As the kids helped load the kayaks and safety equipment into the car, they complained the day’s activities had not been long enough. Their grumbles continued in the van all the way back to town as they begged Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H leader, Mary Wood, for more time on the water the next day. They only had one day left in their kayaking course, the last 4-H class of the summer, and they were not ready for it to end.
“They are developing a love and a passion for this place and that will have an impact on them,” Wood says about the Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program. From kayaking to gardening to fishing to cooking, her goal is to help the kids appreciate the beauty of their own backyard and grow up knowing they want to protect it.
“They will continue to be stewards of this place and be positive and productive members of their communities,” Wood says. “Even if they leave, they will continue to advocate for the ideals they are learning in 4-H.”
The Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program was started in Sitka three years ago with a push from Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society. Thoms knows that he came into conservation work because of his own experiences with 4-H growing up.
“I look back and it’s really amazing how much it shaped my life,” Thoms says. Growing up in upstate New York, Thoms did 4-H projects centered around nature – enjoying bird watching, building bird houses, working on a Christmas tree farm, and learning about conservation. “Through all of that, I got really into natural resources and natural resources management.”
Thoms came to Sitka 10 years ago and has been dedicated to building more community-driven programs here. The 4-H program is just one part of that vision.
“We are helping to start 4-H, but for it to continue, it has to have people that are passionate and build the program themselves,” Thoms says.
Part of creating a sustainable community is teaching children to use and respect their environment. Subsistence skills like harvesting berries, fishing, and hunting are all a part of life in Sitka, a community of about 9,000 in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. Thoms wants kids to grow up learning how to best use their environment, respect it and protect it. That’s the Alaska way of life.
But, 4-H can prepare kids for careers and opportunities outside of conservation also. Alison Mazzon volunteered with the Alaksa Way-of-Life 4-H program this summer while she visited Sitka on a grant from Patagonia, the company she now works for. While in Sitka, Mazzon helped chaperone the kayaking classes and taught classes on outdoor gear maintenance.
Mazzon grew up in Ohio and learned to sew at her local 4-H program. From her first project of a pair of shorts to designing and making her own prom dresses, she gained more than just the ability to make to her own clothes and several state-level awards from her 12 years in 4-H. Mazzon says she is grateful to 4-H for the friends she made and the leadership skills she gained.
And, like Thoms, Mazzon took her 4-H skills to her career. After studying fashion design in college and working for a few years on the runways in New York City, Mazzon is currently a technical design manager for Patagonia and is part of the team that make high-performance outdoor clothing and gear.
“I don’t know what I would have done with my life otherwise,” she says.
Just a few short weeks after their kayaking adventures came to an end, the 4-H crew took to the beach and learned fishing skills as their first class of the new school year.
In addition to these classes, the kids will also do community service projects, an important aspect of building a sustainable community, Wood says. For example, the kids make jams and jellies for the senior center. She says it teaches the kids a valuable skill and gives them a chance to connect with older generations.
One of Wood’s favorite memories of her time leading 4-H is from last year on Earth Day. She had brought a group of students out to a local hiking trail to do some trash clean up. She expected the kids to complain – spending a day picking up garbage not the ideal way to spend time for 9-year-olds. But, the complaints she got were not what she expected. They were upset that at how much trash they had collected. How could so much litter be found in their home?
Going on her second year in Sitka, Wood has big plans for the 4-H program. She is excited to start building a wider group of volunteers and seeing more kids join the program. She also wants to develop more classes for high school students, as the majority if the activities over the last three years have been for ages 5 – 10.
Whether the kids are learning to make jams with the berries they picked for elders in the community or learning important outdoor skills for kayaking and hiking, the Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program is about creating a strong community that exemplifies social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Those Alaskan ideals, and the ideals of 4-H, are seen as intertwined for SCS and they last across generations.
“There is a big need for interdependence here,” Thoms says. “In Alaska we are part of a community, and you cannot do it alone.”
To learn more about 4-H in Sitka and upcoming classes and events, email Mary Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Early last month, when the tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia breached releasing 10 million cubic meters of contaminated water into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, southeast Alaskans woke up to the possibility that other BC mines could pose the same threats to southeast Alaskan fisheries.
Tailings dams are built to hold the waste rock that is extracted from ore during mining. These toxic tailings are often stored under-water and the dams are built to keep the waste from spreading to the surrounding environment. Because the waste rock can be so harmful, tailings dams need to be maintained forever.
The tailings dam at Mount Polley Mine was only 14 years old.
As more new mines are built along the BC and Alaska border, Alaskans now know the risks mining accidents pose to the people and ecosystems sitting downstream. And they can do nothing to protect themselves.
