This Friday marks the beginning of a well-loved Sitka tradition, the Alaska Seafood Festival! The festival began in 2010, as a way to celebrate the bountiful ocean resources Sitka and Southeast Alaska has to offer. The fishing industry supplies significant revenue and jobs for the community as well as attracting tourists. Because seafood is such an important part of the Sitka community, it is essential that the resource is not only celebrated at the festival but also considered beyond the city limits.
Most Sitka residents and visitors enjoy the benefits of having plentiful wilderness recreation sites just a short distance from the city. These recreation sites are often within the Tongass National Forest. Like all national forests, the Tongass is under management of the US Forest Service. Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to work with Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and the Forest Service to evaluate different forest treatment plans created to ensure the forest, streams, and salmon are all working together in harmony. One concern is ample habitat for rearing juvenile and spawning adult salmon. Salmon depend on wood in the streams to create sheltered areas with a reduced current. However, past harvesting in the Tongass has disrupted the conifer growth that supplies this habitat. The good news is that the Forest Service has been applying different forest treatment plans to different areas with the goal of growing larger conifers that will eventually fall into the stream to provide habitat. Plentiful habitat then ensures thriving salmon populations that will prosper in the future.
Pink Salmon at Indian River
One such area is Appleton Cove located on North Baranof Island. SCS and the Forest Service recently traveled to this area to observe how trees along stream banks are growing and what kinds of trees there are. Our studies consisted of setting up four to six plots along the stream bank and flagging every live tree within these plots. We then recorded the tree species, diameter, and height. This study was also done at Fish Bay, Noxon, and other sites in order to create a representative and diverse sample. These studies will be combined with developing Forest Service research to guide how the trees along stream banks will be managed through treatments such as thinning.
Me and the Forest Service crew: Chris Leeseberg, Sarah Rubenstein, and Malachi Rhines
Sarah Rubenstein setting up a plot along a stream bank
Another Forest Service Project dedicated to preserving salmon populations is present at Redoubt Lake. Redoubt Lake is one of the largest meromictic lakes in North America meaning the lake has areas of salt water and fresh water that do not mix. Each year thousands of salmon swim from the ocean and up the falls to reach Redoubt Lake to spawn. The Forest Service has set up a weir at the opening of the lake, which is essentially a gate preventing fish from passing except in specific areas. Forest Service workers are then able to count the fish and identify their species as they swim through the weir or past a camera in the evenings. Sockeye and Coho salmon are also sampled meaning they are weighed, measured, and have a scale taken. This information is then used to further study the fish at Redoubt and their genetic make up. One concern is that farmed fish could be mating with wild fish and disrupting wild type DNA. The scale sample comes into play here as it is analyzed by geneticists to determine if the fish has any DNA inherited by a farmed fish. Counting the fish that return to Redoubt Lake each year will also help the Alaska Department of Fish and Game set appropriate harvest limits to ensure future abundance.
On Redoubt Lake with the weir in the background
This weekend while enjoying festival events such as cooking and canning classes, the seafood banquet, film screenings, and more remember to also consider the connection between forest management and the sustainability of valuable Alaskan seafood.
Learn more about how the US Forest Service manages the Tongass National Forest at www.fs.usda.gov/land/tongass/landmanagement and be sure to visit the SCS booth while at the festival.
Habitat restoration in Tongass young-growth forests is expensive. If we can utilize the by-products of restoration projects to offset the costs, we can conduct more restoration. For the past several years, SCS has studied the potential of the restoration technique of creating "gaps" in even-aged young-growth forests. A "gap" is a very small clearcut (about 1/4 acre or less) that emulates the small-scale windthrow that is common in old-growth forests. With the USFS Sitka Ranger District, SCS recently monitored a restoration site and completed an analysis of a 23-year old data set. This study is unique in that it is the only study of the gap restoration technique in a commercial-aged young-growth forest, and the only gap study with a long-term data set. We found that the technique is effective at restoring deer habitat. The trees that were cut to create the gap have commercial value, which presents an opportunity to experiment with ways to remove the trees. Maybe we can have our cake (restoration) and eat it (wood products) too!
To read the report, follow this link HERE to the website of the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network.
This restoration site and the long-term monitoring effort is due to the persistence of the late Greg Killinger, USFS Wildlife Biologist. Greg is in one of the study site gaps in the photo below.
The public comment period for the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) proposed road through to Katlian Bay closed on Friday, April 3. The Sitka Conservation Society submitted comments as we feel the State should not be spending upwards of $16 million on a project of limited benefit, especially considering Alaska is facing a $4 billion budget deficit.
View looking east across Katlian Bay. Photo © kayak_guru
The Katlian Bay Road Project was originally developed under the Road to Resources Program under former Governor Parnell. However, the resources the road was meant to access, namely a rock pit on Shee Atika land, were not accessible within the project’s budget. Now, the road is still scheduled to be completed, but under the umbrella of providing recreational and subsistence opportunities for the Sitka community.
Listed below are several concerns and issues that SCS has with the proposed road. For a more in-depth discussion of our concerns, click here for a full copy of our comments.
