Sitka Conservation Society
Sep 04 2014

Protecting America’s Last Frontier

Early last month, when the tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia breached releasing 10 million cubic meters of contaminated water into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, southeast Alaskans woke up to the possibility that other BC mines could pose the same threats to southeast Alaskan fisheries.

Tailings dams are built to hold the waste rock that is extracted from ore during mining.  These toxic tailings are often stored under-water and the dams are built to keep the waste from spreading to the surrounding environment.  Because the waste rock can be so harmful, tailings dams need to be maintained forever.

The tailings dam at Mount Polley Mine was only 14 years old.

As more new mines are built along the BC and Alaska border, Alaskans now know the risks mining accidents pose to the people and ecosystems sitting downstream.  And they can do nothing to protect themselves.

The Transboundary Mine Issue

Mining has been a part of the British Columbia economy for more than 9,000 years, since First Nation peoples first started trading obsidian.  When Europeans arrived in the 19th century, mining took on a more prominent role and there are no signs of activities slowing down.

BC premier Christy Clark promised to bring eight mines in four years to the province when she was elected in 2011.  With the recent completion of the Northwest Transmission power line up the western border of BC, it looks like she can make good on her promise.

The first mine to make use of the new power line is the Red Chris Project, which is set to begin operations by the end of the year.  The Red Chris Project tailings dam is located near the Iskut River which is one of the main tributaries of the Stikine River – the largest river by volume in the Tongass National Forest and one of the largest producers of salmon.

The tailings dam at Red Chris is set to be 330 feet high and needs to hold 183 million tons of toxic tailings.  The mine will process 30,000 tons of ore per day for 28 years, according to owners, Imperial Metals Corporation.  The Imperial Metals Corporation is the same mining company that built the Mount Polley Mine.

All of the proposed mines will process tens of thousands of tons of ore per day with the largest mine, Kerr Sulphuretts Mitchell (KSM), set to process 120,000 tons of ore per day for 52 years.  Most of the proposed mines will be in operation for less than 25 years.

And, the Red Chris isn’t the only mine threatening southeast Alaskan watersheds.  The major salmon-producing watersheds in danger from the new mines are the Stikine, Unuk and the Taku.  Commercial and sport fishing are a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska and salmon is also important for tourism and subsistence in the Tongass.  Should a tailings dam breach or another mining accident occur, these watersheds and southeast Alaskans that depend on them will bear the brunt of the risk.

Map showing the proposed mines in the Unuk and Stikine watersheds provided by Rivers Without Borders.

Alaskan senators, fishermen, conservationists and natives alike recognize the risks these new transboundary mines pose for southeast Alaska and the livelihood of the Tongass National Forest.  But, because Canada is the sovereign country, southeast Alaskans have no way to protect themselves from the dangers upstream.

The Boundary Waters Treaty places responsibility for any pollution in Alaskan waters from the mines on Canada, but little is required for pre-emptive action to prevent the pollution from ever occurring.

And it’s not just a major catastrophe like what happened at Mount Polley that Alaskans should worry about.  Dust from the mines could smother salmon eggs.  Leaking chemicals could kill salmon foods sources.  Increased copper in the water is believed to impair fish hearing and make them less able to avoid predators.  All of these side effects affect the survivability of the salmon before a major accident happens.

Preserving the last frontier

The Tongass National Forest is the largest in tact temperate rainforest in the world.  The forest is home to about 70,000 people that all depend on the healthy and sustainable fisheries found here.  Salmon is a part of the Alaskan way of life.  From commercial and sport fishing to subsistence, the five species of Pacific salmon are a lifeline for the culture and people.

As the FDA continues to test the limits of genetically modifying fish and more and more farmed fish make it on to American plates, we should be fighting harder to protect what wild and sustainable fisheries this country has left.  Fish that can grow bigger and fatter faster pose unforeseen threats to American health and only fulfill the wasteful desires to always have excess.  Fresh, wild fish should not be the delicacy, but the norm.

And finally… Alaska is America’s last frontier.  We are a nation of explorers, of entrepreneurs and innovation.  Part of that identity comes from the wilderness within our borders, the adventure that can be had in our own backyard.  But that wilderness is quickly disappearing and these mines might destroy the little that Alaska has left.  America needs wildness and should fight hard to protect it.

Sep 03 2014

First Fish Wednesday!

On Wednesday, Sept. 2, all schools in the Sitka public school system will be serving locally-caught fish! The school district will be serving fish every Wednesday this school year.

