Growing up in Minnesota, and having just spent the last three years in North Carolina, hearing or reading the term "public lands" brings to mind some pretty specific notions and memories, most of which include traveling a long distance, paying entrance or vehicle fees, rangers and managers who varied from enthusiastic to ornery, and usually lots of people.
After living in Sitka for just over two months now, I've come to see public lands in a much different light. Sitka is nestled within 17 million acres of mountains, forests, streams and muskegs that comprise the Tongass National Forest. There's no long expedition needed to reach public lands here – they're in our backyards. They are our backyards. And these public lands are so much more than just a beautiful place to visit – they are the backbone to the communities of southeast Alaska.
I did take a small excursion this past weekend, over to Kruzof Island. I was excited to actually travel the roads and see the forests, beaches, streams and muskegs I have spent so much time working with on the computer. Not to mention this was my first chance to see the Tongass off of Baranof Island. The purpose of this trip was two-fold: to ‘ground truth' a number of forest stands and salmon streams for their current condition and their potential for restoration work, and to experience first-hand why Kruzof is such a popular and important place for Sitkans.
I traveled with AmeriCorp volunteer Paul Norwood and SCS's Watershed & Restoration manager Scott Harris over to Mud Bay. Once there, we anchored the boat, loaded up our gear onto our rented ATV's, and headed west across the island to North Beach cabin (our ‘home base' for the next couple of days). Already on the very first day on Kruzof, my idea of what "public lands" are started to shift. There I was, looking in awe at the beautiful forests and muskegs of north Kruzof as we roared along in our ATVs, all the while the other people we came across during our trip were there hunting deer with their families, starting to set out marten traps for the upcoming trapping season, and just enjoying the weekend out in the woods.
While our trip didn't include trap setting, I was able to experience deer hunting for the first time (a beautiful buck on our first day), ATVing through forests, up mountains and across rivers, hiking in streams and through muskegs, old growth stands and thick young growth, and strolling along Shelikof beach collecting sand dollars. All of these amazing and unique experiences, all in three days, all on a small section of an amazing island, and all on public land.
As important and cherished as Kruzof is to Sitkans today, it still shows a landscape scarred from a less than kind history of extensive clear-cutting. Amid the tangle of young growth we climbed through were the moss-covered stumps of the giant trees that once towered there; streams barren of any logs or other diversions were lined with the blunted ends of old fallen trees that had been removed to allow for machinery to move easily upstream; mountain and hill-sides were blanketed in a mosaic of old growth, young growth, and veins of alder along the roads and trails. The scars are healing on Kruzof, but work is still needed to ensure that we can bring Kruzof back to it's previous ecosystem health, allowing us and the countless animals that live there to enjoy the many riches of Kruzof well into the future.
This trip showed me Kruzof Island as more than just a pretty view of Mount Edgecumbe: it is simultaneously a place for hiking, ATVing, subsistence hunting, fur trapping, restoration work on salmon streams and the surrounding forests, bird watching, beach-combing, quiet reflection, adventure… the list goes on. And all of this without any waiting in line at an entrance gate, or paying a visitor fee, or being constantly monitored by rangers and land managers. Believe it or not, this was the first time I had seen "the public" actually utilizing their public land. After all the visits I had made to public lands before in the lower 48, it wasn't until coming here to Sitka, and seeing it first hand on Kruzof Island, that I really understood what public lands are really about.
We are so fortunate here in southeast Alaska to not only to have this beautiful landscape as the backdrop of our lives, but to have that landscape as public land that we can visit for recreation and relaxation, and for our livelihoods. The fishing and tourism industries, which are the first and second largest employers and revenue makers in Sitka, are dependent on healthy forests, salmon streams, myriad wildlife, hiking and ATV trails, and cabins: all of which are found in our public lands. On Kruzof, these are places like Shelikof Creek, Iris Meadows, Twin Lakes, North Beach cabin, and so many more. Yes, public lands like the Tongass National Forest are managed by tax payers' dollars, but the money that the public pays to manage the Tongass is re-paid one hundred-fold. From the roughly 14 million dollars that the Forest Service spends on tourism and fisheries & watershed management within the Tongass, just under two billion (that's $2,000,000,000!) is brought into the local economies of southeast Alaska from these two industries. And this number doesn't even include the value of subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering.
