Sitka Conservation Society
Jan 03 2014

Subsistence in Southeast Alaska: The Tongass National Forest Service’s Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program

Subsistence in Southeast Alaska from Sitka Conservation Society on Vimeo.

Although we often associate our National Forests with trees and silviculturalists, BY FAR, the most valuable resource that the Tongass National Forest provides is in the production of all 5 species of wild Pacific salmon. Managing salmon habitat and the fish populations within the forest is one of the key roles of National Forest Service staff in Alaska.  The Tongass National Forest is the largest National Forest in the United States.  Its 17 million acres is home to 32 communities that use and very much depend on the resources that this forest provides.

On this National Forest, fisheries and watershed staff are probably the most critical positions on the entire Forest and are responsible for the keystone species in the temperate rainforest ecosystem—Salmon–a $1 Billion per year commercial fishery that serves up delicious salmon to people around the nation and the world, not to mention subsistence harvests that feed thousands of rural community members in Alaska.  These staff also carry the legacy of thousands of years of sustainable management on their shoulders.

Like nothing else, salmon have shaped the cultures and the lifestyle of the peoples and communities of Southeast Alaska.  The Tlingit and Haida people who have called the Tongass home for thousands of years, have learned and adapted to the natural cycles of salmon.  Deeply held cultural beliefs have formed unique practices for “taking care of” and ensuring the continuance of salmon runs.  As documented by Anthropologist Thomas Thornton in his book, Being and Place Among the Tlingit, “the head’s of localized clan house groups, known as yitsati, keeper of the house, were charged with coordinating the harvest and management of resource areas” like the sockeye salmon streams and other important salmon runs.

The staff of the Fisheries and Watershed program has integrated Alaska Native organizations, individuals, and beliefs into salmon and fisheries management programs on the Tongass and have hired talented Alaska Native individuals as staff in the USDA National Forest Service.  Through the efforts of the Fisheries and Watershed program and its staff, a variety of formal agreements, joint programs, and multi-party projects that manage and protect our valuable salmon resources have been developed.  The programs on the Tongass are case-studies for the rest of the world where lands and resources are owned by the public while being managed through the collaborative efforts of professional resource managers in government agencies, local peoples with intimate place-based knowledge, and involve multi-party stakeholders who use and depend on the resource.

The Tongass is America’s Salmon Rainforest and the Forest Service’s Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program is a stellar example of how we manage a National Forest to produce and provide salmon for people across the entire country as well as the people who call this forest their home.

Jan 03 2014


One of the things that struck me instantly when I moved to Sitka was the number of jarred foods I saw on people’s shelves. I moved up from Oregon where canning foods was either considered “trendy” or outdated–it was a lost art. But here, it’s an art that is practiced every year. In fact, according to the 2013 Sitka Food Assessment, 77% of Sitkans preserved or processed food in the last 12 months.

1 in every 3 Sitkans jar up food every year! And while that is an impressive number, it’s one we want to increase. In the case of an emergency shelf-stable foods are incredibly important. Canning foods is a way to build our individual and community food resiliency.

And it’s another way to connect to the Tongass. Knowing the seasons through food harvest forms a relationship to the natural world, a dependency even. It’s sustenance and subsistence—it’s a way of life. Many foragers even have secret spots for berries, wild greens, or mushrooms. There’s a sense of ownership for these treasured places and they invite stewardship.

Every year hundreds of pounds of berries hang off their branches and freezer bags are filled with future muffins, smoothies, and pies in mind. And while these gems are absolutely delicious frozen, they are quite yummy canned into jams, jellies, syrups, and juice.

The Sitka Conservation Society offered a food preservation class this winter, turning frozen huckleberries into jam, jelly, and fruit leather. If you’re interested in a canning class, call the Sitka Conservation Society at 747.7509 or email If we get enough interest we’d be happy to organize another class for our members!

Photo Credit: Christine Davenport

Nov 22 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Margot O’Connell

This week on Voices of the Tongass, Margot O’Connell gives us a look into the unique set of skills she has developed by growing up in the Tongass. To hear Margot’s story, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.

Margot O’Connell spends quality time with marine debris. Photo by Berett Wilber.

When we ask Margot O’Connell about her plans for the future, she tells us something we already know – something everyone who knows Margot knows about her: she loves books. “Growing up, books were sort of my entire universe,” she says, “and that’s still a big part of my life. I want to be a librarian. I’m going to go to grad school in a few years, I want to work in a library.” Honestly, we are inspired by her sense of direction and her long term goals. But when we ask Margot about what she’s doing now, she laughs out loud. “Well, growing up in Sitka you develop a weird skill set, so since 2008 I’ve been organizing and developing marine debris clean up on the outer coasts around Sitka. So kind of on accident I’ve become the marine debris coordinator for Sitka.”

