Understanding ‘The Tongass Transition’: What It Means for Our Backyard
Maybe you’ve seen or heard some of these terms being thrown around our website, news publications, in conversations or radio pieces: the Tongass Transition, the Tongass Land Management Plan, Second Growth, Young Growth, Old Growth, Tongass Advisory Committee. Maybe not.
Either way, lets look at what the Tongass Transition means for our public lands and how it will impact our 17 million acre backyard. Lets dissect some of this jargon.
Southeast Alaska is broken into private land, state land, native corporation property and many small, rural communities. The Tongass National Forest encompasses the great majority of land and includes forest, alpine, mountains, coastline, , glaciers, estuaries, rivers and streams. These lands are managed very differently compared with national parks like Glacier Bay. While both are ‘public lands’, National Forests are managed for multiple uses. You can fish here, hunt, camp, log timber, harvest mushrooms, and start a business based on the extraction or admiration of, natural resources. That being said, you can’t just do whatever you want in National Forests. These public lands are managed for ecological integrity and public use by the US Forest Service. Our 17 million acre backyard is chopped up into different subsections with differing land use designations that determine where timber can be extracted, where wilderness is maintained, where ‘modifications’ can occur and what types of projects and interventions can happen here.
The Tongass Transition Framework refers to a shift in management of these public lands. In 2011, the framework was first announced by leaders in the Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that houses the United States Forest Service. The goal of the management shift being to transition focus from old growth clear cutting to young growth management and a more holistic approach to governing these lands that integrates all non-timber harvest economic values that the Tongass generates. To understand the significance of this from an ecological standpoint let’s visit the forest.
Old Growth, Second Growth, Young Growth : A Very Brief Ecology
The differences between ‘old-growth’ and ‘young-growth’ are important and a little background in forest succession will help you see why. First off, the term ‘stand’ is often used to describe a tract of forest with similar characteristics. The characteristics of our old-growth stands include mature, ancient trees, represented primarily by Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock and Alaska Yellow Cedar. Of these trees, the Alaska Yellow Cedar are especially ancient: some may be as old as 3000 years. When these trees were saplings, the Ancient Egyptian empire was just coming to a close. So it’s no surprise that it takes time for a forest to show old growth characteristics- hence ‘old’ growth.
These stands are critical for wildlife who depend on the specific characteristics of this forest structure. For example, during harsh winters Sitka Black Tailed Deer depend on the lush understory and protection from snowpack that the old-growth canopy provides. Also, old-growth stands that are adjacent to salmon rivers facilitate fish production. When standing, these trees regulate stream temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and their ancient roots prevent erosion of stream banks. When they die and crash into the water, their trunks and root wads create pools and make habitat for salmon to spawn and smolts to rest from rushing currents. These forest stands are ecologically important for sustaining healthy populations of wildlife, regulating clean water, fresh air, sequestering carbon etc. These stands are also economically significant and currently represent the bulk focus of timber harvesting on the Tongass.
When large expanses of old-growth stands are clear-cut, the characteristics of the forest are dramatically altered. As the trees begin to grow back in unison, they pack together densely in competition for sunlight. The top canopies of these even aged trees close and overlap so tightly that plants thriving on the forest floor (e.g. forbs, berry bushes, ferns, and shrubs) don’t receive sunlight and eventually die. Wildlife (and humans) struggle to navigate through the dense trees and slash (woody material left behind during the harvest that clutters the forest floor). Although not worthless, these stands are considerably less valuable for wildlife due to an eventual lack of understory plants for forage and the limits to motion the forest structure creates. These trees have often been called second-growth because they are the ‘second’ group of trees established in an area, after the initial clearcut. They are more accurately called young-growth because they can be cut again and again and a ’third’ and ‘fourth’ growth of trees would follow. If you hike off the trails in Southeast Alaska, the difference between stands is intuitive: you can take a nice stroll through old growth, you need to bushwack through early second growth. Thinning second-growth stands, or removing a percentage of the trees, can help wildlife while providing timber. This is the timber source the Transition intends to move to.
Why Do We Need A Transition?
