“Should I wear these pants or my stretchy ones?” Tracy Gagnon is sitting on the floor of my living room, hunting gear spread out around her, holding up a pair of lightweight hiking pants. Today is a momentous day for Tracy. Not only is it the day after her twenty sixth birthday, but it is the morning of her first ever hunting trip. She has sighted in her thirty aught six at the range, and her head is full of the philosophy of subsistence hunting.
This is a big step for Tracy, who is originally from Las Vegas, and moved to Sitka a year ago to run the SCS program, Fish for Schools. “People in Las Vegas don’t have guns!” she tells us (we laugh because that’s probably not true), “no one hunts, at least no one I know.” Actually, she says, her fifth grade teacher did make the class venison sloppy joes one time. And come to think of it, there was an ex-boyfriend who had an unsettling set of deer antlers mounted above his bed…but other than that, Tracy feels that she has had very little exposure to subsistence hunting culture.
Since moving to Alaska, things have been a little different. Tracy decided to start hunting because she wants to be responsible for her food, and up here, hunting seems like a good way provide for herself. A friend of hers once explained that he never feels more connected to the land than when he is hunting. Never more connected to the animal until he has lifted his gun to fire. Now we are in the car on the way to the harbor, and Tracy tells us she is awed by subsistence hunters in Alaska. “They know the place…they know how to read the wilderness, and they have a deep respect for the process,” she says. She has heard so many stories of the rituals of respect that people have with hunting, reassembling the carcass after harvesting the meat, leaving a lock of hair on the mountain, always thankful to the deer for being in the right place in the right time, and standing still instead of bounding away. “I’ve never had those experiences,” Tracy says, “so my main underlying reason [for hunting] is practical, but I’m also excited about the process.
We make it to the beach by nine, and we are up the ridge in an hour. We are getting a late start, but the extra sleep was worth it. The day could not be more beautiful. As we hike up through the trees, morning sun glints on the edge of each false summit, until we finally break out onto the alpine, where our ridge stretches out in front of us, and snowy peaks block out the horizon. We all agree that we are unbelievably lucky to live in the most beautiful place on earth. Our hunting location will remain unnamed, but I will tell you that we were in the Tongass, and not too far from Sitka. We see two float planes all day, and not a single other person. “Can you believe we woke up this morning and got to do this?” Berett (the photographer) asks. The ridge is about three miles long as the crow flies, and slowly climbs in a meandering curve up to a frozen lake nestled in a deep bowl. We hit snow after five hours of slow hunting, and the dog lies down to cool off. We go a little farther, then start down, still not giving up the hunt. It’s hard to feel discouraged when you have such a glorious landscape to distract you.
Unfortunately, Tracy didn’t bring her beginners luck, and we make it back to the beach at seven without sighting a deer. My mom, the experienced hunter on the trip, tells us not to be disappointed. “Subsistence hunting is like a kind of religion. Most religions have some aspect of faith in that which you cannot see.” She tells us about a time when she was looking down a hillside, and she knew there must be a deer down there because the dog was going crazy, sniffing the air and prancing around like it was Christmas morning. Mom rested her gun on a boulder and looked and looked and couldn’t see anything through the scope, and finally, growing impatient, the dog ran around the boulder and spooked the deer that had been laying there with it’s back against the warm rock. “Deer surprise you when you are at your lowest and feel like giving up.”
We don’t come home with a deer, but we are not entirely empty handed; Tracy found some bright orange Chicken of the Woods mushrooms that she brought home for dinner, Berett got lots of great shots, and the dog brought back a forest’s worth of sticks matted up in her fur. Back in the living room thirteen hours later, Tracy is still excited; “I actually think I’ve never seen a more beautiful view in my entire life. Twenty-six is a good year!”
Photos by BERETT WILBER
Berett Wilber was born and raised in fishing family in Sitka, Alaska. Currently studying as a junior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, the photography skills that she developed as a kid running around Baranof Island have developed into a dedicated interest and professional tool. Although she’s worked in many interesting places, from the steps of the capital in Washington, DC to the prairies of the Midwest, the Tongass is still her favorite place to shoot.
Much has changed at Sitkoh Lake since the late 1970’s. What was once an epicenter for industrial logging is now a center of activity for forest and watershed restoration. During the summer of 2012, the Sitka District of the United States Forest Service (USFS) went into the Sitkoh Lake Watershed to restore tributary streams and repair some of the damage that was caused by industrial logging. This logging occurred at a time when we didn’t understand the value of the yearly returns of salmon compared to the short-term gains of clear-cut logging.