So library school is waiting because after graduation Margot felt “a compulsion to come home.“ And although Margot is humble, it’s no accident that she has found herself involved with marine debris. She’s been helping with the program for the last six years, and is now in charge of everything from organizing clean-ups and estimating fuel costs to partnering with community art programs and applying for grants. Not to mention the actual business of going out on the F/V Cherokee for a week at time to record what they can find on the beach. “We can only get on the beach June – September because of the weather. We’ll take the Cherokee in, then a skiff, then a zodiac. We’ll see what’s there. We’ve expanded our mission to include tsunami tracking. So we’ll record what we find, including invasive species. And then we’ll actually remove all of the debris that we find on the beach.”

Margot has never thought of herself as a scientist, but part of marine debris involves picking up shifts at the Sitka Sound Science Center, and teaching visitors about the local aquarium.  She’s surprised by how much she does know, even if it didn’t come to her out of a book. Margot says she’s learned through osmosis simply from growing up in Southeast. “The touch tanks we have [at the aquarium], they look like the tide pools we grew up playing in,” she says. “Growing up here you just have this deep ingrained, inherited knowledge about the landscape and the environment.” It’s knowledge that she has put to use through her position with the marine debris program. Since she started in 2008, the program has cleaned more than 70,000 pounds of refuse off the beaches of Southeast Alaska.

The program will miss her when she follows her passion for history and books to librarian school, but Margot is pretty sure she’ll be back. “I guess I always had two separate worlds,” she says. “I loved where I was living, loved my school, but I really like to be in this environment. I love to come home.”


Nov 19 2013

2014 Calendars Coming Soon

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Nov 16 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Lily Herwald

It’s a 2,185 mile drive from Green Bay, Wisconsin to Sitka, Alaska and Lily Herwald knows it better than most. To hear Lily’s stories about coming to Alaska, scroll down and click the link at the bottom of the page. To read about the life Lily has made after that one fateful pick-up ride, read on!

Lily Herwald and her favorite camping partner. Photo by Berett Wilber

In 1984, Lily Herwald paid one hundred dollars and caught a ride in a pick-up truck from Wisconsin to Alaska. Her friends thought she was crazy, but she said she knew she was moving for good. “I was excited to see what I could do, the kinds of opportunities I would have [here],” she says about her decision. She certainly proved her friends wrong –   and proved that a positive attitude can bring positive results. She describes what happened when she first got to Sitka: “We camped in a visqueen tent behind the trooper academy,” she says. “I lived in a tent for a month, and got a job waiting tables. I had graduated with a communications degree, and there was a job open at Raven Radio. I was offered the job. Within three months of arriving, I got my dream job.” She smiles. “At least, it would become my dream job.”

Lily’s success in both her professional life and her personal life in Sitka all stems from throwing herself into something new and different from anything she’d ever known. Born and raised in Green Bay,  she had no way to know what would happen when left. “Many of my friends from high school really didn’t leave Wisconsin,” she says. It’s a theme which runs through many people’s stories about moving to Alaska: taking the risk to move to the last frontier means leaving a lot of what’s familiar behind. “In the first few years, we moved seven times,” she says, “Living on fish scows, house sitting, not paying a lot of rent. I couldn’t get over how many people in their twenties were here from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota. We were all pretty creative about how we were doing housing.”

It is clear when listening to Lily’s story that her success and happiness has not only come from her willingness to take chances, but from the chances that others decided to take on her. “I started at Raven Radio in public broadcasting. People kept giving me offers of more important jobs and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But they kept saying, No, you can do this! You have the skills. People were so nice about giving me their time, and mentoring me. And that had not at all been my experience before. It had been so hard to get a job.”

Seeing Lily now, sitting on her porch, in the summer sunshine with a view of the ocean and her vegetable garden, it is hard to imagine her living in Green Bay. It is hard to imagine that people thought she was crazy for taking a chance to live in the place that she has considered her home for almost thirty years now.  What happened after she hopped in that pick-up in 1984 might have been a risk, but Lily’s willingness to seize the opportunity has proved to be a solid foundation for more opportunities than she could have imagined in Green Bay, and to her credit,  they’re made up much more by hard work and commitment than by chance. Her level of commitment  to the life she chose is tangibly visible from her successful career to her family to the zucchinis in her garden, which are notoriously hard to grow in soggy Sitka. “I love that I have to build the soil that I put my seeds in to grow vegetables for dinner in the summer,” she says. “Being outside and building my soil – getting dirt from under alder trees, bringing sand from the beach, mixing in herring and seaweed – I love that. I like to come out here and meditate and look out over that and feel fortunate and grateful for everything I’ve been given.”