- The DOT currently does not know what the annual cost of maintaining the road will be. SCS feels that this should have been one of DOT’s first considerations, as the road travels through steep terrain the likelihood of washouts and landslides is high. Therefore, the annual upkeep of the road could be significant, potentially leading to a closure of the road.
The DOT is unsure who will design, construct and maintain any of the proposed recreation infrastructure. The Forest Service’s recreation budget has been slashed over recent years and Sitka Trail Works is already stretched thin and has a massive backlog of work along the existing trail system.
An increase in the number of people hunting and fishing in the Katlian Valley will likely see new bag/catch limits introduced. We would like to see an analysis of how increased access may affect these subsistence opportunities. We fear that increased access will lead to greater take and will actually result in decreased opportunities for subsistence and sport hunting and fishing.
The Katlian Valley was heavily logged in the 1960s and as the proposed road will further increase pressure on the watershed, SCS asks the DOT to invest mitigation funds into restoration projects. This should include: forest habitat improvement, removing blockages to fish passage and in-stream fish habitat restoration.
We are currently in a very different economic climate to when the road project was first announced. Our state parks are threatened with closure and our schools are having to cut programs and staff. Unfortunately, the funding for this road likely cannot be re-appropriated to help fund these core areas as the money is in bond form. As the money for the project is coming from GO bonds it means the State will go into further debt in order to construct it.
Can we really afford to do this, especially considering Alaska’s current dire financial situation? Combine this with the substantial annual (and currently unknown) maintenance cost and it is obvious this road is a luxury we simply cannot afford.
In the spring of 2011, the Sitka Conservation Society partnered with the Tongass National Forest to restore viable wildlife habitat in the second growth forests in Starrigavan Valley. Funding for this project was provided by the National Forest Foundation and SCS. Our efforts restored 5.2 acres of wildlife habitat by removing slash, provided firewood to 68 local families to help heat their homes, and initiated a student-based long-term monitoring project that continues to this day.
In 2011, the Sitka Conservation Society partnered with Trout Unlimited and the US Forest Service to start a multi-year salmon habitat restoration project on the Sitkoh River using funds provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Sustainable Salmon Fund. The construction contract was awarded in 2011, but in-stream work began in spring of 2012 and continued into the summer of 2013.
Past logging and road-building practices compromised watershed function and salmon habitat in the Sitkoh River Valley. An analysis conducted by The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service identified the Sitkoh River as one of the seven highest priority watersheds for restoration on the Tongass National Forest. In public forums the community of Sitka has consistently stated that restoration in the Sitkoh area is a high priority, particularly for coho salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat. The Trout Unlimited Alaska Program also identified the Sitkoh River as one of its 25 Restoration Priority areas.
This Joint Watershed Restoration Project restored two ecologically significant sections of the Sitkoh River. SCS plans to replicate these efforts in other areas with high ecological and stakeholder value.
This phase restored 1,800 feet of critical salmon rearing habitat. In this section of the river, the flow was diverted down an adjacent logging road. This made the channel shallow and wide with almost no pool habitat. The diverted river flowed through previously harvested areas that are covered with alder and lack the large conifers necessary to provide large woody debris to the stream, reducing the likelihood of natural salmon habitat creation. Had this area been left untreated, the diverted segment of the Sitkoh River would have continued to widen and to erode the unstable roadbed. This would have continued to impede fish passage at high and low flow periods, increase the risk of juvenile salmon mortality in the winter, and further degrade habitat downstream.
Phase one focused on restoring the Sitkoh River to its original stream channel location. Portions of the stream channel were reconstructed to create self-maintaining pools and riffles, to restore hydrologic function, and to inhibit future diversions to the road. Over time, this will allow new trees along the banks to grow large enough to serve as meaningful woody debris sources.
Phase two focused on a river section slightly downstream of Phase one. Previous loggers had harvested trees all the way down to the stream edge, removing future sources of large wood to the stream. To counter this, SCS and its partners added large wood structures to improve salmon spawning gravels, to create pool habitats, and to slow down the stream to reduce bank erosion. Phase two of this project was primarily funded by the US Forest Service.
The extensive clear-cut logging in the Sitka Ranger District from the 1950s to the 1990s created new forest of quickly-growing, uniformly-aged conifers. This dense "second growth" forest impairs habitats for Sitka black-tailed deer and brown bears by creating such an efficient sunlight block that forageable understory is virtually non-existent. Combine the lack of a traditional understory plants with the almost untraversable slash that's often left behind and former clear-cuts have the potential to become ecological deserts that last for over 100 years.
Restoration thinning, where clearings are deliberately made in second growth forests to mimic the effects of wind-throw and to increase the age diversity of the forest, are an important tool in SCS's efforts to mitigate the long-term effects of clear-cutting. With restoration thinning, we can help re-create the light-filled environment of mature old-growth forests and greatly improve habitat for Tongass flora and fauna. When thinning is done by local contractors and the wood can be used for local projects, the forest, the animals, and Sitkans all benefit.
