When collecting baseline solitude, campsite and invasive plant data in remote Wilderness areas throughout the Tongass National Forest, getting to these areas often presents a challenge, most often alleviated by taking a floatplane. However, to survey the greatest distance to help manage the most Wilderness, sea kayaks are needed for swift and efficient transportation. But how can a kayak fit in a small plane? The creators of the TRAK kayak are a company that offer a solution to this problem with their polyurethane fabric and foldable lightweight aluminum frame, allowing us to survey locations that may have otherwise been unrealistic.
This spring, generous donors rose to a matching challenge, allowing the Sitka Conservation Society to raise the funds to buy a TRAK kayak, and the kind folks at TRAK kayaks donated another three! This allowed us to take four people (the maximum number that fits in a beaver floatplane) into remote Wilderness areas and have kayaks after landing. This summer, we put the TRAK kayaks to the test, using them on five Wilderness Trips to five different Wilderness areas. The TRAKs were also used as part of a kids kayak course and were paddled on Mendenhall Lake in front of the Mendenhall Glacier.
The most trying trip for these TRAKs was a 13 day, 130 mile survey of the Portland Canal. The Portland Canal is a 100-mile long fiord that separates Canada from Southeast Alaska, with almost the entire Alaskan side lying within the Misty Fiord Wilderness area. However, the steep, almost unbroken rock walls, unrelenting wind and sheer remoteness makes it nearly impossible for the Forest Service to manage this canal. Thanks to the flexibility of the folding TRAK kayaks, we were able to survey this often overlooked canal. Still, before this trip we had only used the TRAKs once before and it was on a base camping expedition. Thus, there were some reasonable concerns about packing two-week’s worth of supplies in a folding boat. Luckily, the TRAKs packed well and handled amazingly. On this trip, we put the TRAKs to the test as we paddled in sizable chop nearly every day, dealt with the huge 20 foot tidal exchanges that were occurring at the time, and to our surprise we experienced the natural anomaly of a jökulhlaup—meaning a glacial lake broke free from the Salmon Glacier at the head of the fiord—resulting in a week-long constant ebb current. Nonetheless, the TRAK kayaks handled impressively well and it was easy to forget you were in a folding Kayak.
Another noteworthy expedition taken with the TRAK kayaks was on a trip down the west coast of Admiralty Island in Kootznoowoo Wilderness. On this trip, a crew of four took the ferry to Angoon and arrived in early afternoon. We were then able to take the Kayaks and gear to the sea, and we were on the water in time to find a good camp in the Wilderness by sunset. On this expedition, we paddled and surveyed 105 miles within the “Fortress of the Bear” before getting picked up by a floatplane. The flexibility to fold the kayaks into duffle bags greatly improves our ability to be stewards of the Wilderness and survey locations otherwise too remote.
Once again, we want to sincerely thank the kind and generous donors who helped SCS buy a TRAK, and we would also like to thank TRAK Kayaks for donating three boats to our project. Although the TRAK kayaks’ Wilderness field season is over, there are always remote Wilderness Areas in need of baseline Wilderness surveys, and we look forward to use these boats to manage our Wilderness areas in the future. If you are interested in learning more about the Community Wilderness Project, please feel free to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Access to fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins in Alaska can be a daily challenge.Alaska imports ninety five percent of its food. This means that families pay high prices for processed and typically unhealthy foods, communities are vulnerable to delays and complications with importing from far away places and the state of Alaska unnecessarily exports money out of a region that is thirsty for economic stimulation.
This doesn’t need to be the case and a growing force of communities and entrepreneurs are working to challenge the status quo and localize our food systems. While greenhouses and garden initiatives are important elements, revitalizing our food system doesn’t end with cultivation. In Alaska, we are surrounded by wild food sources as diverse and vibrant as the cultures and communities that call this state home….
Learn about a growing community of Alaskan residents, communities and organizations who are dedicated to invigorating Alaska’s Food System with wild foods. This video also showcases the Kasaan Wild Foods Community Harvest. The Sitka Conservation Society, as part of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, partnered with Southeast Conference, the Cooperative Extension and the Organized Village of Kasaan to facilitate this awesome community project. Also, keep your eyes open for shots from the Sitka Kitch Community Canning classes that happened this summer!
The Tongass National Forest is entering a new era with a focus on young growth management and a more robust and cohesive approach to balancing the social, economic and ecological needs of the region for current and future generations.
The task is daunting. However, the Forest Service is not alone. Developing and strengthening partnerships helps leverage funding, build capacity, and better integrates local knowledge and community priorities into management and project design. Navigating through the complex steps necessary to realize partner-rich projects on the ground is also daunting and complicated. However, success stories sprouting up across the region are a powerful reminder that it can be well worth the effort. The work carried out in the Kennel Creek watershed is one such story and elements of this project can serve as a valuable template for future work on the Tongass.