When I see Mount Edgecumbe on a clear day, or look out from atop Harbor Mountain, or hear the words "public lands", a new array of memories and ideas come to mind. Public lands are for all people, for a profusion of different activities. They're a gift and a legacy for all of us.
SCS staff members Andrew Thoms and Ray Friedlander went on Raven Radio with Chris Leeseberg, a USFS fisheries biologist, on November 26th to talk about the Forest Service's Kruzof Island project and a public meeting that will be happening at 6:30pm on January 16th 2013 at Centennial Hall. This upcoming meeting is unique in that it is allowing the public to voice project ideas and opinions for how they think the Kruzof landscape should be managed rather than let the decisions solely be made by the Forest Service.
Click on the link below to hear the interview and read the article Raven Radio posted about it:
Kruzof Island is an important community resource that provides Sitkans and visitors with a wide range of recreation, subsistence, and economic opportunities. Attending this Kruzof public meeting in January is a prime way to participate in democratic land management processes and get your voice heard. The Sitka Collaborative Stewardship group has already taken some steps to gather ideas. In July 2012, there was a field trip to Kruzof Island that led to some project brainstorming: salmon habitat restoration work in Iris Meadows, wildlife habitat restoration in 2nd growth stands, picnic shelter at North Beach, additional mooring buoy at Mud Bay, hardened camp sites at North Beach, hardened trail to access North Beach, wildlife viewing platform at Iris Meadows, and a culture camp for the tribe. These are only some of the many possibilities that can occur in on the Kruzof , Krestof and Partofshikof Islands, making your opinions and ideas just as important as what has already been proposed.
For more information on the Kruzof public meeting and other ways you can participate in public lands management activities, please contact Ray Friedlander at firstname.lastname@example.org, (907) 747 – 7509.
Attention all bird enthusiasts and nature-lovers! 97 birds with various sorts of colored leg bands have been spotted in Sitka. We need your help in recording sightings of these birds!
The weekend before Thanksgiving, certified bird bander Gwen Baluss, Sitka High student Naquoia Bautista, and many volunteers banded Juncos, Chickadees, and Sparrows. Naquoia is participating in the Science Mentor Program. She will be conducting a study of the habits of wintering songbirds in Sitka. Her project relies on local bird enthusiasts and folks with bird-feeders to look out for her color-banded birds. If you would like to help, download and print the observation form here. You can also record observations on the internet at this link. If you have questions, contact Scott Harris at email@example.com or call 738-4091.
[tentblogger-vimeo 53985704] Sitka Conservation Society board member Richard Nelson spoke on salmon during Sitka Whalefest on the theme of "Cold Rivers to the Sea: Terrestrial Connections to our Northern Oceans." He spoke on the subject of one of the greatest manifestations of the connection between the terrestrial forests and the oceans: our Wild Alaska Salmon. His eloquent words remind us of why we care so much about and treasure salmon so deeply. Salmon are the backbone of the ecosystems of Southeast Alaska. For all of us who live here, Salmon are an extremely important part of our lives. Many of our jobs are directed related to salmon through fishing, processing, shipping, guiding, or managing salmon stocks. All of us are connected to salmon as the food that we eat and prepare for our families. For the Sitka Conservation Society, it is obvious to us that the Tongass is a Salmon Forest and that salmon are one of the most important outputs from this forest. For years we have fought against a timber industry that wanted more and more of the forest for clear-cutting and log export. It is time to turn the page on the timber dominated discussions of the past. Sure there is room for some logging. But, the Tongass should no longer be seen as a timber resource to be cleared and moved on. Rather, the Tongass should be managed with salmon as the priority, with the Forests left standing as the investment and the interest that it pays out every year being the salmon runs that feed our ecosystems, fisheries, and our families. Please help us protect Tongass salmon and help us make a new vision of Tongass management a reality. We need you to write letters telling decision makers and land managers to make Tongass management for salmon and salmon protection a priority. Here is an action alert that tells you how to write a letter: here. Or, if you need help, please feel free to visit or call our office (907-747-7509). You can read some letters that local fishermen wrote for inspiration: here Thanks for your help and support. Together we can ensure that are Wild Alaska Salmon are protected!
