If you've picked up a book on the Tongass or timber or even just Southeast Alaska, the story of the trees of Prince of Wales Island is probably one with which you're familiar. But even for an outsider, the story would be hard to miss, as the history of this island has been carved into its mountainsides. One does not need to have spent much time there to recognize: this land and logging have intimately known one another.
Traveling around the island by plane, car, and boat this past week, I saw before me a history etched in wood, a past laid bare by the felled trunks which often seemed to outnumber standing trees. But while I saw many scarred mountainsides on Prince of Wales Island, I also felt hope – hope that the manner by which this land was logged can serve a cautionary tale; function as an instructive story of misuse; and issue a warning – and wake-up call – to present and future generations of the costs we all pay when an unrenewable resource such as old-growth forest suffers reckless abuse as opposed to measured use.
It was beginning in the 1950s that many of the old-growth stands of the island began meeting with the former fate, logged swiftly and carelessly to provide raw material for the newly built pulp mill in Ketchikan. Flying over the forest in 1954, Art Brooks, logging manager for the Ketchikan Pulp Co., was to exclaim, "As far as the eye could see there were trees, trees, trees…nearly all virgin timber." That is no longer the case. Of the 140 by 45 mile island, only a few places have been spared the saw. I was lucky enough to visit one of them, the southern tip of the island, this past week.
For eight days, I, along with a group representing SCS, SEACC, the U.S. Forest Service, and HCA (the Hydaburg Cooperative Association), traveled around South Prince of Wales Wilderness, one of the most remote wilderness areas that Southeast Alaska has to offer, monitoring visitor use patterns. Along the way, we were fortunate enough to catch sight of whales and bears, watch the wonder that is salmon swimming upstream, be shown around an abandoned Haida village, and stand in the presence of trees hundreds – if not thousands – of years old. And aware of the past of this place, the contentious story of this space, I did not take getting to gaze at these ancient trees lightly. Knowing that this land has been a battleground for environmentalists for over half a century, that these forests are standing due to the hard work of many defenders, I felt privileged to be in their presence. But mindful that their present preservation was no guarantee of future conservation – the Big Thorne timber sale further north on the island standing as a testament to as much – I also began thinking about my own role to be had in speaking for these trees.
A few days before heading out on this trip, I had been having a conversation with someone who, when my job with the conservation society came up, laughed and said, "Oh, so you're part of the cult." When I asked what he meant, he spoke fairly disparagingly of environmentalism in general, asserting that environmentalists rarely understood their own agendas, merely mindlessly subscribing to whatever mentality happened to be dominant within conservationist circles at the time. Although initially affronted, I am, in retrospect, thankful for the encounter, as it reminded me that it's only when our beliefs are challenged that we take the time to reexamine, analyze, and crystallize them. As so, thinking of my parents soon flying into Sitka for a visit, and the many times as a kid they had read The Lorax aloud to me, I set out to articulate exactly what speaking for the trees means to me with regard to the Tongass National Forest.
And after having spent a week out in the wilderness, observing the natural connections that govern life in the Tongass, it becomes immediately apparent that just as with Dr. Seuss' Truffula trees, speaking for the spruce, hemlock, and cedar of Southeast Alaska involves speaking for a lot more. It's speaking for the salmon we saw jumping upriver, who rely on the trees for the enrichment and stabilization of their spawning streams. It's speaking for the deer we saw foraging on shore, who make their homes and secure their food under the cover of these trees' canopy. It's speaking for the bears we saw catching salmon, who depend on the forest to protect their food source of fish and fawns. It's speaking for the eagles we saw flying overhead, who make their nests and raise their young in the trees. And it's speaking for the people who catch those fish, hunt those deer, and enjoy the multiple other uses to which wilderness can be put. We are all intricately connected. It may be important at times to see the forest for the trees, but it is just as important to sometimes, both literally and figuratively, see the individual trees as well – see all the organisms and associations that make up the forest and appreciate that the parts are, indeed, what make up the whole, and if we misuse one, we endanger them all.