A healthy forest landscape includes a mixture of forest stands in varying stages of succession. Disturbances happen naturally (think landslide and blowdown) and forest succession is an inevitable process. The ecological issues lie in the extent and sheer magnitude of past clearcuts that left behind an unnatural mosaic of forest succession and salmon streams devoid of large trees. Over the course of 60 years the Forest Service and private native corporations sold and harvested almost 1 millions acres of our rainforest. We crushed the majority of this wood into dissolving pulp and barged it, and eventually the economic stimulation it brought, away. This has left behind vast acreage of second growth, impaired landscapes and streams and, rural communities that desperately need sustainable economic stimulation.
The reasons for the Transition however, extend beyond ecological needs. The reasons are vast and also social, economic, political, ideological. Unsustainable timber liquidation is a story retold across the globe- the world is running out of ancient trees and old-growth forests. We want to protect our remaining stands because healthy ecosystems provide clean water, air, atmosphere and energy. We also want to protect old-growth forests so our children can inherit these spectacular landscapes. We want to recreate here and we need healthy wildlife populations to continue to hunt deer, harvest plants and fish. We want to maintain our national heritage and the quality of life in Southeast Alaska we cherish. Old growth is a big part of a healthy environment and healthy communities. Practically and economically, a continued sole dependence on old-growth lumber can not be sustained long-term. Although wood is technically a ‘renewable’ resource, without careful management and patience, 300 year old spruce and hemlock trees can not realistically support industry if the harvest of these trees is not done with silvicultural tenets in mind like sustained yield, appropriate harvest scale for regeneration and rotation, and long term stand management and planning.
We are lucky in the Tongass because we still have considerable areas of virtually untouched forest, healthy salmon habitat and a variety of natural resources that, if managed carefully, can sustain diverse and vibrant economies in Southeast Alaska long term. We still have time to make this work and exploring uses for second growth is a good start.
The Big Picture: What is the Transition Really About
While a wholesale halt to all old-growth harvesting is both unrealistic and unnecessary, changes to our timber policy are integral. We need policies that value this globally rare commodity for what it really is: precious. We need to harvest carefully, selectively and manufacture and utilize this lumber in a way that maximizes stable jobs in the Southeast, respects the resource, and uses it responsibly.
The agency is also transitioning from a narrow focus on timber to the reality that the Tongass National Forest provides ample resources beyond wood. How can we maintain these other resources and stimulate additional economic opportunity around them? In the words of the same miller, “If we depend on just fishing, just mining or just timber- we are going to deplete one or the other.”
. Investigating the best use of, and sustained management of our timber resources is part of it. Rebuilding the health of habitat damaged by past logging is part. Understanding how these resources will be impacted by climate change and preparing is a piece. Recognizing the significance of recreation and tourism to our economy is a big chunk of it too.
The Transition in Practice: The Tongass Advisory Committee
Accomplishing this transition is no easy task. Southeast Alaska is a unique place where a single agency is responsible for the vast majority of land in a region that depends on the natural resources it provides. We need a healthy and stable supply of natural resources for our economy, our subsistence, for clean water, fresh air and energy production. We need our forest to keep producing salmon, the key economic driver and cultural lifeblood in the region, and we need to protect all of this from overharvest and climate change. That is certainly not an easy task and a massive amount of responsibility for an agency with limited resources. To the great benefit of all, the Forest Service has been strengthening its capacity for collaboration and partnership building and this is where our final terms enter the story- the ‘TAC’ and ‘TLMP’.
The members of the TAC were selected and announced in May. The ‘Tongass Advisory Committee’ is an official Federal Advisory Committee that includes conservationists, industry representatives, native interests, and other stakeholder leaders. The team of fifteen will participate in a series of meetings and discussions led by a professional and highly experienced facilitator and mediator. In 2015, the group will provide guidance to the Forest Service, make recommendations, and propose alternatives to amend the Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP). TLMP is basically a constitution for how our 17 million acre backyard should be managed. It is a dynamic document that needs to be amended and updated when our values, economies, and resources shift. With respect to timber specifically, this document outlines where and how lumber can be harvested, how forest stands are ‘upkept’, thinned and managed for future harvesting and what regulations and rules must be upheld to protect wildlife. TLMP is the ‘go-to’ document for forest management and adjustments and amendments to the plan will have lasting and important impacts on our forest.