The morning light began to unfold as we motored south of town, a pod of whales to our right and the sun dancing in the still water. I am witness to the incredible orchestration of the ocean, the interconnection between everything. This is just the beginning...
At the hunting grounds, we anchor the skiff and pack up our gear. Now we hunt. I follow in my partner's foot-steps, every step deliberate. We walk slowly with vigilance, our eyes constantly scanning. Every movement is intentional, every sign of deer noted. We push forward and find a spot to hunker down and call in the deer, a sound that can be described as a guttural kazoo.
This is only my second time out on a hunt and I'm somewhat unaware of how this day will unravel. I try to stay present and note how ironic it is to be searching for edibles when so many are underfoot. Cranberries, crowberries, and labrador tea are in abundance but we pass them by, our eyes intent on another prey. Will our goal to find a deer override the pleasure of exploring the wilderness? Will we feel unsuccessful if we have nothing on our backs but the wind?
We keep walking, our steps intersecting existing deer trails. I am aware of my feet and the gentle forgiveness of the sphagnum moss. I look back and see the moss literally bounce back; the land feels uniquely alive. We stop again on the crest of a hill looking below while blowing the deer call. Nothing.
I begin to think I am cursed. The last time I went out we didn't even see a deer. Maybe I'm slowing my partner down or perhaps I am walking too loudly. But I remind myself that regardless of our intent, this is incredible. The sun plays with the clouds and mountain peaks surround me, I can't imagine a more perfect place.
We note the time and keep moving, knowing we must inevitably turn back soon before darkness sets. My eyes start to get lazy, my focus less centered but I try to remain attentive. We perch ourselves behind a large rock and try to call in a deer. We wait. We call again. And then out of my peripheral vision I notice movement to the left. A deer! I quickly signaled to my partner holding the rifle. And then…it was over.
We walked up to the buck and paid our respects. A life for a life, gunalchéesh. We quickly set to work, pulling out the organs. I was astounded by the warmth of this creature, its heart beating just minutes ago. I've heard of others leaving tobacco or tokens of respect for the life given, so without a tradition of my own, I pulled out a few of my hairs and sprinkled them atop the organs that would soon feed others.
On the return, my step was light (my partner did indeed pack out the deer); I was overcome with a feeling of success. I noticed how the walk back was starkly different then our journey in. The intention and awareness I brought with me began to fade. Our quiet whispers turned into conversation. It is so interesting how our interactions with place can change with context.
We were right on schedule when we returned to the skiff. Still plenty of day light to make the trip home. The air was surprisingly warm and calm for November, everything about today just felt so right. I was at home here.
When we returned to Sitka, my body was numb and tired. The spray from the skiff drenched me completely and the cold bit at every extremity. Exhaustion was setting but the day was just beginning. I watched my partner skillfully skin and quarter the deer, his hands knowing the right placement of his knife. In just a few minutes this beautiful animal transformed. How quickly this happened.
Once the deer was quartered we began to process the deer into cuts that would soon become dinner. I followed my knife along the bone and began to cut away the fat. I was fascinated by every muscle, how it connected to the bone and other muscles. We worked side by side for hours, ensuring every piece of meat was used.
This morning we finished the process by packaging up our roasts, rib meat, stock bones, and sausage. All evidence of our expedition lies in a small chest freezer, but it doesn't end there for me. The blood has washed off my hands, but I can still see it. It is through this experience that I find myself deeply connected to this place, to the interconnection of life. We are bound in this web and in the cycle of death and creation.
A heartfelt thank you to my partner who was a patient teacher.
For Halloween this year, we asked the Sitka community to look at the Tongass, consider what they love about it, and use Halloween as a way to express the beautiful national forest that surrounds us by wearing Tongass-inspired costumes.