The Hoonah Community Forest Project
Located on North Chichagof Island with a population of around 780, Hoonah is a remote community with over 60% Alaska Native population. Like other rural communities in the Southeast, a contentious history of resource extraction on public and private lands continues to influence community dynamics. After the pulp industry ended, career prospects in the timber industry evaporated and many families were left jobless, with high energy prices and other burdensome expenses associated with living in an isolated rural community. Much of the surrounding landscape on which residents depend on for subsistence, recreation and cultural vitality has been affected by timber activity and needs to be restored. The challenge of balancing natural resource based economies with ecological resilience and cultural well-being remains an unsolved puzzle. However, the fervor of community members and their dedication to the prosperity of their community and the landscape in which they are embedded is firm.
Brought together by a common interest in improving productive fish and wildlife habitat while supporting local economies, a diversity of community members gathered to map out a vision for their forests and streams in 2005. During the Hoonah Community Forest Project, traditional land users, local mill operators, hunters, fishermen and naturalists partnered with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to develop this vision. Kennel Creek was recognized as a top priority watershed for habitat restoration. Members voiced concerns about the ecological impacts of past timber extraction and sought treatments that could restore deer habitat and improve overall watershed health. Importantly, the group wanted to achieve these goals while also developing local capacity for land management. Turning this collective vision into a reality would require a level of cooperation and partnership new to the Tongass.
Turning a Collective Vision into Action
In the aftermath of the the timber-boom era, Congress introduced ‘Title II’ funding to the region and established community led Resource Advisory Committees (RAC) to disburse funds to rural towns that had relied on receipts from timber sales for public services. The intention of these funds is to “protect, restore, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat; improve the maintenance of existing Forest Service infrastructure; protect and enhance ecosystems on the national forests; and restore and improve land health and water quality”. The Lynn Canal/Icy Straits RAC includes Hoonah Ranger District. The committee welcomed the Kennel Creek project proposal whose outlined goals were to restore wildlife habitat in previously logged areas while developing local capacity for land management activities in the process.
In 2011, Forrest Cole approved the RAC’s recommendation to fund the project at $235,000. Agency specialists would outline the prescriptions to be carried out, answer questions about the work and ensured restoration efforts emulate the best available science and expertise of the region. All that was needed was a local team who were dedicated to carrying out the work on the ground. The Hoonah Indian Association (HIA) natural resources work crew was born.
The work crew pruned dense second growth stands, pulling down dead branches to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and grow understory vegetation for wildlife. Where thick impenetrable layers of woody slash blanketed the forest, the crew cut trails to improve the permeability of these stands for wildlife. The project was completed in 2013 and received a gold star of approval from Chris Budke, USFS Forestry Technician who provided contract oversight and general support to the crew. But how does one actually evaluate project success and measure the benefits of a project whose goals included building local capacity for resource management? Start by asking the people involved.
Measuring Success On the Ground: Speaking with the Crew
Bob Leuband is the crewleader of HIA’s natural resources crew. When asked about the benefits of this program he explained,
“Keeping the knowledge local. Not losing that knowledge… If somebody comes in from the outside and does the work around here and then leaves. Well then what they learned, goes away with them. So, if we can keep this local, and always have it local, the knowledge will not be lost and the same person might be here for 30 or 40 years. So, that knowledge will be here for [at least] that length of time.”
The sharing of knowledge is reciprocal. The crew learns from the USFS and the USFS learns from the community crew.
Art Burbank is the district ranger of Hoonah,
“We are very fortunate in Hoonah to have the Hoonah Indian Association to work with. They provide logistical support for us. They provide hands on the ground. They provide an intense knowledge base, which we have some of but, they have a different perspective… The Forest Service is for sure, a relative newcomer to the Tongass. The Tlinglit people have been here for a long time and they have an understanding of the forest that we are doing our best to understand and integrate into management. Honestly they look at it from a different perspective. When we might look at it from a commercial perspective, they look at it from a personal perspective…they are much more tied to the land and the sustainability of themselves and their family from the land.”
While the USFS seeks to better engage with native interests and integrate community priorities and knowledge into project design, the thinning crew integrates the best available science into an existing place-based knowledge that spans generations and centuries.
John Hillman is the Natural Resource Director of HIA. John helped build HIA’s Natural Resource program and continues to enjoy watching the work crew learn and grow into a powerful team of land stewards,
“I think just in the short time they work there, they see the importance of coming in here. When they first came to this particular site, they were like, ‘Why are we doing this, pruning these trees up a third of the tree height?’ At that time, these forests didn’t have this green vegetation, it was just like a desert in here. In just this short period of time, once they actually see hands on improvements to forest health, they are starting to take pride in what they are doing. They want to be the people working on their lands here and they want to stay here for years to come. A lot of my crew is young.”
Hillman reflected on the pride of returning land stewardship and a feeling of ownership to the community. He also emphasized the significance of the program for providing jobs to a community that needs them. “I want to see it continue because the crew, they could retire without even moving from Hoonah doing this type of work.”
The crew has secured thinning, wildlife treatment and pruning contracts with the USFS, Huna Totem and SEALASKA. The application of their experience and knowledge is thus truly integrated across public and private lands and scaled at the landscape level. Currently, the crew is applying for an NRCS grant so they can continue to grow, potentially expand with a second crew and advance their toolkit to include salmon habitat restoration and enhancement activity, road maintenance and projects to enhance the cultivation of non-timber resources, like berries, for a growing cottage industry. The crew is also improving their capacity for monitoring and the adaptive management of their work. With a second crew, the group could grow to an employment base of 20 people. This is significant to a community of less than 800 residents especially because a healthy demand for work is promising job security and room for future growth and expansion.