The Sitka Conservation Society is pleased that our executive director, Andrew Thoms, will be standing on the TAC committee and providing support and guidance alongside a variety of stakeholders.
So again, what is the Transition?
The Transition is about responsibility and caring for a landscape that can provide resources while maintaining its full compliment of ecological diversity- something that is increasingly rare across the globe. The Transition is a refusal to repeat history. The Transition is about being proactive rather than reactive and TAC and the future amendment process is about giving voice back to variety stakeholders who love and depend on our 17-million acre backyard.
Greg Killinger fell in love with Southeast Alaska when he volunteered with the US Forest Service in 1983. During that first summer, he worked in fisheries surveying dozens of streams on Baranof and Chichagof Islands and other places on the Northern Tongass. This first summer was enough to convince him that this was where he wanted to be. He spent his next 30 years on the Tongass doing great things for our public lands and the natural world. Greg grew up in western Oregon. He graduated from Oregon State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Science. He went on to complete a master’s degree in Natural Resource Management. Greg married his wife Lisa Petro, a local Sitkan, in 1990.
We worked very close with Greg in his position as the Tongass lead staff officer for Fisheries, Wildlife, Watershed, Ecology, Soils, and Subsistence. Greg held that post and worked under the Forest Supervisor from the Sitka Forest Service office. In that position, he oversaw and helped with all the programs across the Tongass for fisheries and watersheds. Greg was a key partner and helped build important relationships between the Sitka Conservation Society and the Forest Service. With him, we worked together on salmon habitat restoration projects like the Sitkoh River Restoration, restoration projects on Kruzof Island, and many other salmon-related projects across the entire Tongass.
Our working relationship with Greg and his employees was so close that we even shared staff. In 2011, SCS and Greg developed a position we called the Tongass Salmon Forest Resident. SCS funded the position and they worked under Greg. The position’s goal was to “tell-the-story” of all the innovative and important programs that Greg managed on the Tongass that protected, enhanced, and restored salmon habitat. When SCS created the position, our goal was to shine the light on this great work. Greg put the spotlight on his staff and the partners that he worked with to make the Tongass’s Fisheries and Watershed programs successful. That was the kind of leader that he was: he never wanted to take credit but always wanted to empower others and build more leadership and capacity.
That initial project led to two similar positions in 2012 and 2013. Greg worked with SCS staff to make two beautiful short films that shared the story of important fisheries management programs. One, called “Restoring America’s Salmon Forest”, illustrated a project Greg helped orchestrate that improved the health of the Sitkoh River—a major salmon producer damaged by past logging. The other, “Subsistence in Southeast Alaska: The Tongass National Forest’s Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program”, showcases the importance of Tongass salmon for subsistence use. This film also highlights important joint fisheries projects that Greg’s program created with various Tribes across the Tongass. These programs continue to empower Native Alaskans to monitor important salmon runs across the region. Greg understood the importance of sharing the story of Tongass programs with the larger public. He was driven to showcase the importance of this forest in producing salmon and share how the Forest Service’s staff cares for salmon, fisheries, and wildlife habitat. These films—and the many additional products that came from these partnerships—were catalyzed by Greg. Despite his heavy involvement, few recognized it was he who made them happen. Again, that was just the type of leader he was. He empowered and inspired us as a key catalyst that made things happen but did so from the background, never seeking credit or recognition.
Greg was also a serious outdoorsman. He loved fishing for king salmon in the early summer and dip-netting for sockeye in July. He was a very accomplished alpine hunter whose passion was chasing after sheep in the Alaska interior. Greg did a number of epic hunts solo. He once shared the story of a solo mountain goat hunt that he did during a particularly dry summer. He became severely dehydrated high in the mountains. At one point he was crawling into a gorge looking for water while hallucinating because he had already been without water and under the sun for 2 days (in a rainforest!). He did get his goat in the end though.