Clicking through the photos below, one can see the diverse ways kids represented the Tongass. Whether it be by dressing up as a Tongass critter, a float plane, or a fishermen, the Tongass supports the livelihoods and maritime culture of Southeast Alaska while inspiring us in creative ways.
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Thank you to Old Harbor Books, Harry Race Pharmacy, and the Chocolate Moose for providing goodies, as well as SCS staff members Erin, Tracy, Courtney, and Andrew for handing out candy and smiling a whole bunch!
Helen worked for two summers with SCS on wild salmon education and outreach programs and advocacy. She's currently pursuing a Masters of Regional Planning at Cornell University, focusing on sustainable food systems, and working for Sitka Salmon Shares.
As a Midwesterner, I enjoy meeting and learning from local farmers committed to producing quality food in sustainable ways. In college I loved crafting meals at home, experimenting with new vegetables from my parents' Community Supported Agriculture share. Yet for all my excitement, I rarely thought about food systems beyond the Midwest.That changed when I moved to Sitka, a fishing town build on salmon, nestled within the Tongass National Forest. There I ate pan-seared king salmon—straight from the docks—at the home of a fisherman friend, with sautéed greens harvested from the backyard. I learned quickly that, in this community, the sustainability of local food means something very different than what I knew in the Midwest. The health of the Forest relates intimately to the strength of the wild salmon runs that make Sitka one of the greatest premium ports in the country. Walking through the forest, along the docks, and through the processor, you see how salmon connects the environment, culture, and economy—and the central importance of Alaska's sustainable fishery management to ensuring these relationships continue.
Returning home to the Midwest, I was excited to share this salmon and its story. From my work with Nic Mink at the Sitka Conservation Society, I helped him establish Sitka Salmon Shares, the first Community Supported Fishery in the Midwest. We link fishermen we knew in Sitka with friends and neighbors in cities like Minneapolis—folks who crave the best salmon, but want the trust, transparency, and quality they currently seek from their farmers.
As part of Sitka Salmon Shares, we collaborated this fall with the Campus Club at the University of Minnesota to hold a Tongass salmon dinner. Chef Beth Jones used produce from the University's campus farm, crafting a sweet corn succotash and a heirloom tomato relish to accent the unique flavors of coho, king, and sockeye from our fishermen in SE Alaska.
The guests that evening, however, wanted more than a nourishing meal that celebrates small-scale, sustainable food and its producers. They wanted to understand the significance of the wilderness and watersheds that give life to the salmon. Nic gave a talk called "How Alaska's Salmon Became Wild," exploring the histories of farmed and wild salmon. Afterwards, we invited guests to join us in asking the U.S. Forest Service to design their budget to reflect the importance of salmon and their habitat within the Tongass. In return, SCS and fisherman Marsh Skeele thanked them with one pound fillets of troll-caught Tongass coho.
The enthusiasm that our guests had to take part in this effort illustrated the important role food can play in forging connections. I support eating locally, but we should not forget the power that emerges when we form strong connections across regions. Our dinner at the Campus Club revealed that by starting with the allure of a boat to plate meal, we can show how the process really begins in the forest. From Sitka to Minneapolis, the value of the Tongass and its salmon holds true.
Chef Rodey Batiza was recently named one of Madison Magazine's "Best New Chefs." He's known in Madison for his culinary creativity and versatility, having mastered regional Italian, Japanese ramen and dumplings, and classical French cuisine. He's worked at many of Madison's finest restaurants, including Madison, Club, Johnny Delmonico's, Magnus, and Ocean Grill. He now is chef at Gotham Bagels, an artisan sandwich and meat shop on the capital square.
I've been a chef for over 15 years in Madison, Wisconsin, and what I've noticed more and more in the last few years is that my diners increasingly expect not only great ingredients but also ones that are sustainably produced. It's not enough anymore that food tastes good. It must come from sources that are doing everything in their power to produce food in an environmentally friendly way.