The Future: Community Based Natural Resource Stewardship on the Tongass
Moving forward, what does the case of Kennel Creek mean for the Tongass? Accomplishing the transition to a holistic forest approach that includes young growth management will require continued silvicultural and wildlife treatments combined with the restoration of previously damaged watersheds. Kennel Creek serves as a template for accomplishing these goals by leveraging the funds and partnerships necessary for effective, locally-rooted, landscape level stewardship. Encouraging and stimulating local natural resource management ensures that work carried out on public lands more clearly reflects community priorities. By supporting local work crews, the USFS and its partners also keep the knowledge and nuances of natural resource management local. In this way, natural resource managers can continually learn from projects, iteratively evaluate techniques and adaptively manage our public lands. As the Tongass enters the first generation of actively managing young growth forest stands on a large scale, strengthening the capacity for adaptive management will prove more and more critical. .
By encouraging community-based resource management we also support local stewardship of public lands and stimulate job formation in rural communities that need sustainable natural-resource based economies. The Tongass Transition seeks to better align forest management with community priorities while striking a balance between local economies, ecological integrity and cultural well-being. Stories like Kennel Creek are empowering examples of how the USFS can work with communities, local tribes, and village and regional corporations to turn these common goals into a reality.
The Sitka Conservation Society is not only dedicated to protecting the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest, but also to supporting the health and sustainability of the communities that depend on the forest's resources. As part of this mission, we partnered with local communities, the Tongass National Forest, and the National Forest Foundation to conduct a habitat restoration monitoring project on Twelvemile Creek on Prince of Wales Island.
This project has three key components; conducting the actual monitoring of fish ecology, engaging local school kids in hands-on activities in the creek, and training aspiring fisheries professionals from nearby communities.
Stream Team is a statewide citizen science initiative that brings students out of the classroom and into their backyard. This summer, students from Hydaburg, Craig and Klawock were able to participate.Corby Weyhmiller, a teacher in the community of Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, was instrumental in involving students in the hands-on activities. This past summer, kids worked alongside fisheries technicians and researchers at Twelvemile Creek. In addition to developing their math and science skills, the students learned about the background and history of forest management, salmon habitat, and restoration efforts on the Tongass National Forest.
Cherl Fecko has also been integral to the effort to engage local school students. Fecko is a retired Klawock school teacher and continues to work catalyzing environmental education initiatives on Prince of Wales. She said the hands-on experience is valuable for students in Southeast Alaska. "I think in this world of technology, what we're really hoping is that kids don't lose that connection to their outside world," she said. "I mean, they are still using technology but I think it's just so important to still get outdoors and connect with their environment."
The five species of Pacific salmon that inhabit the rivers and streams of the Tongass fuel the economy of Southeast Alaska and are an essential part this region's culture. Past logging practices were detrimental to salmon habitats because surrounding trees and even those lying across stream beds were removed. Forest Service biologists and local conservationists later realized the woody debris in and along the rivers and streams had its purpose. These logs create important habitat for salmon spawning when they are adults and provide cover for young salmon. They also have important ecological functions that can be hard to predict. For example, the logs that lie across creeks like Twelvemile catch and trap dead salmon that are washed downstream, and help fuel the nutrient and food cycles of the aquatic ecosystem.
Over the years, the Sitka Conservation Society, the National Forest Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and our communities have worked in partnership to focus on restoration projects that can return these streams to their original condition. This summer, enthusiastic Stream Team students, high school interns, and teams of scientists were out in the waters, observing the habitats to find out what has worked well in the restoration process and what can be improved. This adaptive management testing, or post-restoration monitoring, is funded by the Forest Service, National Forest Foundation and members of the Sitka Conservation Society.
The work on Twelvemile Creek has helped more than just the returning coho salmon, however. The internship program has given high school students the chance to participate in the research and get on-the-job training and exposure to fisheries research. Upon completion of the internship, students may receive scholarships for the University of Alaska Southeast's fisheries technician program.
The Sitka Conservation Society remains committed to not only the health of the fish in Twelvemile Creek, but its future stewards. Conservation Science Director Scott said, "It's a long-term commitment to taking care of a stream, but this is not just any stream and these are not just any kids. Ideally they'll end up getting jobs as fisheries biologists and fisheries technicians and natural resource managers."
Founding by Congress in 1991, the National Forest Foundation works to conserve, restore, and enhance America's 193-million-acre National Forest System. Through community-based strategies and public-private partnerships, the NFF helps enhance wildlife habitat, revitalizes wildfire-damaged landscapes, restores watersheds, and improves recreational resources for the benefit of all Americans.