In the late 1970’s the area around Sitkoh Lake was heavily logged and many roads were constructed in close proximity to the nearby streams. Unfortunately, the resulting degradation in wildlife and stream habitat made survival more difficult for the area’s Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Chum salmon. To rectify this issue, the Sitka Ranger District of the USFS has invested resources to restore and monitor these important streams.
Rivers and streams in old growth forest naturally have large logs and other root masses that create ideal habitat for juvenile salmon that spend the first years of their lives in this slow moving, deep water. These natural structures help to create deep pools, oxygenate the water, and provide cover from predators. When the area around a stream is heavily logged, the natural material that can create this salmon habitat is lost. As a result the stream becomes straighter, shallower and less ideal for juvenile salmon.
To fix this problem the crew from the US Forest Service installed a number of man-made structures called “upstream V’s” that replicate these natural structures. These upstream V’s help channel the stream’s flow and create deeper, slower moving water ideal for juvenile salmon. However, these are temporary fixes that will hold the stream bank together until the trees along the stream grow large enough to naturally create this habitat diversity for spawning salmon.
This project in the Sitkoh Lake Watershed is important because these salmon runs help support many of our local communities. Many commercial seine and troll fishermen depend on these fish for their livelihoods. These runs also support our local subsistence fishery that so many residents depend upon for their sustenance. Considering these qualities, it’s fair to say that these streams are the lifeblood for the nearby communities of Angoon and Sitka.
Forest Service projects like this that “manage the Tongass for Salmon” are extremely important investments in both the ecosystems of the Tongass as well as the economy of Southeast Alaska. But this project is just a start. There are still hundreds of miles of salmon streams that have been impacted by historic clear-cut logging that still need restoration.
SCS is working to make sure that this project is only the beginning of a long-term focus of Tongass management that focuses on our Wild Alaska Salmon Resource.
August is an amazing month for deer in Southeast Alaska. During August, there is food for deer everyplace. The estuaries have copious amounts of sedges and grasses; berry bushes are filled out with green leaves, blueberries, and Red-huckleberries; ground forbs are in full growth. The vegetarian deer are literally wading through a full salad bowl of nutritious greens and tasty treats and can take a bite of of just about everything they pass and munch it down!
With all the plants available, the deer can afford to be choosey about where they hang out and what they eat. Obviously, they pick the best place to go: the high alpine. In the high alpine they find the newest and most nutritious growth. This summer, after a heavy winter, there are many patches of alpine where the snow has only recently melted and new grass and deer cabbage is just starting to grow and begin to blossom. These new shoots are tender and the deer graze hard on these to fatten up to get through the leaner winter months.
Deer also like the high alpine because they have both the cover of the stunted mountain hemlock trees as well as long vistas to keep a lookout on what is around then. There is often a breeze in the alpine and on the ridges that helps the deer keep the bugs from biting. I’m not sure if this is a factor or not for the deer, but the high alpine of the outer coast is also amazingly beautiful and has some of the most spectacular views in the entire world!
Sitka Black Tailed Deer are an amazing creature of the temperate rainforests. They are one of the most treasured species in Southeast Alaska. The work of SCS to protect the forest habitat of the deer and conserve intact watersheds ensures the long-term conservation of this amazing creature.
What comes to mind when you hear the term conservation? Petitions, polar bears, politicians, researchers? David Attenborough? Did heavy equipment tearing up a rainforest floor come to mind? Unlikely. Nestled deep within our earth’s largest temperate rainforest- conservation takes unique form.
This summer, the Sitkoh River Restoration Project mobilized a team of heavy equipment operators on the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. The US Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game raised $318,000 and hired Aqua Terra Restoration to repair critical salmon spawning habitat damaged by clearcut logging in the 1970s. Logging adjacent to the river banks left the Sitkoh without adequate erosion control and the fallen timber salmon need. Dump trucks, chainsaws, and excavators converted blueprints and years of planning into wooden structures and a redirected riverbed that will return healthy fish habitat and stability to this damaged system.