That type of solo hunting in big mountains really characterized the kind of person Greg was– not macho and he didn’t do any of that to show-off or to be the guy that got the biggest trophy– rather, he did those hunts for the pure challenge and as the highest form of communing with the natural world of Alaska. Greg loved wildlife. He loved the land and the water and the oceans. He loved the ecosystems of Alaska and all the natural processes that tied them all together. Hunting for him was one of the many ways that he was part of those ecosystems and part of how he connected with the natural world.
Greg didn’t just challenge himself on Dall Sheep hunts in the Alaska Range. Greg took on enormous challenges in the work that he did and with the same calm and unassuming manner that he talked about his extreme outdoor exploits. One isn’t the type of leader that Greg exemplified or is responsible for the variety and complexity of programs that Greg oversaw on a whim. In fact, balancing all the issues and programs that Greg oversaw was more of a challenge than the hunts he loved so much. Protecting salmon habitat under pressure from development, finding the resources and coordinating the partners to restore critical salmon systems, bringing together extremely diverse interests to work together, and being responsible for defining the strategy for how our largest National Forest deals with Climate Change are just the tip of the iceberg of what Greg did in his day-to-day. In most likelihood, those extreme hunts for Greg were actually a simplification of life for him: a situation where the most logical rules of nature are paramount and where the most basic instinctual conflicts of man-vs-nature and man-vs-himself are played out amongst the most perfect and beautiful of our planet’s natural creation.
Greg died suddenly, unexpectedly, and in his prime. The one and only grace of his passing is the fact that it happened on a mountainside, in the arms of the beautiful forest he loved, and on one of the most spectacular spring days there ever was in Sitka. He enjoyed that last day to its fullest fishing for King Salmon in the morning, gardening, and then a trip up the mountain.
Greg’s unexpected passing left all of us who knew him shocked. We lost a mentor that we admired, a colleague that inspired us, and a friend that we could always count on. Greg came to the Tongass and when he left, he left it a better place. We will always remember him and we will always strive to be as good a person as he was.
Written by: Andrew Thoms, Bethany Goodrich, Jon Martin, Kitty Labounty; May 30th, 2014
Video and Slideshow by: Bethany Goodrich, Corrine Ferguson, Pat Heur and the great help of Lisa, Su Meredith and all who scanned photos, dug through the archives and even digitized slides to memorialize Greg
Note: Greg Killinger will be added to the Sitka Conservation Society’s Living Wilderness Celebration Board which honors the people who cherish and protect the wild and natural environment of the Tongass and have a passion for Wilderness. The above essay will be added to a book that tells the story of the people we honor and forever celebrate their lives and actions. In this way, we will continue to draw inspiration from Greg and all the others whose lives we celebrate.
Join SCS and the USFS as we cruise to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Learn how SCS advocates for the protection of pristine habitats and how the USFS manages the resources of the Tongass National Forest.
Birds of Sitka Sound
Join local naturalists as we explore the Sitka Sound through the lens of the resident and migratory birds of the Tongass National Forest. Learn how the Sitka Conservation Society advocates for pristine habitats to be protected for these diverse local species.
On one of the lowest tides of the summer, we will set sail early to try to find the critters of the inter tidal zone on Kruzof Island. The Allen Marine vessel will drop us off so we can explore up close and personal with marine creatures accompanied by a local biologist. Learn the importance of this micro-ecosystem, its connection to our Tongass National Forest, and how SCS supports our public lands for recreation.
Sedge Meadows and Salmon of Nakwasina PassageSunday, July 27 1 – 4 pm $40 per person
Join SCS Executive Director, Andrew Thoms, and SCS board member / UAS Professor, Kitty LaBounty on board an Allen Marine vessel to sail through the Sitka Sound and surrounding area.
Salmon of Sitka SoundTuesday, August 19 5 – 8 pm
Join us on our final boat cruise of the season as we travel the Sitka Sound exploring the life of a salmon. Sitka Sound Science Center’s Aquaculture Director, Lon Garrison, will be on board to guide us through salmon’s importance in the Tongass National Forest.