The Sitka Conservation Society is working with a team of stakeholders to advise the US Forest Service and amend the Forest Plan for our beloved Tongass National Forest. To ground our vision and better understand what timber on the Tongass looks like today, we left our insulated home of Sitka to visit Prince of Wales Island. Under the mentorship of Michael Kampnich, a field representative for the Nature Conservancy in Alaska, we were greeted by 4 millers who shared a great variety of wisdom and insight. Last week, we revisited these mills, by sharing their stories and revealing how their insight is helping inform our vision as a Conservation Society.
We can not pretend that after having a handful of discussions with millers on POW that we know everything about logging in the Southeast. For one, we were not able to connect with Viking, the larger engineered mill that consumes the highest volume of old-growth timber, performs minimal on-site processing and whose business model currently relies on exporting a high percentage of raw or minimally processed wood. Viking also supports infrastructure on the island that enables smaller mills to stay in business. Our positions are adapting and changing and influenced by our relationships with these millers, our members, and our ideals. As we move forward, we can maximize our common ground and seek changes to timber management that give a strong foundation to this ground.
Our take-home messages were many. A handful of key themes were identified and require follow up. Defining a sustainable and responsible timber industry on the Tongass is grounded in careful forest management. The ecological integrity of our forest and its great variety of resources feed our residents and support strong industries in salmon, timber, recreation and tourism.
The great variety of multiple uses of our rainforest resources must always be balanced with, not foreshadowed by timber and unrealistic target board-foot goals.
The Forest Service needs to shift away from unsustainable timber volume targets, as ultimately this management system has failed to meet the needs of Southeast Alaskans. Instead, The focus needs to move towards what the landscape, and communities that depend on it, can sustain over the long-term.
We want timber resources used responsibly and for the highest value possible. Wood that could be turned into a mandolin or rot-resistant decking, should be recognized for its highest value use and manufactured as such. We want to support local job creation not just in the short term, but careers that can be passed to future generations within and across families. We want to empower Alaskan residents to source their wood products locally to support the vibrant and healthy local mill industry so that it can continue to grow and support rural Alaskan communities in the long term. We support the development of a timber sale structure that maximizes regional benefits and retains healthy old-growth characteristics and functions even in logged stands through selective harvests. Collectively, we must push forward timber sale structures and contracts that prioritize keeping the most money, the greatest amount of jobs and the largest amount of wood in the region that needs it, Southeast Alaska. The micro sale program, which allows the selective harvest of dead and fallen old-growth wood in proximity to specific roads, is an example of small-scale and valuable timber program that we intend to support. The success of this program depends on keeping a selection of existing roads open. We want to seek policy action and management change that will grow a healthy and sustainable, well managed timber industry on the Tongass long into the future.
Good Faith Lumber, far surpassed our expectations as far as size and workload. Good Faith is owned by three Thorne Bay residents with a combined experience in the wood industry of over 92 years! We walked around the facility and watched big beautiful slabs of old-growth lumber being planned and finished into gorgeous table tops. The employees were all busy at work water blasting gravel from the raw wood, operating heavy machinery and soaking in the opportune hot Southeast Sun. We met with Hans on his break.
"It's busy especially this time of year, it gets busy. Lots of orders coming in. People wanting to build cabins or homes you know."
We asked Hans about his history and relationship with Alaskan timber. He stressed his dedication to in-region manufacturing as opposed to wholesale export of raw lumber and job opportunities to markets outside of Alaska.
"We all have the same mindset for the future. None of us want to get rich and leave. We want to see this thing working. We want to see the wood stay here. Frankly, I'd like to not see any export at all. I'd like it all manufactured right here on the island rather than send it to Japan or wherever else but right now it's a necessary evil."
We agreed with Hans. Our valuable timber should be carefully and responsibly managed. The lumber should be used in a way that maximizes benefits to the region and our local rural communities. Rather than mass export raw products to Asian markets or companies in the lower 48, this wood can, and should be used to create jobs and valuable products right here in Southeast Alaska where jobs, and a stable economy are so desperately needed. How can we better incentivize in-region manufacturing? This is a question and goal that needs more exploration.
We continued our tour and noticed, smoke billowing out above a gravel mountain from the corner of the property. This is where waste wood is burned. Around fifty percent of a given log can be wasted and unfortunately, as it is now, these local mill operations are left to burn the leftovers. Keith Landers and Hans expressed a common guilt and sadness for burning this waste. Removing wood from the forest only to end up using half of it to fuel a continuous bonfire is a modern tragedy in the Southeast. Wasted wood can and should be used to fuel creative markets and heat homes in a region where incredibly high energy costs debilitates our economy and leaves residents scrambling to pay utility bills. This waste is not only problematic at the stage of manufacturing and processing, the floor of clearcuts and thinned forests are often littered with abandoned wood, disregarded as ‘non merchantable'.
Eliminating the waste stream in our industry requires both societal and political change. For one, building a culture that admires defect, that refuses to burn waste wood when it can be manufactured into unique and functional products. This wasted wood could also heat homes. Exploring a sustainable ‘biomass' industry that could fuel Southeast Alaska and reduce exorbitant energy costs for rural Alaskans is on the agenda of everyone from SCS and the Forest Service to the millers themselves. Four mill owners on Prince of Wales, including Keith Landers and Good Faith Lumber, are interested in partnering to turn waste wood into chips or pellets for sale to local markets. The success of a localized biomass industry, depends on regional markets. The Forest Service is exploring biomass utilization schemes. This exploration and the related initiatives have not yet trickled down into action on the ground, in the communities and across industries where it is needed.