Salmon habitat restoration is relatively new to the Tongass and constitutes a key part of the Forest Service’s transition from old-growth logging to young-growth management, forest restoration, and investment in other industries-such as fishing and tourism. Across the forest, similar river and stream restoration projects are in various stages or have been completed with great success. Multiyear, complex, and dependent on powerful partnerships this rich form of salmon habitat restoration is by no means easy. However, in a land where salmon are lifeblood to both ecosystems and residents, protection of this critical resource is absolutely vital.
Habitat restoration benefits fish, fish-dependent ecosystems, and fish-dependent economies. It also provides career opportunities to skilled ecologists and equipment operators passionate about safeguarding our environment- people who prefer hardhats to suits, the company of bears to water cooler gossip and all in all want to build something good for our earth as opposed to something that’s only good for industry.
There are over 70 damaged salmon-producing watersheds on the Tongass and the Forest Service estimates $100 million dollars are needed to repair them. Salmon and trout alone contribute more than $1 billion to Southeast Alaska’s economy and employ some 7,300 people. It is critical that salmon become the top management priority of our country’s largest national forest; managing for salmon employs restoration workers on the ground, benefits local subsistence and the fishing industry, and conserves salmon-dependent rainforest ecosystems.
The Tongass is one of the last remaining forests with healthy and abundant wild salmon runs. Making this species the Tongass’ top priority makes sense for the ecosystem, the economy and anyone who loves to catch, eat or simply view wild salmon.
Anyone that tells you there is a trail between Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Strait because “it’s on the map,” has never been there on foot. This is because there is no trail there! An SCS Wilderness Groundtruthing team recently explored that area on the Tongass and confirmed that the only trails available are the ones made by deer and bear.
The purpose of this expedition was to look at habitat connectivity and bear use. Members of the expedition were wildlife biologist Jon Martin, mountain goat hunting guide and outdoorsman Kevin Johnson, photographer Ben Hamilton, and SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms.
SCS is interested in this landscape because of the protections given to these areas. The land between Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Strait is protected as LUD II – a Congressional roadless designation status meant to protect “the area’s wildland characteristics.” The lands between Lisianski Strait and Goulding Harbor are part of the West Chichagof-Yacobi Wilderness where management is to “provide opportunities for solitude where humans are visitors.” Management language aside, the most important thing about these areas is that they are large, contiguous protected areas where an entire watershed from the high-ridges to the estuaries is left in its natural condition. This means that these watersheds are able to function with no impact from roads, logging, mining, or other human activities.
What this looks like on the ground is a pristine habitat teaming with bears, deer, and rivers and lakes filled with salmon and trout. There are also many surprises: on this trip, we found a native species of lamprey spawning in a river creek that no one in the group has ever seen before (and the group had over 60 years of experience on the Tongass). We also found fishing holes where trout bit on every cast, back-pools in river tributaries filled with Coho Smolts, forests with peaceful glens and thorny devil’s club thickets, and pristine lakes surrounded by towering mountains.
If any place should be protected on the Tongass, it is these watersheds. The Lisianski River is a salmon and trout power-house and produces ample salmon for bears that live in the estuary and trollers that fish the outside waters. One can’t help but feel grateful walking along the river and through the forests here, thankful that someone had the foresight to set this place aside. Clear-cutting logging wild places like these provides paltry returns in comparison to the salmon they produce and all the other life they sustain.
These watersheds that we walked through are success stories and teach us how the temperate rainforest environment works in its natural unaltered state and how much value they produce following their own rhythms. The actions taken in the past to set these areas aside give us pause to think about what we should be doing today to invest in our future and protect ecosystems that are similarly important ecologically.
Scientists have identified over 77 other watersheds across the Tongass that produce massive amounts of salmon and have ecological characteristics that need to be protected. Some of these watersheds are slated to be logged by the Forest Service. Even worse, pending Sealaska legislation could result in some of these watersheds being privatized, sacrificing protection for salmon streams and spawning habitat. With your help and involvement, SCS is working to protect those watersheds and landscapes so that we can ensure the consideration of long-term health and resource benefits from these watersheds over the short-term gains of logging, road-building, or privatization. It is our responsibility that we make the right choices and that future generations are grateful for what we leave them to explore and benefit from.
If you want to be part of SCS’s work to protect lands and waters of the Tongass, please contact us and we’ll tell you how you can help. If you are inspired, write a letter to our senators and tell them to protect salmon on the Tongass and manage it for Salmon: here
What started as an idea to put second growth timber to practical use in 2007 has since taken shape as the most frequently used cabin in the Tongass National Forest. The Starrigavan Cabin Project combined local watershed restoration, community recreation and practical vocational training to produce a forest service cabin that four years later, continues to enrich the lives of Sitka locals and transients alike.