She has a point. When she pops a zucchini off its stem and hands it to us before we drive off in our own pick-up, it’s hard not to feel that we too have been given something special.

To hear Lily’s story, click here: 16_LWL_LILY_HERWALD

Nov 14 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Hannah Hamberg

For many Alaskans, the West Coast and the East Coast seem worlds apart. But Hannah Hamberg, who splits her time between rainy Southeast Alaska and upstate New York, has learned that you don’t have to choose between coasts – you just have to be able to find the connections between them. To hear Hannah’s story in her own words, click the link at the bottom of the page. To read more, just scroll down.

Hannah Hamberg and her best friend Scout. Photo by Berett Wilber

Hannah Hamberg is wearing red lipstick and a very crisp white eyelet jacket. She looks as if she could have just popped in from a New York City street, the place where she likes to spend weekends with her friends when she’s at school upstate, where she studies graphic design.  As she’s talking to us, her dad comes downstairs and laughs. “It doesn’t look like you could be the person who you’re talking about,” he says and Hannah laughs.

Because of course, we’re not in New York. We’re sitting at her dining room table, in her large and spacious kitchen, looking out the big windows at the towering forest of Southeast Alaska. And even if Hannah can navigate city streets like a native, the story she’s telling us is about running from a grizzly bear. “We were just across the way from my house, clam digging. We got out on the beach, and walked down about ten feet. We were about to start digging clams. And then we looked up – and saw a sow with two cubs. And she got up on her hind legs and started growling at us. We ran back to the boat. You’re not supposed to run, but the boat seemed so close.” She laughs.  “We left the shovel behind.”

Hannah is a refreshing change from some of the frustrating stereotypes of what it means to grow up in Alaska, and the vague pressure to “seem outdoorsy.” Hannah can put on xtratufs and carrying a gun up a mountain, but she also sees her childhood in the wilderness as a resource in a more subtle way.  “I’m not conscious of the way it affects me, but it has to in some way. It gives me a different perspective because I didn’t grow up in New York City. I have a point of view that isn’t as influenced. I feel like it kind of helped me create my own point of view rather than being influenced by outside perspectives.”

And they are some fairly towering perspectives. “I’ve spent a lot of time on float planes,” she says. “We have a cabin in Prince of Wales and we always used to take the float plane down. It’s a surreal experience to be flying in between peaks and look down and see a mountain goat. Or feel the downdraft coming between the mountains, and getting physically pushed down  by the wind.” So what does Hannah plan to do with the unique perspective she is cultivating, whether that’s by hunting with her dad or taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design?

“There’s this magnetizing effect that Sitka has,” she says. “I always want to come back. For my job, I’ll probably have to start in the city – NYC, or San Fran. But my goal is to come back to Sitka, and to do design out of Sitka, for this area. It’s home, you know. It’s home.”

 To hear Hannah’s story, click here: 15_LWL_HANNAH_HAMBERG
Nov 06 2013

Stream to Plate

The “why” of Fish to Schools has had clear goals from the beginning: connecting students to their local food system, learning traditions, and understanding the impact of their food choices on the body, economy, and environment. The “how” has been a creative process. Serving locally is one component of the program, but equally important is our education program that makes the connections between stream, ocean, forest, food, and community.

We were back in the classroom this year offering our “Stream to Plate” curriculum that focuses on the human connection to fish. How are fish caught? Where do they come from? Why should we care? Who depends on them and how? What do I do with them? These are just a few of the questions we answer through a series of hands-on games and activities.

Students began by learning about the salmon lifecycle and its interconnection to other plants and animals. By building a salmon web, students saw that a number of species depend on salmon—everything from orcas, to brown bears, to people, to the tall trees of the Tongass. They learned how to manage a sustainable fishery by creating rules and regulations, allowing each user group (subsistence, sport, and commercial) to meet their needs while ensuring enough fish remain to reproduce. They learned that fish is an important local food source (and has been for time immemorial) but also important for our economy, providing a number of local jobs. (Read more here.)

Students also learned how to handle fish–how to catch fish both traditionally and commercially, how to gut and fillet fish, how to make a super secret salmon brine for smoked salmon, and how to cook salmon with Chef Collete Nelson of Ludvigs Bistro. Each step is another connection made and another reason to care.