There are a number of policy changes that can also help eliminate wood waste at its source. As it is now, the US Forest Service has a very relaxed definition of ‘merchantable' wood. This allows the winning timber sale bidder to leave behind high volumes of ‘slash' or cut and abandoned ‘unmerchantable' wood on the floor of a clearcut. Policies like this incentive our current timber culture that lags far behind the lower 48 as far as eliminating waste streams and maximizing industry efficiency per board foot.
One way to eliminate old-growth waste is by encouraging selective logging and only cutting the trees that are wanted. By leaving trees standing, rather than cutting and ultimately abandoning on the clearcut floor, this practice better protects forest structure that would otherwise be lost under a clearcut regime. In many situations, the USFS requires all trees to be cut. The resultant forest consists solely of trees of the same age. Once the canopies close, these even-aged trees block out the sun and prevent a healthy understory from growing. In order to speed growth, restore habitat diversity and improve function for deer and other wildlife, these stands are periodically thinned- often at great cost. Under a partial, selective-harvest regime, a certain percent of the multi-aged structure of the stand is retained. The resulting forest avoids complete canopy closure and the subsequent detriment to wildlife. Therefore, costly thinning procedures are no longer required and the ecological integrity of the forest prevails.
The Tongass already contains vast tracts of clearcut land and subsequent young-growth forest. Additional, mass clearcutting of our vanishing old-growth forest is wasteful and costly in both economic and environmental terms. Future old-growth harvests should focus on reducing needless waste and destruction of valuable wildlife habitat by leaving a selection of trees standing and only removing those which meet the specific needs of the logger. By being more selective and prudent in the way we harvest our forests we can achieve common goals and bridge the differences between those driven by economic and conservation goals.
We left Good Faith Lumber and stopped distracting the very busy workers from the tasks at hand. Good Faith Lumber produces large quantities of high quality dimensional lumber and their products are in high demand. We thanked Hans and his colleagues for their time and piled back in the rig to ruminate on and discuss all the insight and wisdom these delightful woodworkers shared with us.
Check back next week for the conclusion and summary of our visit to Princce of Wales.
We rolled up to our next stop to visit Keith Landers at H&L Salvage. Keith has been making shingles here for twenty years. In the last decade, H&L began manufacturing dimensional lumber as well. Landers was eager to chat and there was no shortage, or filter, to the wisdom he was willing to share about the industry, society, timber sales and even his opinion of environmentalists. When we asked him how he found himself in the Alaskan industry he smirked.
"You want to know how I came here? I came here because of the spotted owl okay."
Keith's operation in Oregon was shut down with the controversial protection of the Northern Spotted Owl. Keith didn't blame the owl, but he was concerned about environmentalists abstaining from level-headed discussions with millers and loggers. We need to obtain wood from somewhere and displacing logging activity from the United States, to say- the Amazon Tropical Rainforest is a ‘not in my backyard' attitude that doesn't tackle the roots of the problem- overuse, waste and unsustainable management. He also reminded us that unlike historical logging in Southeast Alaska, when loggers were often transient visitors who worked out of logging camps and eventually packed up and left when the season or era ended, today's workforce is here to stay.
"The people that are here now are people that are living here, this is where their family is, they purchased property, this is where they live and it's the last thing anyone wants to do here is dirty the water, dirty the air, and massive cut our forest to the point where environmentally it's hurting the animals, the water- that type of thing. The people here are very conscious about the environment and how we should handle this forest, we live here."
Like most residents of Southeast Alaska, Landers and his employees depend on the forest for more than economic prosperity.
"We invite anybody to come and visit us and see the way we see the forest. Not necessarily, do I see it strictly as as a way to make a living. There are many different uses in this forest and we use it in many different ways. From berry picking, to subsistence, we live off of this land here. We are one of the few people that are able to do that still, and we want to protect that. That is why a lot of us came here, because of the way we still get to live. We aren't really city people."
Landers let out a belly laugh and Marjorie and I nodded in unison. Most Alaskans aren't really ‘city people' after all. Recognizing our common goals is necessary for defining a sustainable timber future for the Tongass. We need to break down this false dichotomy that pits environmentalists against all development initiatives. This summer, the Tongass Advisory Committee and the Tongass Land Management Plan amendment process will put our capacity to collaborate to the test as industry representatives, environmentalists and other stakeholders discuss face to face what the future of timber on the Tongass should be. Landers stressed the importance of securing a long-term timber plan. He emphasized the particular devastation this ambiguity and uncertainty has on small mills. Uncertainty in the industry prevents small operators from investing in growth, innovation, retooling and even replacing damaged and outdated equipment that impacts productivity and poses a safety risk.
"The timber industry needs to have a twenty year plan- at least, because of the expenses involved. That guy right there, when it was new [points to excavator] costs 700,000 dollars- that's a lot of second growth and old growth…That's what I would like to see, everyone get together and try and make a decision about what we are going to do on the Tongass instead of all this uncertainty."
