitka schools. This program promotes not only social justice by allowing students with free and reduced lunches–who may not always have a balanced diet– a chance to eat a healthy local meal at school, but also ecological justice as well. By supporting our local fishermen and teaching students about sustainable fishing, we are influencing students to work towards ecological justice. Aside from my projects, the Sitka Conservation Society has a myriad of programs that advocate and work for ecological justice. Programs like Stream Team, where 7th graders get to spend 3 days outside learning about restoration and proper land management, is only one example in a long list of programs that SCS has created to encourage ecological justice.

Another core value of the JVC Northwest program is community. I live with three other Jesuit Volunteers who are placed at other non-profit organizations in Sitka. We live together, share food, have meals as a community, and support one another. Helping to foster a sense of community continues from my home into my projects at SCS. I lead Alaska Way of Life 4H classes at SCS. One of my main goals is to create a sense of community within our groups. Before every class we play a game or do an activity that allows us to learn about one another. Having weekly classes allows 4H kids to get to know their peers and makes them feel more invested in the community that they are helping to build. After these community building activities, we get to learn and practice new skills together that teach kids how to live with the land. The Alaska Way of Life 4H program has taught kids everything from harvesting wild edibles to tracking.

I am currently working on a project with a third grade class at Keet Gooshi Heen called Conservation in the Classroom. Many aspects of my lessons tie in to the value of simple living from JVC Northwest. My lessons are focused on water conservation in the Tongass. Our projects always take a hands on approach with “project based learning”. The students have done everything from building water catchment systems out of recycled materials to making their own water filters. We do all of our projects of recycled materials to live more simply and sustainably.

Social and ecological justice, community, and simple living are three values that JVC Northwest and the Sitka Conservation Society share and both works towards. It’s been a great opportunity to be a part of SCS and see the parallels between the two organizations.

May 08 2013

Sitka: A Tongass Salmon Town

In 2011, SCS began the Sitka Salmon Tours program.  The goal of the tours was to give visitors a salmon’s eye view from the forests where the salmon are born, to the ocean, the fisher and processor, and finally to our plates.  We’ve discontinued the Salmon Tours for 2013.  Instead, we have distilled all of the great facts, stories, and natural history  from the tours into this manual, “Sitka: A Tongass Salmon Town.”  Now anyone can be an expert on wild Tongass Salmon.  We hope that Sitka residents, guides, and naturalist will use this guide to share the miracle of salmon that attracts tens of thousands of visitors to this place each year.

Printed guides are available at the Sitka Conservation Society office.  If you’d like us to mail you a copy, send a request to  Bulk copies are available for purchase at-cost (about $0.80 per copy).

Download a copy of the manual HERE.

May 03 2013

Spring Wild Edibles Course – FULL (sign up for wait list)

nettles and fiddleheads

THIS CLASS IS FULL.  To sign up for the waiting list, send your name, email and phone number to

SCS is organizing a spring edibles course with the Kayaani Commission and instructors Scott Brylinsky and Kitty LaBounty. Students will learn how to identify, harvest, and prepare wild edibles from three distinct habitats in the Tongass.

Registration is required for all three classes:
May 7 and 9, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m
May 11 10:00 am – 1:00 pm

The class is free and space is limited. For more information or to register contact or call 747-7509

Apr 12 2013

Sealaska Bill: A Threat to Public Lands

Take action to protect your public lands HERE.

The following letter was submitted to the Sitka Sentinel by SCS.

Dear Editor:

The current version of the Sealaska legislation is scheduled for a hearing on April 25th in the Senate Public Lands Subcommittee.  This Sealaska bill is a threat to the public lands of the Tongass and to the ways that Sitkans use the Tongass.  This legislation would transfer lands on the Tongass to Sealaska that are outside of the original boxes where they were allowed to select lands.   The legislation would affect us in Sitka because the corporation is asking for in-holdings throughout the Sitka Ranger District that are some of the most valuable areas for access and use.  The bill would allow the corporation to select in-holdings in North-Arm/Hoonah Sound, Kalinin Bay, Fick Cove, Lake Eva, Wrangell Island off Biorka, Port Banks, and many others.   On Prince of Wales Island, the corporation has  cherry-picked the lands that have the highest concentration of the remaining economically valuable cedar trees, the oldest and fastest growing second growth, and the timber stands that have the most investment made by taxpayer dollars in roads, culverts, and forest thinning.

The in-holding selections might seem familiar topic.  The corporation is selecting them in the same process they are using for Redoubt Lake.  It is claiming that fishing access areas are eligible for selection under authorities that were meant for cemeteries.  In the case of Redoubt Lake that means that one of the most important sites for public use and subsistence on the Sitka Ranger District could be privatized and owned by a corporation that has a for-profit mandate and is run by a board of directors that has created its own closed circle of power (remember when Sitkans tried to get elected to that board).  The CEO of Sealaska came to Sitka a few weeks ago and made many promises about public access.  That all sounded good, but how long is he going to be around?  None of the agreements they proposed are legally binding.  What happens when their board of directors decides that they don’t want to allow everyone to fish there anymore?  What happens when they decide that they “are obliged to make profit for their shareholders” and the best way to do that could be to capitalize on the asset of Redoubt Lake and build a lodge on the island between the two falls?  Promises made today don’t necessarily stand the test of time when lands are not in public hands and are not managed by a publically accountable entity.

For all of the above reasons, SCS will be telling members of the  Senate Public Lands Subcommittee that the Sealaska Legislation is not good for the Tongass and not good for Southeast Alaska.  Information on how to contact members of that committee can be found on the SCS website:

                                                  Andrew Thoms

                                                  Executive Director

                                                  Sitka Conservation Society


Update: Sealaska Corporation’s CEO recently issued a response to the above editorial.  He also complained about the photos below.  He called them “unethical,” “mysterious,” “misinformation.”