In its message of interconnectedness and warning against environmental abuse, Dr. Seuss' fable of the Truffula trees thus seems perfectly able to translate to the Tongass. There is only one point on which I might challenge him: having seen them, having stood in their presence and felt the reverence, awe, and humility they are able to inspire, in some ways, it seems, the trees of Southeast can also speak for themselves.
If you're interested in hearing more about our work, or are looking to get involved with wilderness stewardship and the preservation of our wild places, be sure to check out SCS's wilderness page here.Thanks and photo credit goes out to Luke A'Bear, one of the SCS participants, who was amazing at taking photos out on the trip. The Lorax image remains the property of Dr. Seuss.
Join the Sitka Conservation Society on their last boat cruise of the season!
On Tuesday, Aug. 19, SCS will set sail with Allen Marine tours to explore the salmon of Sitka Sound. Lon Garrison, aquaculture director at the Sitka Sound Science Center will be on board as a guide and to answer questions. Come learn about the importance of salmon to the Tongass National Forest and have some fun on a Tuesday night!
Tickets are on sale at Old Harbor Books beginning Aug. 5. The cost is $40 per person.
The boat cruise will depart Crescent Harbor at 5 p.m. and return at 8 p.m., boarding begins at 4:45 p.m.
Don't miss the last chance to take a SCS cruise this summer!
As published in the Daily Sitka Sentinel on July 16, 2014
Four environmental groups have filed a petition to make the Alaskan yellow-cedar, an important tree to Tlingit carvers, an endangered species.
However, some petitioners believe that the protection might not be enough to save the species.
"It's almost like we're too late with the petition, but hopefully not," said Kiersten Lippmann of Anchorage, who is with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center, along with the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, Greenpeace and The Boat Company, an organization that runs charter tours through Southeast waters, submitted a petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service last month asking for federal protection of yellow-cedar under the Endangered Species Act.
"They are on the downward swing, very dramatically, so something needs to be done," said Larry Edwards, of Sitka, an Alaska Forest Campaigner of Greenpeace. "We'll do whatever we can to help the process along."
Yellow-cedars have been dying off for about 100 years, U.S. Forest Service research finds. There is now more than half-million acres of dead cedar forests. The preliminary conclusion is that climate change is the cause.
The research has shown that decreasing snowfall in the region is allowing the shallow roots of the trees to freeze, causing the trees to die. Snow acts like a blanket and insulates the soil beneath, and also provides more water for the trees in the springtime when it melts.
Yellow-cedar trees can live to be more than 800 years old and are naturally very resistant to rot and disease. These qualities make its wood ideal for use as a building material that will be exposed to water and Southeast Alaska's rainy climate.
Its soft wood and fine grain make it a favorite wood for Native carvers.
"It's not just a natural resource, but a cultural resource," Janet Drake, a park ranger at the Sitka National Historic Park, said. With no red cedar in the area, the yellow-cedar is a beautiful, local wood for people to use, she said.
Obtaining endangered species status for a plant or animal takes more than one and a half years if the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. meets all deadlines for acting on the petition. Unfortunately, Lippmann said, usually those deadlines are not met on time.
And on top of that, the federal protection cannot stop the effects from climate change. It would only live trees from being cut down.
At present the Aleutian holly fern is the only federally protected plant in Alaska, says the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While conservation groups spearhead the petition efforts, some local carvers worry about the classification of yellow-cedar as endangered. Tlingit carvers Tommy Joseph and Robert Koffman, both of Sitka, voiced concerns about losing access to wood supplies if the petition should succeed.
Joseph said that he likes using yellow-cedar because of its durable qualities. "It's softer but it will outlast all the others," he said.
Koffman, who also works at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, said the tight grain of yellow-cedar allows him to put more detail into his carvings. He said it would be best if there is a clause allowing subsistence harvest of yellow-cedar in order to protect carvers' livelihood.
"If it is a disappearing species there should be protections," Koffman said, but added: "I think a limited amount of wood should be made available to Native artists."
Petitioners argue that the real enemy is commercial timber sales, not the amount used for carving.
"If you can at least limit logging, you can give the species a little bit of resilience in the face of climate change," Lippmann said.