Of course, this constant uncertainty is also taxing on the well-being of workers and their family who are interested in continuing, growing and supporting the family business. As is the case with Landers, "My son would like to move back into the company again if we can see some longevity in the industry."
So why should we support small mills? Supporting the longevity of these operations benefits those directly involved with the mill: the owners, employees and family members. The direct impact can be pretty substantial, these operations provide quite a few stable local jobs.
"The small mills are high in employment - it takes us quite a few guys to produce a board due to the fact that we are not as efficient as an engineered mill. So, [small mills] may not have the type of payroll that some of the larger mills have but there is longevity in having more small mills than just one large mill. If one large mill goes down, the impact that it has on the communities is huge. Whereas if one small mill goes down, there's very little impact. "
As Keith points out, having a number of smaller operations not only supports more jobs. It also provides a security to rural towns that a single, large scale operation does not. In the past, when a small mill goes out of business, other operations, like H&L Salvage hire laid-off employees and pick up the slack. If large scale timber industries go under, like the giant pulp operations of the past for example, the ensuing devastation to communities is much more severe.
We toured the facility and witnessed raw lumber being sliced up and processed into shingles at the hands of specialized machines and talented woodworkers. My ears were ringing and sawdust soon coated every cranny of my camera. I started to wonder whether our Nikon warranty covers sawdust damage but was quickly distracted and refocused on the scene before me. The sheer enormity of the operation and the amount of talent and work required to turn trees into shingles was startling.
Keith gave us insight and a marked goal: how can we support these local operations, maximize benefits to our communities and minimize irreversible degradation to our environment? We need to quell the animosity between environmentalists and the timber industry, recognize our common goals and draft a timber plan.
How can we better design timber sales to support small scale local millers?
Part of that entails designing small manageable sales that attract bids from smaller operations. Michael Kampnich, Field Representative from The Nature Conservancy and our avid tour guide and mentor, explained the need for ‘no export provisions' on a selection of timber sales to level the playing field. According to Michael,
"As it is now, its apples against oranges and mill owners who want to focus on a higher percentage of local processing are at a disadvantage when bidding on sales that include an export provision."
‘No export provisions;' on targeted timber sales would incentivize in-region manufacturing of raw lumber and help small mills fairly compete for, and win, small timber sale bids. As Landers pointed out, small mills are high in employment, provide stable jobs, and use wood resources on a sustainable scale. However, many of the woodworkers we met, including Landers, stressed the important balance of larger and small mills. The larger, more engineered mills (mainly Viking Lumber) support regional infrastructure that the smaller mills, and communities more generally, depend on (e.g. barge, road systems etc.). It's a tricky balance and one that will require more thought, fieldwork and discussions in communities with a great variety of stakeholders. Understanding the impact this balance has on our forests, how we can more carefully and responsibly craft timber sales is also an important piece of the puzzle.
We thanked Landers for his wisdom, dusted ourselves (and our camera equipment) off and left R&L Salvage for our next stop, Good Faith Lumber.
We rambled down a maze of logging roads in search of the bucket Larry left by the road to signify our pulloff. Eventually, we spotted the bucket and a sedan pulled conspicuously off the gravel. We were greeted by Larry Trumble who owns and operates Wood Marine a soundboard manufacturer. Larry is intriguing. He often speaks about himself in the third person and mumbles off topic pretty regularly. All his idiosyncrasies contribute to his charm and we were eager to follow him to his worksite. We trudged behind him up the cliffside. Larry maneuvered through the forest with an unexpected agility and grace. It became clear that Larry spends a lot of time in the Tongass. We balanced behind him, filed up the trunk and along the spine of his treasured Sitka Spruce. We arrived to his ‘office' and Larry quickly began rigging up a makeshift antenna so he could access some motivational music before he began harvesting future soundboards from the spruce laying before him.
".. It's always country music," he murmured in disappointment once the sound waves hit our spot. He began to work, splitting the spruce and hammering out pieces with the occasional curse and remark about the quality of each block, "It's a pig in a poke, a pig in a poke!"
The view was inspiring. We were perched on a huge stump, balanced on a cliffside, overlooking a calm and misty afternoon settle across the Tongass and coast. The peace was quickly interrupted by the sawing and chatter of Larry. Larry wasn't used to having guests tag along; he talked incessantly. He commented how in most cases, he hikes across rough terrain and eventually camps beside his beloved spruce for the time it takes to buck it up.
The work was hard and I felt a bit guilty snapping photos and asking questions while he sweat and toiled over his woody bounty. This particular spruce will take Larry an estimated five weeks to process between chopping up the tree, packing down to the wood, processing the raw lumber into a ‘book set' for soundboards, drying and selling. Larry will salvage about six trees a year and produce from the raw lumber, valuable book sets that will be sold at a high price to a variety of guitar markers across the country. Trumble stressed the rarity of musicwood trees and emphasized how this invaluable resource should be managed to incentivize the in-region manufacturing of high value added products like soundboards.