Many watersheds across the Tongass National Forest have been clear-cut and harvested for old growth timber. The resulting land is referred to as ‘young growth’ or ‘second growth’ and differs from its original landscape in various ecologically critical ways. Many plants and wildlife such as salmon and black-tailed deer, require the unique assets old growth landscapes offer; the encompassing health of larger ecosystems such as the temperate rainforest of the Tongass National Forest, depends on the existence of old growth. For that reason, organizations interested in protecting intrinsically and economically valuable lands and watersheds often turn to restoration efforts such as ‘thinning’ of second growth forests to accelerate the return of young forests to old growth conditions. A byproduct of restorative thinning is not surprisingly: second growth timber!
Unfortunately, second growth timber here is not as unique and economically marketable a commodity as Alaskan old growth. However, finding local economic use has proven not impossible and in light of the success with the Starrigavan Cabin project, second growth timber is becoming a beautiful and sustainable alternative to environmentally damaging old-growth clear-cutting.
Dustin Hack, a local Sitkan participant in the 2-week log home building class that resulted in the Starrigavan cabin (see above video), is pursuing the economic possibility of “a nationwide market for Alaskan second growth wood”. He explains that participation in this construction class opened his mind to the prospect of using second growth timber for wide-scale timber framing and applauds that “the US Forest Service, conservationists, city and tribe are all behind the effort to use second growth wood to build an economy here in Sitka.”
Although, one hundred and fifty cabins are available for recreation within the Tongass National Forest, the Starigavan Cabin is both the first ever produced using local second growth timber and the first cabin accessible (weather permitting) by vehicle. Therefore, not only did this cabin demonstrate a charming and functional use of second growth timber, it’s subsequent presence continues to extend forest stewardship to those unable to access Southeast Alaska’s more remote cabins.
The restoration work that resulted in the wood, the class that provided local vocational training, and the production of the Starrigavan cabin itself have left a truly significant legacy here on Baranof Island. A tangible demonstration of the shift from unsustainable old-growth harvesting to second growth restoration timber, this project is a reflection of a truly resilient and innovative community working to protect the vast landscape they are fortunate to call home.
To reserve your stay at the Starrigavan Cabin please visit: www.recreation.gov
To learn more about restorative thinning practices please download our briefing sheet by clicking here
Sitkoh River Restoration Begins!
The Sitkoh River Salmon Habitat Restoration Project got started last week. SCS staff, Trout Unlimited Alaska, local high school students, and other volunteers have been helping work at the site alongside contractors and Forest Service staff. On Wednesday June 13th, the crew hosted a fly-in visit by journalists, fishermen, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division Director who took a tour of the project to see what was going on.
The visitor’s were thoroughly impressed. Randy Bates, Director of the ADFG Division of Habitat stated, “The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is happy to participate in a project like this that will restore high value fish habitat and restore the productive capacity of the original stream course.”
Wayne Owen, the Forest Service Alaska Director of Wildlife, Fisheries, Watersheds and Subsistence commented to the press during the visit that “Salmon are the lifeblood and economic base of Southeast Alaska. The Tongass is the fish basket of North American and Southeast Alaska produced a billion dollars in economic activity from the salmon produced on the Tongass.”
SCS applauds the efforts of the State of Alaska and the United States Forest Service in recognizing the role that the Tongass National Forest plays in providing and producing the salmon resource that is so important to the 32 salmon-dependent communities of SE Alaska. We hope that the Sitkoh River Restoration project is just the start of more efforts to put the watersheds that were damaged by historic logging back together so that they can return to full ecosystem functionality and produce all the salmon that they were once capable of.
In the Tongass, people live with the land. We are constantly learning from it–learning how to build communities that are part of the landscape rather than a place away from it. In this blog we want to share with you some of those lessons we’ve learned and the experience of learning them first hand.
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Each May in Starrigavan Valley, nearly 100 7th Graders from Blatchley Middle School in Sitka spend a couple days doing hands-on stream restoration and monitoring. In the classroom, the students learn about watershed ecology and salmon habitat. Then they hit the field and help professional watershed managers actually install in-stream wood structures to rebuild fish habitat. They also monitor water quality and changes is stream structure. This project has a slew of partners that includes the Sitka Conservation Society, Sitka Ranger District, Sitka School District, Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, National Park Service, and others.