For these reasons, I jumped at the chance to partner with Sitka Salmon Shares and Sitka fisherman Marsh Skeele to host two, four-course salmon dinners this past week at my artisan meat and sandwich shop, Gotham Bagels. I know that Alaska's fisheries are managed as sustainably as any in the world and I also know that getting fish directly from fishermen in Sitka, Alaska, provides the type of transparency and accountability that I like to have when I source any of my products.
The dinners were an astounding success as both were filled to capacity. Our guests enjoyed coho salmon lox, caught by Marsh Skeele in Sitka Sound. It was dusted with pumpernickel and served with pickled squash. Our second course was seared sockeye salmon, caught on the Taku River by gillnetter F/V Heather Anne. We presented that with pancetta ravioli and pureed peas from our Farmers' Market.Finally, to cap the night, we created a horseradish-crusted king salmon from Sitka's Seafood Producers Cooperative. We served that with curried barley and Swiss chard.
All of my guests these evenings knew that we were not only eating the world's best wild salmon but they also understood that the wise management of natural resources in Alaska should mean that we have these wild salmon on our plates for years to come. To reinforce that point, the Sitka Conservation Society sent everyone home with coho salmon caught by Marsh Skeele and literature to help them get involved in protecting the habitat of wild Alaskan salmon for future generations.
The subsistence way of life and traditional subsistence practices are threatened by the privatization of key subsistence areas and resources. One of the most threatened places is Redoubt Falls near Sitka, where Alaskans harvest sockeye and coho salmon to fill their freezers and feed their families throughout the long winter. To really understand how important subsistence is to Alaskans and the Alaskan way of life – and to understand why we need to fight to preserve these rights – listen to the segment from Richard Nelson's radio program "Encounters" in which he fishes for sockeye at Redoubt Falls.
Ricky Sablan is a law enforcement ranger with the Sitka National Historical Park. He joined the SCS Wilderness crew on a Community Wilderness Stewardship Project expedition to South Baranof Wilderness in the summer of 2012. Be sure to check out his videos from the trip below.
Walking onto a boat called "The Gust", we loaded up our kayaks and supplies in preparation for an adventure. I looked backwards to see the orange transport ships from the cruises ship pass by as we set our courses to the open waters. Light grey clouds painted the sky, but the rain was holding back. Off in the distance, a hump back whale shot a burst of air from his blowhole and I realized I was no longer in man's world. I was to spend the next five days in the South Baranof Wilderness with three strangers I had only met a few days ago during briefing. Ray Friedlander an intern with the SCS, Jonathan Goff our botanist, and team leader Adam Andis were to be my new friends as we headed into the wild. Our plan was to be dropped off in Whale Bay with a satellite phone, an emergency SPOT gps tracker, and a USFS radio linking us to the rest of the world. Our goal was to assist the USFS in collecting data reports and observations in preserving the wilderness in Whale Bay. Some hours had past as we came to rest upon a nice bay located near Port Banks. We unloaded all our gear and the kayaks on the shore and watched as The Gust slowly faded away off in the distance. We took our first paddle down to Port Banks and began taking notes of all the planes, jets, and boats that we observed and heard in the wilderness. As we paddled to shore, we observed an old recreational site where people had left some old trash. We packed up the trash and headed back to camp to burn what we could. It was our duty to take notes on the conditions of these old sites and for the next few days we would paddle up the large arm of whale bay visiting recreational site to recreational site and writing down our observations on the human impacts of the area. Jonathan would collect samples of invasive plants and he would educate us what types of plants were edible and native to the area. As the days past by, we quickly became immersed into a majestic routine paddling for miles soaking up the wilderness and all it has to offer. Safety was always considered a priority, but having fun was a mandatory part of the trip that we embraced. Taking a dip in the cold clear water felt refreshing after a long paddle on a hot summer day. We had the experience of watching nature at its finest as a brown bear had caught a salmon that was running up one of the creeks. Otters would crack shells on their bellies while a doe and her fawn walked to the shore to observe our brightly colored kayaks pass them by. No need for television, computers, or cellphones to entertain our minds, the wilderness in God's great country was all we needed. The volunteer experience with the Sitka Conservation Society was something I'll always remember.