It doesn't get more ‘small scale' than Larry. He prospects for trees alone and chops up the wood by himself. He processes and sells the boards on his own and it only takes six selectively harvested dead and down trees a year to sustain his valuable business providing musical instruments for the world. He's an atypical kind of guy, that flourishes in an atypical ‘self employed' type of business. The kind of peculiar resident that gives rural Alaska its distinct character.
Keeping characters like Larry in business requires more than just the careful management of old-growth trees. According to Larry, "The most important thing for keeping the microscale program going is keeping roads open."
The US Forest Service intends to close fifty percent of existing roads across the region. These musicwood businesses operate under the US Forest Service's microsale program and as Larry points out, depend on access to old-growth stands in timber designated areas to prospect and find appropriate dead wood that meet the stringent qualifications for musicwood.
The microsale program is a valuable timber initiative that facilitates the extraction of high value products from fallen trees within a short distance of particular road systems. Programs of this scale and minor environmental disturbance should be supported and efforts taken to prevent subsistence loggers like Larry, who obey all protocols and responsibly extract a high value product from dead trees on an already disturbed roadside, from being forced out of business. Existing roads that the Forest Service made, are depended on by Larry and other residents and businesses across the region. This is particularly evident on Prince of Wales. A careful selection of existing roads should be maintained for sustainable timber microsales and to maintain access into forest stands for management activities such as silvicultural thinning and restorative restoration. Instead of focusing efforts on building additional roads, the Forest Service could instead maintain the ones we have. The specific roads that access timber designated areas, support a valuable and diverse microsale industry that is becoming increasingly relevant on the Tongass as large-scale mass timber harvests subside and small, value added, innovative woodworking enterprises flourish.
We left Larry to his work and jumped into our rig. As we drove past, we could hear a chainsaw firing up somewhere hidden in the treeline. Musicwood producers on Prince of Wales Island showed us how you can flip an astonishing profit from the careful use of a small amount of dead old-growth spruce. We left the glamorous world of musicwood behind and headed next to a mill where we would learn a thing or two about shingles, dimensional lumber and spotted owls. Tune in tomorrow.
Brent and Annette Cole have been supplying sustainably sourced, high quality sound boards or 'tone wood' to string instrument producers since 1995
We ambled down the road and through the rain to our first lesson in woodworking. Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is a major soundboard producer on the island. We pulled into the drive and were immediately welcomed by Annette who was grinning and eager to show us the operation. The place was caked in sawdust. Antlers dangled from the rafters and every available space was jam packed with plates of wood. These soundboards will be mandolins, guitars and other string instruments someday strummed by the hands of established musicians and frustrated hopefuls.
Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business' humble and family oriented beginnings.
"The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with him [Brent] and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack…"
Today, business is booming and the charming bucolic series of wood sheds in the Cole's yard is being replaced by a shiny new manufacturing facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. This advancement is welcomed by Annette and Brent who explained how even minimal exposure to the elements can influence a sound board.
So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the glory of sound board wood, which is why Brent's products are in demand by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent string-instrument crafters across the globe. To demonstrate the quality of this wood for sound production, Annette pinched a ‘½ sound board set' between her thumb and forefinger and let the wood hang. With her other hand she tapped and flicked the center of the sound board. A beautiful sound reverberated from the wood and a big grin crawled across her face. "Just listen," she said.
Straight, slow growing, ancient Sitka spruce with tight uniform rings (and the way the wood is cut) produce the stiff, tough softwood quality necessary for musicwood. The particular trees that meet the stringent requirements necessary to produce high quality sound are not widespread. ASW salvages ‘dead standing' or ‘dead down' old-growth spruce for their production. They will search the forest for appropriate trees and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service who then refer to a long-list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges! This mantra of salvage, reuse and eliminating waste is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.
"All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste- not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on- as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture...This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don't know that it's a waste. But, I like to see it get used and if it's used to put groceries on a family's table then, I think that's a good thing."
As Brent points out, although wood is technically a ‘renewable' resource, the types of trees he sources are limited and stewardship and care are required to assure their presence in the long run. One thing is for certain, once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little is ‘wasted'. Every possible space on their property is cram packed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by ASW and not a single inch of this wood will be unused. When excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried during a landslide, twenty feet under the earth.
"We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray." Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. "It's 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years" Annette proudly announced. This wood is being processed and soundboards are sold under the ‘Ancient Sitka Line'. The story of this wood reminds us just how astonishingly unique our natural resources are. The rarity, age and significance of our forests gives a story to our lumber that adds unparalleled value to wood products manufactured here in Alaska.
The Ancient Sitka Line of sound boards is crafted from a 2,800 year old Sitka Spruce that was uncovered during excavation on their property. Once unearthed and exposed to the air, the blonde wood turned a brilliant blue gray color with spectacular streaks. This tone wood is available for purchase on the ASW website.
"There's a lot of history recorded in these boards... every one of those growth lines is a year and we aren't going to use anything less than a 300 year old tree to get a sound board out of."
Protecting the longevity of the musicwood industry rests on the careful management of old-growth forests in Southeast Alaska. Part of a responsible management scheme will involve maximizing the best use and highest value for the raw material.