The Stream to Plate Curriculum will be available through our website in early 2014. Check back for its release!

Photo Credit: Adam Taylor

Sep 26 2013

Voices of the Tongass – John Straley

This week on Voices of the Tongass, John Straley talks about what it means to succeed in the Last Frontier, from building a career to building a family. To hear the show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.

John Straley, hard at work in the Public Defender’s office. Photo by Berett Wilber

John Straley’s father could not have predicted that moving to the Last Frontier would turn his horse-shoeing son into an intellectual. “He always thought I was better suited to be running a chainsaw,” John says. “He was very proud when I became a writer, but he thought it was good that I had a back-up career as a laborer.” John’s father needn’t have worried. While John didn’t take the most traditional path to being one of Alaska’s most celebrated modern authors, he certainly took an effective one. “Being a horseshoer turns out to be a good motivation to be an intellectual. Your back motivates you to read books.” While it also might have helped that there weren’t many horses around, any way you look at it, he seems to have subverted his father’s expectations. From being a private eye to a youth conservation leader, there are few corners of the community that John has not have a presence in. And of course, his experience means has led to a life as no literary slouch: he has been published many times in many genres, serving as Alaska’s writer laureate between 2006 and 2008.

But, like any reputable laborer, John isn’t one to dwell on success. After almost forty years living in Alaska, he’s come to value his work not by the quantity of his audience, but by it’s quality. “I’ve been in a fancy hotel. And waited in the lobby for my driver and a Lincoln Town car to take me to a bookstore,” he says. “I didn’t make enough money that day to change anything. If I can give a reading at the library here, I’m happy. That’s as much audience as I need. if I can go to a friend’s house and read their kids to sleep, that’s as much as I need.”

And like his own father, John has learned to have his own expectations about being a father subverted. Attention to accurate description, necessary qualities for a writer and a poet, had some different effects when it came to fatherhood. He tells a story about teaching his son Finn some of the everyday joys of the Alaskan experience with his wife, Jan. “When we lived in Fairbanks,” he tells us, “she got a hand lens, and when a mosquito landed on Finn’s arm, she showed him what happens when a mosquito lands on him. Vividly. And when he steps outside the next day, and the screen door is just black with mosquitos, he starts screaming because the air is filled with monsters that suck his blood.” There is a significant pause while John reflects. “This was a mistake,” he admits.

But for any listener who has the opportunity to hear even a few of John’s stories, it’s impossible to believe that parenthood in Alaska was all tribulation – far from it. Near the end of his interview, John says something about the life he has built in the Alaska that rings true, even for those of us who have not spent nearly as much time in the wilderness as John has. “We’ve stayed here for now, jeez, almost 35 years or more,” he says. “It’s just become a fabulous part of our family.  It changed all the stories I’ve written, the poems I’ve written. I’m sixty years old. I’m just happy to be alive. I can’t imagine living any place else.”

Listen to the show: 9_LWL_JOHN_STRALEY

Sep 05 2013

“You slice ‘um, we ice ‘um”: a mix of tendering and Tongass Transition advocacy in Southeast

Over the course of the summer, I had a chance to talk to a huge number of fishermen, but our conversations did not happen just at the harbors, docks, or in Sitka’s Pbar. Instead, they occurred on tenders.

Tenders are a very important component of Southeast Alaska’s fishing industry and serve fishing boats that are far from their home harbors.

Robby Bruce stands in front of his tender the  “Ginny C”, which was serving gill netters in Deep Inlet, Sitka, AK.

Either stationary like the Shoreline Scow by Pelican or mobile like Sitka’s Ginny C or Deer Harbor II, tenders serve our fishermen with paychecks, ice, and at times with rare amenities like hot showers and right-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. The job of tender boats is to unload the catch from fishing boats on the fishing grounds.  On the tender boats, the fishermen’s catch gets sorted, weighed, iced up, and packed away in a matter of minutes. During those minutes, there is a lot of physical and mental endurance by people who are typically behind the scenes in the fishing industry.

As a community organizer, I saw working on tenders as not only a way to reach out to fishermen about the Tongass Transition during the busy fishing season, but also as a way to get some sort of experience in the lifestyle and hard work that most people in Southeast commit to in order to make their living.

Picture the King salmon opening in July, which is one of the busiest times for salmon trollers and consequently for the tenders. A typical day for tender deckhands begins at 6 or 7 in the morning with greetings from fishermen that have been waiting to sell their fish since 3 am. There is not just one boat waiting to offload, but a line of 5 boats with more lingering close by. The hydraulics are turned on, the crane is in motion, and bags of fish are hauled one at a time from the fishermen’s boat to a tray on the tender where the deckhands sort the fish for quality and weight.