Of course our photos of Redoubt Falls with no trespassing signs are fabricated, that is because (thankfully) this area is still in public hands where everyone, including Sealaska shareholders, have equal rights to utilize this place.  The photos we didn’t need to fabricate are the images of Sealaska Corp’s logging practices on land they currently own on Dall Island.  (Watch this Google Earth tour to see for yourself.*)  But don’t take our word for it; take a look at the short video Hoonah’s Legacy, showing the massive clearcuts logged by Sealaska Corp that scarred that community’s landscape.  Or, visit the Sealaska Shareholders Underground’s Facebook page to hear about shareholders who disagree with the Corporation, but who have so far been suppressed by Sealaska and prevented from allowing any new voices onto the Sealaska board of directors.

Based on history and the facts, it is hard to see how allowing a profit-driven corporation like Sealaska to take away public lands from Alaskans would be “good for Sitkans, the Tongass and for Southeast Alaska.”  If you agree, please consider writing a Letter to the Editor of your local paper and share this information with your friends and community.

* This is a Google Earth tour (.kmz file).  You must have Google Earth installed on your computer to view the tour.

Please encourage your friends and relatives living in states listed below to call their Senator.

Key Senate Public Lands Subcommittee Members:

Oregon- Senator Ron Wyden (202) 224-5244

Washington- Senator Maria Cantwell (202) 224-3441

Michigan- Senator Debbie Stabenow  (202)224-4822

Colorado- Senator Mark Udall (202) 224-5941

New Mexico- Senator Mark Heinrich (202) 224-5521

Minnesota- Senator Al Franken (202) 224-5641




Apr 09 2013

Take Action: Salmon, Water, Alaskans need your help

Salmon, water, and the Alaskans who depend on them need your help!

Background: Right now, the Alaska State Senate is debating whether or not they should make it more difficult for Alaskans to protect the water in their backyards for salmon habitat.  HB77, the In-Stream Water Reservations Bill, would convolute an already convoluted public process, eliminating the requirement for public comment periods.  It would also give the Department of Natural Resources Commissioner the authority to issue General Permits for industrial operations if the commissioner determines the project will not cause “significant or irreparable harm” to Alaskans and issue permits that would directly and negatively impact salmon habitat if the commissioner determines it is in the “best interest of Alaska.”

As a reminder, the Department of Natural Resources no longer values future generations—they eliminated “future generations” from their mission statement last year.

Additionally, HB77 intends to revoke certain rights from Alaskan individuals, organizations, and tribes, and gives the government of Alaska authority on whether or not salmon and water are as important as industrial development.  In other words, this bill protects Outside interests at the expense of local Alaskans.  For an example of DNR siding against Alaskans in favor of Outside interests, and why this bill is relevant to all Alaskans, click here.

Talking Points

  • Alaskans need more opportunities to preserve salmon and our unique way of life, not fewer
  • HB77 protects the right for Outside interests to take water out of salmon streams while making it more difficult for Alaskans to keep water in salmon streams
  • The bill gives DNR discretion to negatively impact salmon habitat if it is in the “Best Interest” of the State of Alaska
  • It eliminates the requirement for DNR to open public comment periods on “Best Interest Findings”
  • 95% of public testimony opposed HB77, including fishing organizations, Alaska Native Tribal councils, city councils, fishermen, hunters, and every day residents

Take Action: Time is running out on the Legislature.  To add your voice to this issue, act now!

Alaska’s fish and water need you to stand up and take action immediately.  There are two ways you can help: You can write a My Turn in the Juneau Empire, or you can contact the Alaska State Senate Coastal Caucus and let them know you oppose HB77, a bill that revokes certain rights from Alaskans, eliminates the requirement for public comment periods at DNR, and gives DNR discretion to impact salmon habitat for the benefit of Outside companies.   465-3873   465-4947   465-2828   465-4925   465-3707

Mar 21 2013

Mapping Tongass Forest Assets

The Tongass National Forest is valuable for more than old growth timber clear-cutting: it’s the source of near limitless value to both residents and visitors, if used sustainably.

Energy production, recreation, tourism, hunting, fishing, education and subsistence resources all rely on the continued health of the Tongass in order to continue bringing thousands of dollars and hundreds of jobs to Sitka.  As Sitka continues to grow, physically and economically, it’s essential that we recognize the wide swath of valuable assets present in and around Sitka.  

Southeast Alaska offers a cornucopia of possibilities for making a living from (and living off of) the land, rivers and sea.  Wilderness areas offer adventure and solitude rarely matched elsewhere in the US, large tracts of remote and robust ecosystems provide habitat for large populations of deer, bear, mountain goat, and more, world class salmon fisheries provides the best wild salmon and some of the best sport-fishing,  

The Tongass National Forest, and Sitka, are more than just tourist destinations, more than just timber value, more than just salmon fishing: the sum is greater than its parts.  If we plan future expansion and development with all these invaluable assets in mind, Sitka has the potential to grow more prosperous, and more sustainable.

Learn more about the myriad values throughout Sitka by visiting our map of the Sitka Community Use Area (SCUA), or check out the briefing sheets.

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Keep up to date on all of the issues. Check out "The Southeaster" Blog.

  • Hungry for Huckleberry Pie, Venison Stew, or Fresh Greens? Come to the Wild Foods Potluck Nov. 2!
  • Stand Up to Corporate Influence!
  • Kayaking Kootznoowoo: Report on SCS’s Final Wilderness Trip
  • Encouraging Local Natural Resource Stewardship on the Tongass: Kennel Creek
  • Teaching the Alaska way of Life: 4-H in Sitka
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