"I like to see the resource, the fiber, being used for its best purpose... I wouldn't take something that could be a sound board and turn it into a floor choice. Now you need good quality timber, but there's certain criteria that is specific for a soundboard and yea, it would make 2 x 2 for a wall but, it needs to be used for what it's best value is-where it will do its best for everybody."
Recognizing the most suitable and valuable use of a given tree or piece of lumber is a critical component to maximizing benefits from our invaluable old-growth forests. Understanding when we can and can not substitute second-growth, or younger timber for wood products is an important piece to a successful industry and a responsible timber program.Business is booming and Annette and Brent are moving their family business from their humble woodshed to a refurbished facility across the street. Like the lumber ASW utilizes, the original building frame was salvaged and transported from an unused facility on South Prince of Wales.
Brent and Annette were wonderful hosts who taught us a great deal about the careful use of our globally rare wood. We admired the beautiful Ancient Sitka Line a bit longer before Michael herded us back into the truck. We slid beside piles of boards and were careful not to be hooked by a saw.
We left Alaska Specialty Woods and headed for our next stop. There, in the company of an unconventional guide, we would witness raw musicwood being extracted from the rainforest floor. Check back tomorrow to meet Mr. Larry Trumble.
Investigating a Responsible Timber Industry on the Tongass: A Conservationist’s Perspective (1 of 6 part series)
The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) formed almost fifty years ago when citizens banded together to take grassroots action to protect the natural environment of Southeast Alaska. Massive clearcuts were threatening our quality of life and the ecological integrity of our forests. Startlingly, the majority of these huge stands of temperate rainforest spruce and hemlock was being pulverized into pulp- hardly the best use of our globally rare and awe-inspiring trees. The pulp days brought transient economic stimulation and left behind clearcuts, impaired forest systems and rural communities desperate for sustainable economic stimulation and a more responsible timber industry.
Compared to the pulp behemoths of yesterday, the current logging scene on the Tongass is almost unrecognizable. Because the most economical, highest quality, and easiest to access trees have been cut, today's timber industry is much smaller in size and scope. Tongass lumber is being used for products beyond pulp such as soundboards for guitars, dimensional lumber, shingles, and furniture.
The work of the Sitka Conservation Society is also changing. We work in a new atmosphere on the Tongass, where stakeholders prioritize the forging of collaborative partnerships to tackle regional challenges and capitalize on regional opportunity.
The need to promote a land management regime that represents sustainability, rather than the ‘boom-and-bust' mentality of the past, in recognized as critical to the long-term prosperity of communities in Southeast Alaska. The composition of our forest is also changing. Clearcut areas are becoming commercially viable young-growth stands while old-growth forests become increasingly rare in the region and across the globe. The Tongass announced its Transition Framework in 2011, with the intent of moving forest management from an unsustainable and myopic focus on old-growth harvest to young-growth management and a more holistic approach to governing the Tongass.
Andrew Thoms, executive director for SCS, has been named a member of the Tongass Federal Advisory Committee and SCS staff are busy meeting community members, recording interests, ground truthing timber harvests, and digging deeper and wider to understand timber on the Tongass. We intend to use these experiences, insight, values, and ideals to help inform the Tongass Advisory Committee process as it shapes future Tongass management. Our guiding question is simple:
How can we maximize local benefits to our communities here in the Southeast while minimizing negative impacts to the ecological integrity of the forest we depend on and love. How do we ensure long-term ecological integrity and renewable resource returns?
Easy enough, right? Wrong. Answering this question is no easy task. The stakeholders are many, the ways of achieving this are endless and the goal itself is a spectrum. As daunting a course this is, we are dedicated to the cause.
To ground our vision as conservationists, it is necessary to step beyond conventional norms and walk among the lumberjacks and millers for a while. How is old-growth lumber being used, processed and manufactured on the Tongass today? We grabbed our field notebooks, left our insulated and cozy home of Sitka, hopped on a Harris Airplane and flew to Prince of Wales Island (POW) where the action is.
Prince of Wales Island: Where the action is
Unlike Sitka and much of Southeast Alaska, POW is criss-crossed with roads, old logging roads to be specific. The network of asphalt connects the towns of POW as it winds through old-growth stands, clear cuts, over rivers, along estuaries, through valleys, and over mountain passes. Our travel guide was Michael Kampnich, the Field Representative for The Nature Conservancy on Prince of Wales. Kampnich arrived to Alaska in the 1980's to log. He found a home in the area and never left. Kampnich has built a relationship with a few of the mills here on POW. Michael has a high regard for the effort it takes to operate and maintain these mills. Owners aren't in an office directing others, they're running the sawmill or operating one of the many pieces of equipment necessary to produce a shingle, a board or a piece of trim. Most of them are acquainted with Michael, and for that reason they were willing to break away from their busy schedule to chat with Marjorie and I.
Tune in tomorrow to meet Brent and Annette Cole ofAlaska Specialty Woods. This family of musicwood producers has more than just a great story to share, check in to oogle at their gorgeous 2,800 year old 'Ancient Sitka Line' of soon-to-be guitars.