Stewardship contracting, unlike conventional U.S. Forest Service contracting tools, offers a creative way to incentivize restoration by paying contractors in full or part with the value of the restoration “byproducts” that are extracted during a project. It also allows the agency to award contracts based on overall best value to the government and local communities rather than lowest bid at the time. Stewardship contracts that exercise these authorities are desirable because they address significant challenges to habitat restoration and local economic development faced by rural communities.
Stewardship contracting successes in other states provide excellent models of the ecological, social, and economic benefits of this tool, but as the Forest Service works to translate stewardship contracting to the unique geography of the Tongass, there are significant concerns that must be addressed about how and what goals are being met.
What We Love
Stewardship contracting is the primary mechanism under which the U.S. Forest Service can implement best value contracting and enhance local benefits from projects, while responding more nimbly and effectively to mounting landscape-scale restoration needs. The intent of stewardship contracting is to “blend the need to restore and maintain healthy forests with the need to work closely with communities,” which is why collaboration with communities is required throughout a stewardship project. Priority project types include watershed restoration, wildlife and fish habitat, invasive species removal, and other activities related to improving forest health.
Under stewardship contracting, the Forest Service has several unique authorities at its disposal designed to maximize the value of projects for both the Federal government and the local community. Best value contracting, which can allow the agency to rank bids based on criteria such as “local business” or “materials and supplies purchased locally,” is the only required authority. Others, such as the ability to trade goods for services, may be applied to suit individual projects. Together, stewardship contracting authorities allow local districts to integrate multiple projects into one efficient package; reinvest profits back into the landscapes they came from; actively support local economic development and capacity building; and focus on end result ecosystem benefits.
What We Don’t Support
Although forests in other states have utilized stewardship contracting with great success for almost a decade, southeast Alaska is only just beginning to explore its potential. Experiments with stewardship contracting are taking place on Prince of Wales Island and in Kake, but unresolved questions about how the various authorities can and should be used are stifling experimentation and distracting the agency’s focus from accomplishing broader goals.
A particular barrier to implementing stewardship contracts in southeast Alaska has been the “goods for services” authority, which many consider a necessary component of the tool (although as stated above, the only mandatory authority is best value contracting). In states like Oregon, California, and Montana, where restoration projects can be paid for by selling byproducts to local pellet mills and other operations, this authority is a perfect fit. In landscapes like those that dominate southeast Alaska, however—where young growth is less mature, further from markets, and therefore less valuable—it is far less applicable.
Although trading goods for services is optional, and only one of many opportunities offered by stewardship contracting, districts in this region have begun resorting to large old growth sales to pay for restoration in a misguided attempt to force a fit. Using old growth to offset restoration costs is unheard of elsewhere in the country and, we believe, a gross misapplication of the law. The goods for services authority was designed to encourage local market integration and provide a more economical way to accomplish restoration objectives; large old growth sales do not fit this model, nor do they contribute to a key intent of stewardship contracting, which is to improve forest and watershed health.
As successes in the lower 48 have shown, stewardship contracting can be an effective way to enhance local economic development through restoration, but recent experiences in southeast Alaska remind us that focusing too intently on implementing a specific tool can lead to losing sight of the ideals that it represents. In this case, stewardship contracting is not the only method by which the Forest Service can engage in habitat restoration, collaboration with communities, project integration, best value contracting and local capacity building. In cases where restoration byproducts have no value, we would like to see the agency concentrate on exercising best value/local benefit contracting, long-term contracts, collaboration, and other applicable authorities; if this is not possible, we suggest that the agency use tools other than stewardship contracting to accomplish these goals.
Additional resources on stewardship contracting:
- Stewardship Contracting: Basic Stewardship Contracting Concepts (USDA brochure)
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Stewardship Contracting (USDA slideshow)
- Stewardship Contracting and Collaboration – Best Practices Guidebook (Sustainable Northwest)
- Best Value & Stewardship Contracting Guidebook – Meeting Ecological and Community Objectives (Sustainable Northwest)
- Click here for links to USDA stewardship contracting legislation and policy direction.
.“Everything You Wanted to Know about Stewardship End Result Contracting… But Didn’t Know What to Ask.” USDA Forest Service, USDI Bureau of Land Management. Available online at: http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/stewardship/index.shtml.