Each May in Starrigavan Valley, nearly one hundred 7th Graders from Blatchley Middle School spend a few days doing hands-on stream restoration and monitoring. In the classroom, the students learn about watershed ecology and salmon habitat. Next, they hit the field. Studetns help professional watershed managers install in-stream wood structures to rebuild fish habitat. They also monitor water quality and changes in the stream structure. Stream Team is sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society, the Sitka Ranger District, the Sitka School District, the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, the National Park Service, and others. This year's Stream Team should be especially exciting since this fall's landslide has changed the stream's layout so much.
Take a look at some pictures of Stream Team in action below:
Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Directorat SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.
Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.
My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with anarea of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.
From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I've been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we've reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.
From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake.Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven't tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.
Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.
On the 28thof August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.
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.
It's November and the salmon eggs are all nestled in their gravel beds, but we can still dream of next year's Blatchley Stream Team by watching this very cool video! Each May, over 100 Blatchley 7th Graders participate in Stream Team, where they help restore fish habitat and monitor stream health. This annual event is eagerly anticipated by the students as well as the organizers, which includes the US Forest Service, Sitka School District, Sitka Conservation Society, National Park Service, Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, Corps of Engineers, and US Fish and Wildlife Service.