Sitka School District schools have been serving locally-caught fish in their school lunches for three years.  But starting today, kids will be eating coho caught right in their own backyard every Wednesday!

Fish to Schools was a brainchild of the fall 2010 Sitka Health Summit and a pilot program began in the spring of 2011 with Blatchley Middle School serving fish in school lunches once a month.  Since that time, the program has expanded to become a state-funded initiative that brings locally caught fish into public school lunches all across Alaska.

The Sitka Conservation Society has been an instrumental part of the program development, with Tracy Gagnon leading the charge.

“It’s a viable way to connect the fishing fleet to young people,” Gagnon said.  “It connects fishermen to the classroom.”

Gagnon said that they did not advertise as much for donations this year, but the support that came in was overwhelming.  They received double of what they asked for in this year’s donation drive – 1,000 pounds of fish.

“Overall it’s very exciting,” Gagnon said.  “What a generous fishing fleet!”

With state funding, the Sitka School District will be able to start paying fishermen to have their catches served in school lunches.

“Donating actual coho is so much more meaningful than writing a check,” Beth Short-Rhoads said.  She is one of the coordinators of the Fish to Schools program. “It’s like giving time on the ocean, the excitement of landing a gorgeous fish, and the satisfaction of working hard for a way of life they love,” she said.

Today, Wednesday Sept. 2, marks the first day of a fully year of fish lunches on Wednesdays. Lunches will be offered at Baranof Elementary, Keet Gooshi Heen, Blatchley Middle School, Sitka High School, Pacific High Schools, Mount Edgecumbe High School, SEER School, & Head Start.

“There’s a certain poetry that people eat food from the lands and waters around them. In Alaska, that means fish caught fresh from the Pacific and not fried chicken from Kentucky,” Alaska House Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said.

Aug 28 2014

The Largest Mammal in the Tongass

Tourism is a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska, fueled by visitors coming from all over the world to view the glaciers, bears, eagles and to experience the wilderness.  But, they also come for the whales!

North Pacific humpback whales inhabit southeast Alaskan waters all spring and summer long. Photo by Anna Bisaro/SCS

The population of North Pacific humpback whales in southeast Alaska used to be a lot higher, but humans actually almost hunted the animals to extinction.  Whale oil is very fuel efficient and used to power much of Juneau.  But, after whaling began, a population of 15,000 humpbacks reduced to only about 1,000.  Today, the whales are protected and even tour companies have regulations to keep from disrupting feeding patterns of the animals.

North Pacific Humpback whales can be seen around Sitka all summer long.  The humpback whales that inhabit these waters all summer likely spend their winters in the warmer waters surrounding Hawaii, Mexico, or in the western Pacific.  If you are looking for whales on the horizon, best to try and spot a surge of water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and maybe a little bit of whale snot shooting into the air.  The spouts that humpbacks send up into the air are exhalations of breath than can be at speeds of 300 miles per hour!   If you look carefully enough, you can see these spouts from shore!

The North Pacific humpback!  Photo by Anna Bisaro/SCS

Why Alaska in the spring and summer?  There is so much food for them to eat! Speaking of food, North Pacific humpbacks feed on herring and krill.  They take in tons of water into their mouths, and then as the water is released, their teeth act as filters and catch the fish in their mouths.  Despite the size of the animals, their throats are only the size of grapefruits. So they eat lots of really tiny food to fuel their big bodies.

Humpbacks feed in groups. Sometimes other animals will join in the fun, like stellar sea lions that are also looking for a treat! Photo by Anna Bisaro/SCS

Why are they called humpbacks?  Oh, that’s easy!  There is a large hump along the back of the whales.  Humpback whales also have very long flippers.  They can be distinguished from other whales from the size of their flippers which can be up to 25 or 30 percent of their body length.  Now for whales that can be up to 50 feet long – those flippers are rather large!  Humpbacks also weigh about one ton per foot of length. That means a 50 foot whale can weigh 50 tons!

This humpback is diving in view of Juneau’s Herbert Glacier. Photo by Anna Bisaro

The National Ocean Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can actually keep track of the individual whales that make their way up to southeast Alaska every year.  The flukes (or tails) of humpbacks are unique to each individual.  They are like fingerprints and NOAA has names for individuals it has identified from photos of flukes.  Maybe next time you’re out on the water looking for whales you can snag a picture that NOAA can use to name a new whale visiting the southeast for the summer!