The Transboundary Mine Issue
Mining has been a part of the British Columbia economy for more than 9,000 years, since First Nation peoples first started trading obsidian. When Europeans arrived in the 19th century, mining took on a more prominent role and there are no signs of activities slowing down.
BC premier Christy Clark promised to bring eight mines in four years to the province when she was elected in 2011. With the recent completion of the Northwest Transmission power line up the western border of BC, it looks like she can make good on her promise.
The first mine to make use of the new power line is the Red Chris Project, which is set to begin operations by the end of the year. The Red Chris Project tailings dam is located near the Iskut River which is one of the main tributaries of the Stikine River – the largest river by volume in the Tongass National Forest and one of the largest producers of salmon.
The tailings dam at Red Chris is set to be 330 feet high and needs to hold 183 million tons of toxic tailings. The mine will process 30,000 tons of ore per day for 28 years, according to owners, Imperial Metals Corporation. The Imperial Metals Corporation is the same mining company that built the Mount Polley Mine.
All of the proposed mines will process tens of thousands of tons of ore per day with the largest mine, Kerr Sulphuretts Mitchell (KSM), set to process 120,000 tons of ore per day for 52 years. Most of the proposed mines will be in operation for less than 25 years.
And, the Red Chris isn’t the only mine threatening southeast Alaskan watersheds. The major salmon-producing watersheds in danger from the new mines are the Stikine, Unuk and the Taku. Commercial and sport fishing are a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska and salmon is also important for tourism and subsistence in the Tongass. Should a tailings dam breach or another mining accident occur, these watersheds and southeast Alaskans that depend on them will bear the brunt of the risk.
Alaskan senators, fishermen, conservationists and natives alike recognize the risks these new transboundary mines pose for southeast Alaska and the livelihood of the Tongass National Forest. But, because Canada is the sovereign country, southeast Alaskans have no way to protect themselves from the dangers upstream.
The Boundary Waters Treaty places responsibility for any pollution in Alaskan waters from the mines on Canada, but little is required for pre-emptive action to prevent the pollution from ever occurring.
And it’s not just a major catastrophe like what happened at Mount Polley that Alaskans should worry about. Dust from the mines could smother salmon eggs. Leaking chemicals could kill salmon foods sources. Increased copper in the water is believed to impair fish hearing and make them less able to avoid predators. All of these side effects affect the survivability of the salmon before a major accident happens.
Preserving the last frontier
The Tongass National Forest is the largest in tact temperate rainforest in the world. The forest is home to about 70,000 people that all depend on the healthy and sustainable fisheries found here. Salmon is a part of the Alaskan way of life. From commercial and sport fishing to subsistence, the five species of Pacific salmon are a lifeline for the culture and people.
As the FDA continues to test the limits of genetically modifying fish and more and more farmed fish make it on to American plates, we should be fighting harder to protect what wild and sustainable fisheries this country has left. Fish that can grow bigger and fatter faster pose unforeseen threats to American health and only fulfill the wasteful desires to always have excess. Fresh, wild fish should not be the delicacy, but the norm.
And finally… Alaska is America’s last frontier. We are a nation of explorers, of entrepreneurs and innovation. Part of that identity comes from the wilderness within our borders, the adventure that can be had in our own backyard. But that wilderness is quickly disappearing and these mines might destroy the little that Alaska has left. America needs wildness and should fight hard to protect it.
Sitka School District schools have been serving locally-caught fish in their school lunches for three years. But starting today, kids will be eating coho caught right in their own backyard every Wednesday!
Fish to Schools was a brainchild of the fall 2010 Sitka Health Summit and a pilot program began in the spring of 2011 with Blatchley Middle School serving fish in school lunches once a month. Since that time, the program has expanded to become a state-funded initiative that brings locally caught fish into public school lunches all across Alaska.
The Sitka Conservation Society has been an instrumental part of the program development, with Tracy Gagnon leading the charge.
“It’s a viable way to connect the fishing fleet to young people,” Gagnon said. “It connects fishermen to the classroom.”
Gagnon said that they did not advertise as much for donations this year, but the support that came in was overwhelming. They received double of what they asked for in this year’s donation drive – 1,000 pounds of fish.
“Overall it’s very exciting,” Gagnon said. “What a generous fishing fleet!”
With state funding, the Sitka School District will be able to start paying fishermen to have their catches served in school lunches.
“Donating actual coho is so much more meaningful than writing a check,” Beth Short-Rhoads said. She is one of the coordinators of the Fish to Schools program. “It’s like giving time on the ocean, the excitement of landing a gorgeous fish, and the satisfaction of working hard for a way of life they love,” she said.