More information on boat cruises to come this summer! Keep checking this page for more opportunities to get out to sea! Summer Boat Cruise tickets are available at Old Harbor Books two weeks prior to the event. Due to vessel regulations, space is limited and each person requires a ticket (children, adults, and seniors are all $40). The purchase of tickets must be cash or check (Sitka Conservation Society) only. For more information, please contact SCS at 747-7509 or email Mary, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boarding begins at 5:15pm from the Crescent Harbor Loading Dock.
Hot drinks are complimentary.
Binoculars are available on board.
Snacks can be purchased or you can bring your own.
SCS Board Member, Brendan Jones recently published an article in the New Your Times: “Fish Need Trees, too.” detailing the Forest Service’s poor management of resources in Southeast Alaska, putting giant, ecologically destructive clear-cuts over protecting habitat for salmon–the backbone of the Southeat Alaskan economy.
This year, though, the fishing fleet in southeast Alaska will work under the shadow of an announcement by the United States Forest Service that it intends to approve the Big Thorne timber sale, which would allow the logging industry to harvest about 6,200 acres of remnant old-growth trees in Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest remaining temperate rain forest. It would be the most destructive old-growth cut in the forest in the past 20 years.
You can help.
Sign the Petition below: Tell Alaska’s senators to put pressure on the Forest Service to prioritize our salmon and stop support out-dated logging projects.
Write a Letter: Ask the Forest Service and Senators to make better decisions about our public lands and start judging success by counting the number of jobs and economic gains of salmon production rather than the number of board feet.
Remind the Forest Service that Fish Need Trees, too!
Your message will be delivered to Senators Begich and Muskowski, Undersecretary Robert Bonnie, Chief of the Forest Service Tm Tidwell, and Regional Forester Beth Pendleton.
The Sitka Conservation Society and US Forest Service are working with community support and partner organizations to encourage a regional management transition across the Tongass National Forest. Our ultimate goal is that the management of our public lands reflects the collective interests and values of the region’s many stakeholders. We work tirelessly to ensure that our largest national forest remains healthy, vibrant and productive for generations to come. To achieve these long-term goals, we encourage a shift away from an unsustainable focus on old-growth timber harvesting to the stimulation of a diversified and resilient regional economy with responsible watershed management.
Part of a successful transition involves an active US Forest Service Fisheries and Watershed Program with strong community and partner support. Unfortunately, for the last several years federal funding, including those allocated for fisheries and watershed management in the Alaska region, have decreased around 5 to 10% annually. SCS strongly advocates for forest management and a Forest Service budget that recognizes the significance of salmon and other fish and wildlife across the Tongass.
We are excited that this year, the Fisheries and Watershed budget in the Alaska region has been boosted by about 15%! This means that several important programs and projects that were on the back burner due to insufficient funding, can now move forward.
I sat down with Greg Killinger, Fish, Watershed, and Soils Program Manager on the Tongass who was very excited about these budget changes. “After several years of declining funding, it is great to see an increase in funds available to get important fisheries, wildlife and watershed work done on the Tongass with our communities in Southeast Alaska.”
The types of projects and programs the Fisheries and Watershed sector supports include the stabilization, maintenance and restoration of damaged fish and wildlife habitat, the replacement or removal of unnecessary culverts that currently obstruct fish movement, and the support of monitoring projects that protect and secure a stable future for our natural resources. Major project work is planned on Kuiu Island, Prince of Wales Island and our neighbor in Sitka – Kruzof Island.
We continue to encourage adjustments to the region’s budget and changes to management scope and strategy that support a healthier future for our forest, fish, and communities. Thank you to the Forest Service for taking this initial step in the right direction! Cheers to this small victory, now go get outside and enjoy the brilliant and healthy landscape we are so fortunate to call home!
Sitka is alive with activity! The herring have returned to our waters to spawn. Fish, fishermen, whales, birds and sea lions are crowding our oceans and coasts and the streets are starting to smell fishy.