Every fluke on every humpback whale is unique like a human finger print! Photo by Anna Bisaro/SCS




Aug 23 2014

Director Andrew Thoms contributes to Tongass Managment Plan

The Tongass National Forest is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. Photo by Matthew Jones

Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms is a member of the Tongass Advisory Council, a group of 15 stakeholders from all over the Pacific Northwest, including fishermen, timber salesmen, Alaska Native groups and conservationists.

Thoms traveled to Ketchikan last week for the first of many The Tongass Advisory Committee meetings that will discuss strategies for implementing a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest.  The goal of the new plan is to shift from old growth to young growth timber harvesting.

“This committee is leading the way in figuring out how land and resource management can sustain and benefit communities while also conserving intact ecosystems,” Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society and a member of the committee said.  “It is natural that this is being done in Southeast Alaska because all of us who live here are so connected with the natural environment and the resources it provides.”

The Tongass National Forest, Sitka’s 17 million acre backyard, is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world.  And, the Tongass Advisory Committee wants to make sure it stays that way.  Thoms and other members of the committee still want the forest to be profitable, but in more sustainable and community-focused ways.  The Tongass National Forest is home to 74,000 people.

“I am very impressed that 15 people can come to consensus and put community at the top of the list,” Wayne Brenner, one of the nominated co-chairs of the committee said after the three-day conference. “That is the key that holds Southeast together.”

The old growth that is left in the Tongass only makes up about 4 percent of the forest.  The committee wants the U.S. Forest Service to shift the focus from valuable old-growth timber to renewable resources and industries like salmon fishing and tourism.  Timber harvesting will not completely disappear, but rather the committee wants to encourage a shift to young-growth harvesting.

Forrest Cole, Tongass National Forest supervisor, said the transition to young growth will support a healthy forest ecosystem, while also creating more sustainable southeast communities.

“We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects,” Cole said. Other young growth harvesting projects are being planned for Kosciusko Island and Naukati-Greater Staney on Prince of Wales.

“For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads,” Cole said. “This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy.”

Kirk Hardcastle, a committee member, is also a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska.  He applied for the committee because he wanted to help transition the Tongass Management Plan to one more focused on fishing and renewable energy.

“We have every renewable energy resource in southeast Alaska,” Hardcastle said. “We’re not looking to export as much as apply the technology to our communities.”

In addition to fishing and renewable energy, the committee meetings on August 6 – 8 in Ketchikan also focused on subsistence, tourism and recreation.

Thoms is honored to be a member of this committee and to be a part of implementing a new management plan in the forest.  While the actual transition may be several years away, he is working with the Forest Service to ensure they are taking steps in the right direction.

Aug 22 2014

Invasive tunicate still plaguing Whiting Harbor

As published in the Sitka Daily Sentinel on Wednesday, August 20, 2014

D vex is said to look like marine vomit. This picture was taken in Whiting Harbor after the discovery of the invasive. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Scientists are searching for a method to eradicate the invasive tunicate species that has kept Whiting Harbor closed since 2010. This invasive sea squirt has been found all over the world and can have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems if not controlled. But killing the invasive, is not so easy.

“Sometimes people have this notion that you can just kill anything,” Ian Davidson, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, said in a recent interview. “There is not a standard template you can just follow and do.”

Whiting Harbor is the cove between the Northwest end of the airport runway and the causeway linking the islands of the Fort Rouseau State Historical Park. If not for the tunicate contamination, Whiting Harbor would be the preferred access to the state park, which is accessible only by boat.

This September, Davidson and other scientists from the Smithsonian will be testing a possible treatment method for the invasive tunicate to see if they might be able to remove the species from Whiting altogether.

Didemnum vexillum, or D vex, is a fast-growing sea squirt sometimes called marine vomit.  It has been found all over the world and has greatly impacted ecosystems off the coasts of New Zealand and Wales and has been particularly harmful to scallop populations near Massachusetts.  Scientists believe D vex originated in Japan.

“It establishes well over surfaces,” Tammy Davis, invasive species program director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said.  “It’s a really fast grower.”

Fortunately for Sitka and the rest of Southeast Alaska, despite the fast-growing characteristics of D vex, surveyors have not found evidence of the tunicate spreading anywhere else in Alaska.

D vex often attaches to boats and fishing lines and is spread to other areas, so Davis said Whiting Harbor has been closed to all human activity since the discovery of the tunicate to limit the spread of the organism.  As for what brought it to Sitka, no one knows.

“We can’t say what the vector was,” Davis said.

Scientists can’t say just how long it’s been here either.

Marnie Chapman, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast, was on the bioblitz expedition that discovered the tunicate in 2010.

