Is it possible to restore clear-cut areas of the Tongass National Forest back to their original composition? While this question will remain unanswered for generations, we do know some things about restoration in the Tongass. Trees regrow in logged areas, with the assistance of people or not. However, the natural succession of second-growth forest in the Tongass results in a dense forest filled with numerous spruce stems and little to no understory growth. The characteristic moss, fern, and shrub understory that illuminates the forest floor in old-growth forests is replaced with bare ground and needles. This not only decreases the biodiversity found on the forest floor, but it also provides poor habitat to many species. There are techniques being used to restore the ground cover of second-growth forest in the Tongass, and we at SCS are committed to making sure these projects continue to be implemented and monitored.
My most recent endeavor involving the restoration of the Tongass National Forest was at Kruzof Island. Kruzof Island is an important neighbor to Sitka that offers recreation activities, tourist attractions and an area for subsistence hunting. Still, this island is scarred from the clear-cutting that occurred in central Kruzof. Of course, as the forest on Kruzof Island regrows, central Kruzof Island becomes a great location for restoration work.
On my trip to Kruzof, Scott Harris (SCS's Watershed Program Manager) and I ATVed and bushwacked our way to artificial gaps cut in Kruzof's second growth forest. These gaps are part of a program to restore wildlife habitat in logged forests, and we were monitoring the effectiveness of these gaps. An effective gap would be filled with shrubs like blueberry for deer to browse on, while an ineffective gap would be overrun with salmonberry or hemlock flush. After collecting countless scratches on our arms from crawling through the dense spruce forest to get to these gaps, we were able to draw some conclusions about the forest succession occurring at Kruzof. Where thinning of the forest or artificial gaps were cut, the forest was filled with shrub thickets, while moss, ferns, and forbs covered the forest ground. Thus, these artificial disturbances appear to be working as designed! They are providing space for the young trees to grow, while improving shrub growth. However, there is still a lot of unthinned forest on Kruzof and some of the gaps are filling in, meaning there is still a critical need for further restoration work. If restoration projects continue to be implemented on Kruzof and throughout the Tongass, we may be able to catalyze the establishment of healthy secondary forests.
Logging Kruzof Island not only affected its terrestrial ecosystems, but the streams were greatly affected as well. While streams running through old-growth forest are filled with fallen trees and root wads which provide great habitat for salmon, the streams we walked through in central Kruzof are deprived of fallen trees, leaving the salmon habitat highly inadequate. These streams offer ideal locations for future stream restoration work. They are located near trails used by Alaska ATV tours (among other users) and allow easier access to possible restoration sites, allowing more restoration work to occur for less time and money. In order to restore Kruzof's terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, trees must be placed into the streams and the forest should be thinned. Thus, the trees cut to thin the forest surrounding the streams may be placed into the stream. In this way, both the stream and forest may be restored together.
Kruzof Island offers a great opportunity to implement restoration projects and bring a clear-cut island back to an island dense with shrubs, deer, and salmon. The time frame and viability of restoring Southeast Alaskan ecosystems back to their original structure may be unknown, but we are capable of propelling the process forward. As natural resources continue to deplete and climate change adds to the insecurity of the environment we live in, we must not watch the world go by. Instead, we must actively work together to help conserve and restore the Tongass National Forest, our forest.