Alaska’s salmon habitats were also negatively impacted by previous logging practices. Before changes were implemented in 1990, approximately 500 miles of streamside habitat in Southeast Alaska were logged, leading to the loss of critical spawning habitat for salmon. Streamside logging also lead to a long-term shortage of "large woody debris", or large logs that fall into streams, which provide important shelter for juvenile salmon. Unmaintained or hastily built logging roads have also caused problems by blocking streams or contaminating them with large amounts of sediment.
Stream restoration includes replacing or removing bridges and culverts that block fish passages and placing large wood in channels to create rearing habitat for fish. These activities can have immediate positive effects and help rebuild the Tongass’ prominance as the “Salmon Forest”.
The SCWSP is an effort to get Sitkans out into our Wilderness Areas to help SCS conduct research and monitor the health of the Tongass. Find out how you can help by volunteering on a research expedition or by collecting data on your next hunting, hiking, kayaking, or fishing trip.
The Sitka Conservation Society, Trout Unlimited, and the US Forest Service conducted a multi-year salmon habitat restoration project on the Sitkoh River funded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Sustainable Salmon Fund. In-stream work was started in spring of 2012 and completed the summer of 2013. Click the links to learn more about this success story.
In the Spring of 2011, the Sitka Conservation Society partnered with the Tongass National Forest to implement restoration thinning in the forests of Starrigavan Valley. Funding was provided by the National Forest Foundation and SCS. This project has achieved multiple objectives and remains active. The recent landslide in Starrigavan valley has created an exciting new opportunity for interpretation and natural science experiments as well.
Each May in Starrigavan Valley, nearly 100 7th Graders from Blatchley Middle School spend a few days learning about stream restoration and monitoring. In the classroom, the students learn about watershed ecology and salmon habitat. Next, they hit the field and help professional watershed managers install in-stream wood structures to rebuild fish habitat.
In 2009, SCS launched the Sitka Community Wilderness Stewardship Project with funds from the National Forest Foundation and our own Living Wilderness Fund. Our goal was to bring together people and wilderness in an original and exciting way while also collecting valuable data on invasive species, human impacts on wilderness, and wildlife abundance. As Sitka residents explored the backcountry by kayak, float plane, boat, or on foot, we challenged them to join our Stewardship Project by observing and recording the species they encountered or noting any signs of overuse by people. This project radically increased SCS's base of knowledge while also encouraging more exploration of the playground we call the Tongass National Forest.
Learn more about our findings and wilderness expeditions below!
Click on the white markers on our map of the Sitka Community Use Area to see where past expeditions have gone.
Check out the most recent project report below, or view our briefing sheets for past reports.
Welcome to the Sitka Community Use Area (SCUA)! Also known as Sitka’s “home range,” SCUA encompasses over one million acres of the Tongass National Forest. Its lands and waters provide abundant benefits to our community through recreation opportunities, subsistence harvesting areas, renewable energy, business opportunities, clean air, clean water, abundant wildlife, and cultural and traditional resources. SCUA's resources make Sitka's incredible quality of life possible, but those resources depend on sound management practices. To help engage the community in our Tongass advocacy efforts, SCS helped to put together this project map in 2009 to highlight some of the more important projects and issues affecting SCUA. Using this map, SCS has been working with government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, the City and Borough of Sitka, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and with local organizations to ensure that conservation and sustainability are core values of any Tongass management plans.
We are happy to share local conservation projects with you here!
Do you like wild Alaskan salmon? Then you should also like stream buffers.
What exactly is a stream buffer? It’s the area of land on either side of a stream, river or lake that is excluded from logging when the Forest Service designs timber sales. Stream buffers are extremely important because they ensure that old growth trees are left near salmon spawning and rearing sites. Old growth trees shade salmon spawning grounds and help regulate stream flow to facilitate future salmon runs. Their roots also protect salmon spawning and rearing areas from erosion, without them soils and sediments would wash into the stream choking the water and smothering the eggs. Stream buffers make it possible for delicious wild salmon to appear on your dinner plate!
Want to learn more about stream buffers? Check out the fact sheet below. Also, please take a moment (it will only take 30 seconds) to send an email to Chief Tidwell, the Chief of the Forest Service. Ask him to protect wild Alaskan salmon by prioritizing salmon in Forest Service budgets and management practices. Just copy and paste the blurb below (make sure to fill in your state, name, and address)!
Thanks so much for helping to protect wild salmon, the most vital resource of the Tongass National Forest.
BCC: firstname.lastname@example.org (BCC me so that we can use your letter as evidence that people are writing to him)
SUBJECT: I support your efforts on the Tongass Transition
Dear Chief Tidwell:
I am an (type your state here) constituent that commends your efforts to protect the wild salmon of Alaska through the Tongass Transition.
The Tongass Transition puts the focus back on salmon and healthy intact forest ecosystems. In other parts of the country, our lack of foresight and the misuse of our resources have significantly impacted salmon populations. Let’s not see the same thing happen in Alaska. We must work to protect salmon habitat and restore damaged salmon streams. Please prioritize salmon in Forest Service budgets and management practices to help us sustain this vital resource.
Chief Tidwell, please continue your work on implementing the Tongass Transition.
Thank you for your time and for protecting our salmon,