“It’s hard to identify on first look,” Chapman said.  If the scientists hadn’t realized what they had found, “that would have been a nightmare scenario,” she said.

Containing and ultimately eradicating the species is important because “invasive species compromise our sense of place,” she said.  “They take what is special and unique about a particular area and they make it less special.”

But while the tunicate has remained contained in Whiting Harbor, scientists still don’t know how to get rid of it.  Davidson explained part of the research this fall will be testing the effects of increased salt content in the water of the harbor.  A higher salinity of the water may help kill the tunicate, he said, but the scientists need to figure out if they can control the salt content in the harbor long enough to be effective.

Davidson’s team of scientists will return early next year or in the spring for full on experiments in eradication, he said.  This first trip is just testing the methods.

“I want to emphasize that this is not an eradication attempt, but rather a trial to determine how one might go about an eradication effort,” Linda McCann of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said.  “We face several challenges with the work,” she said including managing the delivery of the treatment and not harming the substrates the tunicate is attached to.

Davidson said that mobile creatures in the harbor will disperse if the salt content gets too high for them during the testing.  He said the scientists were not worried about other invertebrates that may not be able to escape, because they were positive the harbor would repopulate because of Sitka’s healthy intertidal zones.

Getting rid of the D vex tunicate in Whiting Harbor is another important step in the management process.  Davidson said Alaska has less of an invasive problem than many other coastline states, particularly California.

“Alaska has a stronger reason to protect its territory,” Davidson said.  “You can get back to a pristine condition.”

Aug 04 2014

Sitka Seafood Festival Celebrates Salmon in the Tongass

The fish head throwing competition was just one of the many games and competitions at the Sitka Seafood Festival on Saturday, August 5.

The last marathoner in the Sitka Cross Trail Classic ran confidently across the finish line as the Sitka Seafood Festival parade started to get underway on Saturday.  Floats spewing bubbles and candy made their way down Lincoln Street towards the Sheldon Jackson campus just before noon on August 5 as just one part of a weekend-long celebration of successful wild fisheries in the Tongass National Forest.

Floats traveled down Lincoln Street on a sunny and clear Saturday morning, just before the marketplace opened at the fourth annual Sitka Seafood Festival.

“It’s a celebration of how lucky we are,” Cherie Creek, a regular volunteer at the festival, said.  “We are a seaport and have tons of fisheries and fresh food.”

On Aug. 1 and 2, the community gathered for the fourth annual Sitka Seafood Festival.  The festival included a marathon, kids’ races, cooking demonstrations, food booths, festival games, a fish head toss and the parade.

While it is a community event, Creek said she enjoys having people from out of town join in the festival activities.  Her favorite event of the festival is the children’s crab races.

Food booths like this one, which served King salmon and crab legs, filled the marketplace. Hundreds filed into the marketplace after the parade to try different seafood treats.

The Sitka Seafood Festival is a great way to “show off to visitors how important seafood is to the Sitka community,” Lon Garrison, president of the Sitka School Board said.  He said he enjoys celebrating the well-managed and sustainable resource of the Tongass every year.

Garrison also participated in a new event at the festival this year: the Fish to Schools recipe contest.  He helped judge 8 different recipes provided by locals to find the new recipe to be used in local schools this fall.  The Fish to Schools program, initiated by the Sitka Conservation Society, brings locally caught fish into school cafeterias twice a month.

At an event new to the Sitka Seafood Festival this year, judges gathered to decide which local, kid-friendly recipe would be a part of the Fish to Schools program this fall. The Fish to Schools program brings locally caught fish to school lunches twice a month in Sitka and is now a state-funded program.

One in ten jobs in Sitka is related to the fishing industry and the Tongass National Forest provides 28 percent of all salmon produced in the state of Alaska, so the festival really does rejoice in local endeavors.  It’s something outsiders can’t help but take notice of.

“Everyone I’ve met has some kind of tie to fishing,” Ali Banks, a visiting Chicago chef said. “It really drives everything.”

Banks teaches in a recreational cooking school in Chicago and uses salmon from Sitka Salmon Shares in her classes.  She said she encourages her students to buy wild rather than farmed fish because there really is a difference in quality. She also writes basic and fun recipes for the Sitka Salmon Shares website, which distributes mostly in the Midwest.

Chicago chef Ali Banks taught a small crowd how to make homemade pesto for seared coho. She said many were surprised by her choice of recipe, but she wanted to bring a creative flair to a dish that people in Sitka eat all the time. In Chicago, eating fresh fish is a novelty, she said, so Chicagoans like to dress up their fish perhaps more than Sitkans would.