The Sitka Conservation Society sponsored a boat cruise through Sitka Sound and Nakwasina Sound on Sunday afternoon, bring visitors from Florida, Columbia, New York, Ireland and even some native Sitkans around the waterways and salmon habitats of the area. Led by SCS director Andrew Thoms and SCS board member Kitty LaBounty, guests on the Allen MarineSea Otter Express, enjoyed gorgeous vistas, a bear siting, watching salmon jump and bald eagles soar and just before heading back to Crescent Harbor, a humpback whale gave everyone a close up flick of his tail as it descended to the deep.
But, while aboard the Sea Otter Express, guests also learned the southeast Alaska sea otter story, a tale fraught with controversy that acts as a simple reminder of the importance of any one species to The Tongass National Forest ecosystem.
Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals and are members of the weasel family. They spend almost their entire lives in water, often only going on land to give birth. Sea otters usually stay in groups called rafts of all males or females with their pups. These furry creatures are often seen floating and grooming around kelp beds and the rocky islands of Sitka Sound.
With no natural predators, sea otters have free reign over their territory. They eat shell fish and sea urchins and spend their days playing and grooming their fur. Because they do not have a blubber layer to keep them warm in the ocean, their fur is vital for their survival. Otters have the densest fur of any animal in the world with 300,000 hairs per square inch. And that is what has gotten them into trouble in the past.
During the late 1700's and early 1800's Russian fur traders almost completely wiped out the population of sea otters in Alaska. What some researchers believe was a population of 150,000 to 300,000 had been reduced to a mere 2,000 sea otters along the Pacific Northwest Coast by 1911. And it wasn't just the fur industry thriving. Without the sea otters to eat them, clam and other shell fish populations grew and so did a whole system of fisheries that became very profitable in the region.
As you can tell from the pictures, the sea otters have returned. Hunting restrictions and reintroduction programs have restored the sea otter population along the Alaskan coast. Now, an estimated 12,000 live in Southeast Alaska.
But, the story is not without controversy. Those profitable shell fish fisheries I mentioned are now struggling to compete with the renewed sea otter population. Some argue that those fisheries became profitable in a time when the natural environment had been altered. There is also the topic of kelp to consider. Sea otters also eat sea urchins that kill off bulk kelp populations. The kelp is a great place for fish, particularly herring, to spawn and now with the sea otters back eating sea urchins, the kelp populations can thrive again.
Removing a species from its natural habitat can have profound effects on an ecosystem, as the story of the sea otters has shown. Even without natural predators, the sea otters play an important role in The Tongass National Forest ecosystem and help keep the environment in balance.
The next time I go for a walk in the woods, I'll be sure to pay attention to the ground beneath my feet. Along with the trees lining it, and the birds flitting above it, and all the animals that may amble across it, a trail itself deserves attention. As easy as it is for you to walk it, that's how hard someone worked on it. I know this now from experience.
I spent this past week out at White Sulphur Springs, working with the Forest Service cabin and trail crew and a group of SCS volunteers to repair an old trail that had fallen into disrepair. For those not familiar with the area, White Sulphur lies within West Chichagof-Yakobi, designated wilderness in 1980, and derives its name from the naturally occurring hot springs to which it is home. If there was ever a perfect place to first experience trail crew, White Sulphur was it. At the end of a hard day, what better way to calm aching muscles than by sliding into a warm tub, the whole time gazing out at an uninterrupted panorama of alternating mountain and ocean?
Yet while we relaxed at night, the days we worked were long. At it by 7:30 every morning, the next nine hours were spent carrying rock, hauling gravel, sawing logs, digging steps, constructing bridges, and brushing overlying vegetation from the trail. It was hard work, but equally rewarding. A week ago I had never even seen a crosscut or heard of a Pulaski. I now know how to use both, along with a slew of other tools. But in addition to the technical skills I gained while building trail, what I most appreciate about the trip is that it allowed me to experience and engage with wilderness in a completely new way.
