Images by Lione Clare and Britainy Wright
Reflecting on Our Work in 2023
In 2023, the Sitka Conservation Society fielded teams for stewardship activities around three different Wilderness Areas of the Tongass. Our staff, partners, members, and volunteers worked on projects in the South Baranof, West Chichagof-Yakobi, and Stikine-Leconte Wildernesses. This work included maintaining and cleaning up cherished public use cabins, trails, and recreation sites, mapping salmon habitat, conducting stream and archaeological surveys, removing invasive plant species, and monitoring wildlife. We participate in these stewardship activities to seek opportunities to expand access to Wilderness and ensure its ecological health. We work closely with the US Forest Service to implement projects on the ground.
Monitoring in South Baranof Wilderness
We spent 16 days in the South Baranof Wilderness in partnership with US Forest Service wilderness, recreation, hydrology, special uses, and archaeological staff on board the Equinox and Alaska Outlier vessels. SCS contracted the boats, helped gather data on the ground, and documented the trip for communications outputs. The work on these trips involved monitoring recreation sites for signs of human use, cleaning up trash and debris, conducting survey streams, collecting data on users in the area, and assessing the condition of cultural resources.
Sitka Ranger District archaeologist Raeanna Wood explains cultural resources being a “catch-all term that includes everything from artifacts to places of human activity, occupation, or use. In Southeast Alaska, they can be rock art (pictographs and petroglyphs), stone tools, ancient fish traps, culturally modified trees, shell middens, totem poles, cabin remains, village sites, and industrial remains from mines, canneries, and fur farms. The Forest Service Heritage Program is responsible for identifying cultural resources on National Forest System lands and we monitor the condition of them to assess general impacts, whether environmental or human-caused. We also evaluate the adequacy of methods used to identify and protect cultural resources on National Forest System lands. This monitoring ensures that these resources, which contribute to our understanding of our history, are intact.” If you would like more information on cultural resources, visit the Forest Service Alaska Region webpage for History & Culture.
Wilderness & Healing
Mitchell Feske and Britainy Wright were part of a crew we sent kayaking along the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area surveying for and removing invasive species, monitoring ecological conditions and recent human use of the area, and taking care of public use cabins. Both Mitchell and Britainy both previously worked for a wilderness therapy program for at-risk youth and along with their other members on the trip, were able to reflect on how important experiencing the natural world is, especially for youth.
Says Mitchell, “Wilderness Areas are essential in the conservation of intact and functional ecosystems and they also serve as important places that remind us how we fit within the natural world. It was only inevitable being in such a place that we found a deeper connection within nature and ourselves. While giving back to the land, the land gave back to us by providing a space where we could process and reflect on concepts critical for our future.”
Expanding on some of those concepts, Mitchell finds that, “Youth today are experiencing unprecedented mental health challenges and disconnect from the natural world, perhaps because we are so far removed from the natural world where we first evolved. I have seen firsthand where nature is healing for mental health for Alaskan youth. Through wild places, we can connect with deep DNA-level adaptations we might not use in our everyday life, and experience that joy and fulfillment of being interconnected with all things.”
Brittany adds, “What initially set out to be a laborious work journey to survey and remove invasive plant species and improve the wilderness blossomed into a mutual understanding of the benefits these wild landscapes can provide for our youth and others, for many generations. The wilderness has a way of testing our limits and forcing us to overcome our deepest fears, facing our most primal and difficult emotions, and problem solving to stay alive. It is to be respected and feared, but also needs our continued protection to support invaluable healing opportunities, especially for our youth from rural and indigenous communities.”
Improving Wilderness Public Use Cabins & Hot Springs
Sitka Conservation Society staff, volunteers, and partners also improved two remote public use cabins in the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness. At these locations we surveyed for and removed invasive plant species, cleaned and maintained the cabins and hot springs, and did trail improvements on surrounding trails.
SCS’s Kylee Jones made this work a family affair, bringing her son, her best friend, and her friend’s daughter to clean the tubs, split wood, and work on trails. During their time at White Sulphur Springs, they found themselves making unlikely friends with two Canadian kayakers there during a storm. Reflecting on this trip, Kylee recognizes the value of being in remote places is the connections you might make.
“The Tongass has this beautiful magic within it – it can connect people in ways you never could have imagined,” says Kylee. “You’d think a remote cabin would encourage solitude, yet here it encouraged sharing and community, creating long lasting friendships in the process.”
The Wilderness Areas near Sitka aren’t the only places we have been maintaining and improving cherished public use areas. SCS also has a partnership with the Wrangell Ranger District for a hot springs deck replacement project up the Stikine River in the Stikine-Leconte Wilderness. This beloved hot spring is enjoyed by many families and groups that use the river, nearby cabins, and the springs to recreate. So far on the project, we have done a measuring and scouting trip to the site and been preparing materials and planning to move them up river when the timing is right. We’ve constructed some footings for the deck at the Forest Service shop in Wrangell to streamline the process and reduce time spent in the field later.
SCS has had good support from Forest Service staff as well as Johnson Construction and others in the Wrangell community on this project and are excited to continue building these partnerships throughout the rest of the project. Our goal for 2024 is to transport materials upriver and then camp while demolishing the old deck and building the new one. Getting up there is dependent on the water level being high enough for the boat we're using to haul everything up. We are looking forward to jumping back into the project in the spring as we continue to monitor the river level.
SCS thanks the USDA Forest Service and National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance for funding support, as well as all the partners, volunteers, other donors, and members that make all this work possible. Out of deep respect for Lingít Aaní, the Tongass National Forest, and the wildest areas across Southeast Alaska, your support helps us continue to take care of this place and advocate for future generations to experience it.