Traveling to Sitka for the seafood festival was a real treat for Banks.  She spent a few days in Sitka out on a boat fishing.  “I got the best Alaska has to offer,” she said. “I love knowing where my food comes from.”

Sitka, a community of 9,000, will continue to celebrate the success of the wild fisheries in the Tongass National Forest all summer long.

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 28 2014

The Southeast Sea Otter Story

The Sitka Conservation Society sponsored a boat cruise through Sitka Sound and Nakwasina Sound on Sunday afternoon, bring visitors from Florida, Columbia, New York, Ireland and even some native Sitkans around the waterways and salmon habitats of the area.  Led by SCS director Andrew Thoms and SCS board member Kitty LaBounty, guests on the Allen Marine Sea Otter Express, enjoyed gorgeous vistas, a bear siting, watching salmon jump and bald eagles soar and just before heading back to Crescent Harbor, a humpback whale gave everyone a close up flick of his tail as it descended to the deep.

But, while aboard the Sea Otter Express, guests also learned the southeast Alaska sea otter story, a tale fraught with controversy that acts as a simple reminder of the importance of any one species to The Tongass National Forest ecosystem.

Sea otters in Sitka Sound

Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals and are members of the weasel family.  They spend almost their entire lives in water, often only going on land to give birth.  Sea otters usually stay in groups called rafts of all males or females with their pups.  These furry creatures are often seen floating and grooming around kelp beds and the rocky islands of Sitka Sound.

With no natural predators, sea otters have free reign over their territory.  They eat shell fish and sea urchins and spend their days playing and grooming their fur.  Because they do not have a blubber layer to keep them warm in the ocean, their fur is vital for their survival.  Otters have the densest fur of any animal in the world with 300,000 hairs per square inch.  And that is what has gotten them into trouble in the past.

A mom and pup in Sitka Sound

During the late 1700′s and early 1800′s Russian fur traders almost completely wiped out the population  of sea otters in Alaska.  What some researchers believe was a population of 150,000 to 300,000 had been reduced to a mere 2,000 sea otters along the Pacific Northwest Coast by 1911.  And it wasn’t just the fur industry thriving.  Without the sea otters to eat them, clam  and other shell fish populations grew and so did a whole system of fisheries that became very profitable in the region.

As you can tell from the pictures, the sea otters have returned.  Hunting restrictions and reintroduction programs have restored the sea otter population along the Alaskan coast.  Now, an estimated 12,000 live in Southeast Alaska.

But, the story is not without controversy.  Those profitable shell fish fisheries I mentioned are now struggling to compete with the renewed sea otter population.  Some argue that those fisheries became profitable in a time when the natural environment had been altered.  There is also the topic of kelp to consider.  Sea otters also eat sea urchins that kill off bulk kelp populations.  The kelp is a great place for fish, particularly herring, to spawn and now with the sea otters back eating sea urchins, the kelp populations can thrive again.

Removing a species from its natural habitat can have profound effects on an ecosystem, as the story of the sea otters has shown.  Even without natural predators, the sea otters play an important role in The Tongass National Forest ecosystem and help keep the environment in balance.


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.

Jul 18 2014

When you wish upon a star!

Volunteer geologist Kari Paustian accompanied the SCS cruisers on Sunday to offer her expertise about Kruzof.

There were XTRATUFS everywhere!  Though, a few souls did venture into the tide pools without them.  On a foggy and misty Sunday morning, some brave adventurers, sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society, ventured to Kruzof to learn about intertidal species.  The shore was spotted with sea stars and there was quite a bit to learn about this wilderness that presents itself just a few hours every day.

Did you know there are 2,000 species of sea stars?

Not all live here in Southeast Alaska, but this region has the highest amount of diversity of these species.

Sea stars – sometimes referred to as starfish – are not actually fish.  They do not have gills, fins, or scales.  They pump nutrients through their body with salt water because they do not have blood.  They have at least 5 legs, but some have as many as 40!

This is a sunflower sea star. These guys can be up to 3 feet wide and weigh as much as 60 pounds. They feed on clams and crabs and can move pretty quickly through the water. Well, they are no cheetahs, but they get around.

The biggest predators of sea stars are other sea stars. When sea stars feel threatened, they have the ability to shed one of their legs (which they will regrow later) so that a predator might eat that leg and leave them alone.

We hope you enjoyed learning as much as we did!

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