People who take issue with wilderness often level the charge that it's wasted space, that it's land that's been cordoned off from humans, that it leaves no place for people. But what I saw out at White Sulphur was quite the opposite. Far from being a place that excludes people from the land, I saw the extent to which the wilderness can facilitate positive human interaction, can foster camaraderie and companionship. These things I felt with my fellow crewmen, with the individuals we met out there who thanked us for our hard work, and even – on a more abstract level – with the many people who I knew would in the future walk this trail, enjoying the product of our labor. Thus, although wilderness, by definition, is a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man," wilderness's definition by no means completely excludes man. People, when exercising respect, need not be seen as antagonistic or antithetical to these places. To the contrary, I conceived of our work at White Sulphur as being to the benefit of both people and place. Mending a trail system begun over 75 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps, we were making it easier for people to come to, have contact with, and care for these wild areas. Thus, within wilderness, within these "areas where man and his works do not dominate the landscape," there clearly remains at least some room for man.
Still, people often take issue with the 1964 Act. In particular, I have often heard people, even ardent supporters of wilderness, angry over the line in which man is defined as a "visitor who does not remain," arguing that man should not suffer exclusion any from these places. But to make this critique seems, at least to me, to ignore the broader context of the act, in which wilderness is being designated and defined as public land. And put into conversation with the notion of "the public," the definition of wilderness starts to seem less restrictive, less exclusive, less qualitatively different than other public spaces. Think of the last public park or beach you were at. It probably wasn't open all hours of the day, and if it was, there were most likely, at the very least, some rules or restrictions posted. And that's because public space – be it a road, a park, or a wilderness area – does to some extent require the monitoring and control of human use. It's not meant to exclude. Rather, it's how the preservation of these places into perpetuity can be ensured.
Thus, when it comes to the definition of wilderness and man's place in it, it strikes me as a glass half-full or half-empty situation. You can interpret the law as having written people out of wilderness, or you can see it as having explicitly written people in, allowing and inviting man to visit and enjoy these places. What I saw out at White Sulphur was unmistakably the latter. It was people experiencing not exclusion from the land, but communion with it, working hard at a trail so that others will similarly be able to experience such harmony between self and space, person and place.
Be sure to visit the wilderness page of our website for more information on upcoming trips!
Alaska hosted close to 2 million visitors between May 2013 and April 2014, shattering its previous annual visitor record by more than 5,000 people. Not surprisingly, about 1.7 million of those visitors came in the summer months, but last winter did see a 4 percent increase in out-of-state visitation, according to statistics published by the Alaska Department of Commerce.
"Alaska is a worldwide recognized brand," Dan Kirkwood, outreach director for the Alaska Wilderness League said. When people hear Alaska they think wilderness, adventure, landscapes, hiking and outdoor activities, he explained. "The market demand is for the natural beauty and for this wilderness experience"
Here in Southeast Alaska, where 17 million acres of the region is the Tongass National Forest, the U.S. Forest Serviceis the most important player in determining how tourists and residents alike use and experience the wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service governs everything from timber sales to hunting to recreation.
Tourists from all over the United States venture to Southeast Alaska to see and experience the beauty and vastness of America's largest national forest. The U.S. Forest Service provides important and meaningful ways for people to experience the Tongass and one of the most visitor-friendly places is just 12 miles from Juneau at the Mendenhall Glacier visitor's center.
The U.S. Forest Service built the Mendenhall Glacier visitor's center in 1961. It is the oldest Fores Service visitor's center in the country and the most popular in Southeast Alaska today. The glacier has retreated at an alarming rate in recent years. Glaciers retreat when the ice melts at a faster rate than it is replaced every year. While Mendenhall has been retreating since the mid-1700s, it has certainly sped up in recent years. About 50 years ago, the glacier moved about 60 feet every year. In 2011, the glacier retreated 437 feet!
Despite how far back the glacier has moved since the visitor's center was built, the U.S. Forest Service has created a very visitor-friendly experience for people with varying degrees of outdoor experience. Even closer and more astonishing views of the glacier are just a short walk up the path from the visitor's center to Nugget Falls. This short trail one of the most popular in Juneau.
While the Mendenhall is retreating, it is far from disappearing and he number of visitors to the glacier is continually increasing. Statistics provided by the Alaska Wilderness League show that in 2011 tourism contributed $1 billion and provided more than 10,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska. And the most popular city to visit in the Southeast is Juneau.