Check out this little video SCS helped produce with Ben Hamilton that showcases our deliciously fresh fisheries-from stream to plate!
Hundreds of people throughout the state have come out in opposition to House Bill 77, known also as the Silencing Alaskans Act.
The Sitka community joined in opposition to HB 77 this past Thursday as well. Around fifty people showed up to a meeting scheduled with Department of Natural Resources Representative Wyn Menefee to get a better understanding of the bill. Mr. Menefee was unable to attend due to snow but the meeting still continued.
Linda Behnken, Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, helped frame the bill and answered questions posed.
“Is there anything in this bill that you like?” , moderator Eric Jordan read off a notecard given by a community member.
“If there are things that I like in this bill, I couldn’t point them out to you” said Behnken.” I do understand that DNR has interest in facilitating the permitting process so that there could be quicker decisions but I think they’ve gone way beyond that with this bill and that’s the message they need to hear from the people.”
That’s the message that was heard repeatedly at Thursday’s public discussion through the fourteen people that testified against the bill.
“Over 30 tribes have expressed opposition to HB 77 and Sitka Tribe is one of them,” said Michael Baines, Tribal Chairman of Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
“This bill attacks the basic constitutional guarantees of fish and wildlife protection. The public holds these resources in common yet [HB 77] gives priority to extractive interests that damage them,” said Matt Donohoe, board member of the Alaska Troller’s Association.
“I think a good example of things that happened when we didn’t have any kind of say about stuff was what the water used to look like when the pulp mill was operating”, said Kim Elliot, Alaska Department of Fishing & Game Advisory Council member. “We really have to think about what our future would look like if we didn’t have any rights to take care of the water upstream from our piece of property wherever that might be. People really deserve the right to question what the government is doing.”
Sitkans still want DNR to come to town and answer questions on HB 77, but this time it will be when we see the new amendments proposed on the bill. Right now behind closed doors, the Senate Rules Committee is proposing changes to the bill because of the hundreds of people that have outspoken against it. This reminds us that public participation IS in fact key to the way we manage our shared natural resources, and our rights as Alaskans.
For more information on House Bill 77, go to www.standforsalmon.org and join us in writing Governor Sean Parnell to let him know of your opposition to HB 77 and to the giveaway of your rights as an Alaskan.
Governor Sean Parnell
Alaska State Capitol Building
PO BOX 110001
Juneau, AK 99811-0001
When serving local seafood in our schools became a community health priority in the 2010 Sitka Health Summit, the Sitka Conservation Society recognized the opportunity to apply our mission to “support the development of sustainable communities.” Now all grades 2-12 in Sitka serve locally-harvested fish at least twice a month, reaching up to 1,500 students. In just three years over 4,000 pounds of fish have been donated to Sitka Schools from local seafood processors and fishermen.
Fish to Schools is a grassroots initiative that builds connections and community between local fishermen, seafood processors, schools, students, and families. It’s a program that we would like to see replicated across the state—that’s why we created a resource guide and curriculum (available March 1st!). And that’s why I went to the Capital.
Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools is a state funded program that reimburses school districts for their Alaskan food purchases. This $3 million grant allows schools to purchase Alaskan seafood, meats, veggies, and grains that would otherwise be cost prohibitive to school districts. It also gives a boost to farmers and fishermen with stable, in-state markets.
Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools was introduced by Representative Stoltze and has been funded the last two years through the Capital Budget. I went to Juneau to advocate for this funding because it’s a way to ensure funding for local food purchases state-wide. Locally this means sustained funding for our Fish to Schools program.
I met with Senator Stedman, House Representative Kriess-Tomkins, and the Governor to tell them how valuable this grant has been for schools, food producers, and students around the state. I will continue my advocacy and ask you to join me. It is through your support that Fish to Schools exists in Sitka—let’s take that support and make this thing go state-wide!
The Sitka School District took the lead by passing a resolution to support “multi-year” funding of Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools. Let’s join them and advocate for a program that revolutionizes school lunches and catalyzes local food production. Please sign this letter and tell Senator Stedman and Representative Kreiss-Tomkins you support state funding for local foods in schools.