            The skipper and a deckhand aboard the Shoreline Scow around Pelican, AK sort Cohos to be weighed.

Once weighed these often heavy and large fish are grasped by the gills and neck, one in each hand, by deckhands that then simultaneously toss both fish into a tote with a repetition that fills the tote with layers of fish and ice in a matter of seconds. These deckhands have to be quick, to operate under pressure, to persevere with numb hands and hungry bellies as each fishermen offloads thousands of pounds of their livelihood onboard in the hopes to catch more in the next few days.

 With troll caught Coho aboard, deckhands of the Ginny C and myself removed the ice from salmon bellies, weighed the fish, placed them in totes, and then stuffed their bellies again with ice.

After working on their feet for hours, moving around totes of around 1000 pounds of fish and ice, breaking apart new totes of ice with metal shovels, tossing around 12 pound fish with sore muscles and wrists, stuffing salmon bellies with ice, and then scrubbing the whole operation down with bleach, Joy soap, and water, the deckhands yawn themselves to bed around 2 am, quite possibly still covered in fish slime.  Then they will sleep for 4 or 5 hours, wake up, and do it all over again.

 The Shoreline in Pelican, AK has been a woman-run operation for decades, and I was fortunate to join them for a few days and share in their hard, hard work, which helps our fishermen keep fishing.

Stay tuned! I will be posting a blog piece focused on the advocacy work I did on tenders entitled “You slay ‘um, we weigh ‘um”: a mix of tendering and Tongass Transition advocacy in Southeast Take Two. A big thank you to KaiLea Wallin who coined the two slogans I have used as titles for these blog pieces.

Aug 29 2013

Voices of the Tongass – Ben Hamilton

Today’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Ben Hamilton about becoming a filmmaker in Southeast Alaska. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Ben, read on…

Ben gets a shot behind Mt. Edgecumbe. Photo by Berett Wilber.

Ben Hamilton, a native Texan, never thought of himself as someone who lived in Alaska. But recently when a stranger asked if he spent the summers here, he had to stop and think about it. He was living here this summer. And lived here the summer before. And, as it turns out, Ben realized that he is a 24-year old filmmaker who has spent the last six summers living in Southeast Alaska, very far from both Texas and from what the average person would think of as a thriving cinema industry. But getting into the wild has given him opportunities he couldn’t have found anywhere else. He talks about his first film, Echoes in the Tongass, as his second film school.  “I spent more hours on that movie than I did in classes,” he says. “The Tongass is definitely a media resource for me. There’s so much that I’ve filmed here that it’s been a huge resource. Financially, without the Tongass, I don’t think that I would have worked here, without question. For most films you need a subject with conflict and a narrative. Wilderness area doesn’t necessarily have a story, unless there’s a human story behind it. Humans working to protect a conservation area from a threat? It seemed like a story worth telling.”

Not only did his work help spread a message of conservation for the Tongass, but the Tongass also helped spread the message of Ben: in particularly, the quality of his work. “Now with National Geographic, I’m considered an Alaskan contact. I’m currently in talks with the BBC to help coordinate Southeast Alaska shoots,” he says. “Which is crazy. But if you spend enough time in a place, you get to know it.”

Ben Hamilton ascends Crater Ridge, camera on his back. Photo by Berett Wilber

Ben represents a new type of subsistence lifestyle in Alaska. He makes his living from the land, and what he shoots out in the wilderness he still has to pack to town on his back. But what Ben can bring home are not anything that could fill his freezer. Instead, they’re the stories of the land that he has grown to love, stories that are shared with people all over the world in order to show them what a temperate rainforest or a calving glacier looks like, and why they’re worth protecting. And getting to see more wilderness than 90% of the residents of Southeast isn’t just nice for Ben’s viewers. “I have no doubt that living in Sitka has changed who I am,” Ben says. “There are definitely moments where I just think this is the most beautiful place in the world. I’ve been so lucky. On one of the most incredible sunset nights I’ve ever seen, we saw aurora borealis and the Milky Way. Before that I had never seen stars in Sitka.” How did he find the secret to stargazing in cloudy Southeast? “You just have to stay late enough until it gets dark. To wake up in the middle of the night to see the sky filled with stars? That was a magical night.”

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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!
  • Kayaking Kootznoowoo: Report on SCS’s Final Wilderness Trip
  • Encouraging Local Natural Resource Stewardship on the Tongass: Kennel Creek
  • Teaching the Alaska way of Life: 4-H in Sitka
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