Recent budget cuts to the recreation programs and the current management strategy of the U.S. Forest Service have made it very difficult for the agency to adjust to the growing demand of visitors in the area. As tourism easily becomes the second most important industry for the Southeast Alaskan economy, behind sport and commercial fishing, the U.S. Forest Service is in the unique position to greatly impact how much this industry grows and contributes to the welfare of the region.
Many tourists traveling through the Tongass do not know much about the nation's largest national forest before they arrive. But, through programs, films, exhibits, pamphlets, guides and talks provided by the U.S. Forest Service, visitors learn more and more about a forest that they can call their own. After spending even just a short time there, they all agree it is beautiful and unlike any other forest they have ever seen. Continue reading to meet some travelers from all over America and see what had to say about their trip to the Southeast.
"We have never seen anything like this! We don't have this in New York," the couple said of their first trip to Alaska. Despite the pricey airfare, they both said they would come back. "It's like being in Paradise!"
Mary is a former travel agent and has been to Alaska four times. "I just love Alaska," she said. "It's God's country!" Mary and Collette came in on a cruise to Juneau and spent their morning exploring the Mendenhall visitor's center.
Meet Mike and Debbie from Oregon!
"I'm burnt out on the boat," Mike said of his cruise experience. "I like being out." Mike and Debbie did not know much about the Tongass before they took a cruise to Alaska from Seattle, but they were enjoying what feels like countless views of glaciers and waterfalls.
"This place is HUGE with all capital letters!" Lynnette said of the Tongass. They have really enjoyed their trip to Alaska and are looking forward to the rest of their travels.
Meet Lynn and George from Florida!
Lynn and George have been to Alaska three times. This time, they decided to travel more of the land and less of the sea and opted for independent travel, rather than a cruise ship. They returned to Mendenhall Glacier to stay up to date and aware on the effects of climate change on the region they said.
Meet Peggy from Texas!
Peggy came in to Juneau on a cruise ship. It's her first time in Alaska and she described the Tongass as a "beautiful and huge ecosystem" unlike any she had ever seen before.
These are just a few faces of the thousands of visitors that venture to the Mendenhall Glacier this summer and there will be thousands more that will visit this public and pristine wilderness before the season is out.
There were XTRATUFS everywhere! Though, a few souls did venture into the tide pools without them. On a foggy and misty Sunday morning, some brave adventurers, sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society, ventured to Kruzof to learn about intertidal species. The shore was spotted with sea stars and there was quite a bit to learn about this wilderness that presents itself just a few hours every day.
Did you know there are 2,000 species of sea stars?
Not all live here in Southeast Alaska, but this region has the highest amount of diversity of these species.
Sea stars - sometimes referred to as starfish - are not actually fish. They do not have gills, fins, or scales. They pump nutrients through their body with salt water because they do not have blood. They have at least 5 legs, but some have as many as 40!
This is a sunflower sea star. These guys can be up to 3 feet wide and weigh as much as 60 pounds. They feed on clams and crabs and can move pretty quickly through the water. Well, they are no cheetahs, but they get around.
The biggest predators of sea stars are other sea stars. When sea stars feel threatened, they have the ability to shed one of their legs (which they will regrow later) so that a predator might eat that leg and leave them alone.
We hope you enjoyed learning as much as we did!
This past week, I, along with SCS co-workers Paul Killian and Tracy Gagnon, had the privilege of introducing Ray Geier, a talented artist from Boulder, Colorado, and a recipient of one of the Forest Service's annual artist residencies, to Southeast Alaska. Our destination was South Baranof, designated wilderness in 1980 under ANILCA, where we spent five days paddling from Shamrock Bay to the Rakof Islands. Along the way we monitored the land for human use and disturbance, kept track of boat and plane traffic for Forest Service management purposes, and disassembled an illegal tent platform. Greeted at our first campsite by a brown bear, our time spent out in the field also found us no stranger to wildlife. Not a day – or barely even an hour – went by in which we didn't come across a sea otter, seal, or sea lion breaking the surface of the water in front of us. Thus, despite the fairly constant rain that hammered us for most of the trip, the splendor of the place was not lost on us. As Ray, frequently to be seen with colored pencil or paintbrush in hand, had to say: "It's even more beautiful than I thought it would be."
This residency with the Alaskan Voices of the Wilderness Program was Ray's first visit to the state, so although a newcomer to Sitka myself, I tried over the course of the trip to communicate as much about the history of the land as I could. We discussed logging and the pulp mills, and SCS and ANILCA, and talked more generally about the allure of this landscape and the unique relationship between the Alaskan state and the American wild. It was while telling Ray the specific story of South Baranof though, and its particular path to wilderness designation, that I was struck by how fitting a place it is to hold the artist-in-residency trip; and that is because South Baranof provides the perfect example that you don't have to be a conservationist by trade to care for the earth or embrace an environmental ethic. Neither the project of a non-profit nor the goal of a group of "greenies," the proposal for the protection of this area actually came from the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. For this reason, I think that South Baranof has an important story to tell, which is that regardless of whether you're an artist or a government employee or anything in between, there's a role you can play in the preservation of our planet and public lands. Environmental stewardship can emanate from anywhere; caring for the Earth is not reserved exclusively for the environmentalist.
And this comes as very good news, because in recent decades – at a time when the environment has become one of the forefront social, scientific, and political issues of the day – people's willingness to identify as an environmentalist has plummeted. In 1999, the last time that the national Gallup poll asked whether people considered themselves "environmentalists," only 50% of respondents answered yes. Yet a related survey conducted only a few months later found 83% of respondents, a considerably larger number of individuals, "willing to agree with the goals of the environmental movement." So what accounts for this disjunct?
According to a number of social scientific studies, many people's hesitance to self-identity as an "environmentalist," even while agreeing with the term's associated values, stems from the negative connotations that people believe come attached with the word. For many, the term conjures up images of tree-hugging hippies, implies privileging ecology over the economy, or suggests subscription to a larger (and liberal) agenda. I myself have encountered friends and acquaintances wary of using the term for all of the above, among other, reasons. Which is why I like the story of South Baranof. It's a story of an environmentalism differently defined – a story of many different types of people who over the years have worked to protect the land. As a matter of fact, the first people to press for restrained logging and preservation of the Southeast's forests were not hippies, but hunters! Thus, from its Chamber of Commerce creators up through its current artist, among other, stewards, the individuals responsible for the creation and conservation of South Baranof have shown that "environmentalist" doesn't have to be a restrictive or totalizing term. Caring for the Earth can come in different forms.
The American author and environmental activist Edward Abbey once advised his readers to "be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast, a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of your lives for pleasure and adventure." As we continue to face growing environmental threats in the 21st century, I think the sentiment captured by Abbey's statement is an important one: which is that caring for the earth doesn't need to be your full time job in order to practice good stewardship. Being green doesn't necessarily require engaging in extreme action, merely exercising a conscious ethic. So there is good news for the 66% of Americans who in 2014, in this year's Gallup survey, admitted to worrying about the environment, which is that you can be an "environmentalist" andsomething else – be it an artist, or a hunter, or a town employee, or whatever job you currently hold. As the success story of South Baranof attests to, stewardship springs from many sources. You don't have to be an "environmentalist" by trade to effect change and get the job done.
If you're interested in learning more about or applying to a Voices of the Wilderness Alaska Artist Residency, be sure to check out thelinkon the Forest Service's website. And if you're still looking to get outdoors this summer, be sure to check out some of the opportunities provided by the Sitka Conservation Society at our wilderness page here. The artist trip may be over, but there are many more ahead! We'd love to have you involved.
Denise and Maureen have been friends for 15 years. They both participate in the same women's group in Fort Collins, Colorado and love to travel. In the past, their adventures have taken them to India and Thailand. But, this summer, they set their sights on Alaska and they are already planning their return.
This is Hook. Paul named this humpback four years ago when he first saw it because of the hooked nature of its dorsal fin. The whale, Paul estimates, is more than 40 feet long and weighs about 35 tons. Captain Hook is actually an adult female whale.
But, the wildlife tour didn't end there. Denise and Maureen had already seen grizzlies near Mt. McKinley on their driving tour up north, but they were pretty excited to come across this guy near Redoubt Bay as the salmon were coming in.