Today, Wednesday Sept. 2, marks the first day of a fully year of fish lunches on Wednesdays. Lunches will be offered at Baranof Elementary, Keet Gooshi Heen, Blatchley Middle School, Sitka High School, Pacific High Schools, Mount Edgecumbe High School, SEER School, & Head Start.
“There’s a certain poetry that people eat food from the lands and waters around them. In Alaska, that means fish caught fresh from the Pacific and not fried chicken from Kentucky,” Alaska House Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Tourism is a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska, fueled by visitors coming from all over the world to view the glaciers, bears, eagles and to experience the wilderness. But, they also come for the whales!
The population of North Pacific humpback whales in southeast Alaska used to be a lot higher, but humans actually almost hunted the animals to extinction. Whale oil is very fuel efficient and used to power much of Juneau. But, after whaling began, a population of 15,000 humpbacks reduced to only about 1,000. Today, the whales are protected and even tour companies have regulations to keep from disrupting feeding patterns of the animals.
North Pacific Humpback whales can be seen around Sitka all summer long. The humpback whales that inhabit these waters all summer likely spend their winters in the warmer waters surrounding Hawaii, Mexico, or in the western Pacific. If you are looking for whales on the horizon, best to try and spot a surge of water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and maybe a little bit of whale snot shooting into the air. The spouts that humpbacks send up into the air are exhalations of breath than can be at speeds of 300 miles per hour! If you look carefully enough, you can see these spouts from shore!
Why Alaska in the spring and summer? There is so much food for them to eat! Speaking of food, North Pacific humpbacks feed on herring and krill. They take in tons of water into their mouths, and then as the water is released, their teeth act as filters and catch the fish in their mouths. Despite the size of the animals, their throats are only the size of grapefruits. So they eat lots of really tiny food to fuel their big bodies.
Why are they called humpbacks? Oh, that’s easy! There is a large hump along the back of the whales. Humpback whales also have very long flippers. They can be distinguished from other whales from the size of their flippers which can be up to 25 or 30 percent of their body length. Now for whales that can be up to 50 feet long – those flippers are rather large! Humpbacks also weigh about one ton per foot of length. That means a 50 foot whale can weigh 50 tons!
The National Ocean Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can actually keep track of the individual whales that make their way up to southeast Alaska every year. The flukes (or tails) of humpbacks are unique to each individual. They are like fingerprints and NOAA has names for individuals it has identified from photos of flukes. Maybe next time you’re out on the water looking for whales you can snag a picture that NOAA can use to name a new whale visiting the southeast for the summer!
Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms is a member of the Tongass Advisory Council, a group of 15 stakeholders from all over the Pacific Northwest, including fishermen, timber salesmen, Alaska Native groups and conservationists.
Thoms traveled to Ketchikan last week for the first of many The Tongass Advisory Committee meetings that will discuss strategies for implementing a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest. The goal of the new plan is to shift from old growth to young growth timber harvesting.
“This committee is leading the way in figuring out how land and resource management can sustain and benefit communities while also conserving intact ecosystems,” Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society and a member of the committee said. “It is natural that this is being done in Southeast Alaska because all of us who live here are so connected with the natural environment and the resources it provides.”
The Tongass National Forest, Sitka’s 17 million acre backyard, is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. And, the Tongass Advisory Committee wants to make sure it stays that way. Thoms and other members of the committee still want the forest to be profitable, but in more sustainable and community-focused ways. The Tongass National Forest is home to 74,000 people.
“I am very impressed that 15 people can come to consensus and put community at the top of the list,” Wayne Brenner, one of the nominated co-chairs of the committee said after the three-day conference. “That is the key that holds Southeast together.”
The old growth that is left in the Tongass only makes up about 4 percent of the forest. The committee wants the U.S. Forest Service to shift the focus from valuable old-growth timber to renewable resources and industries like salmon fishing and tourism. Timber harvesting will not completely disappear, but rather the committee wants to encourage a shift to young-growth harvesting.
Forrest Cole, Tongass National Forest supervisor, said the transition to young growth will support a healthy forest ecosystem, while also creating more sustainable southeast communities.
“We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects,” Cole said. Other young growth harvesting projects are being planned for Kosciusko Island and Naukati-Greater Staney on Prince of Wales.
“For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads,” Cole said. “This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy.”
Kirk Hardcastle, a committee member, is also a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska. He applied for the committee because he wanted to help transition the Tongass Management Plan to one more focused on fishing and renewable energy.
“We have every renewable energy resource in southeast Alaska,” Hardcastle said. “We’re not looking to export as much as apply the technology to our communities.”
In addition to fishing and renewable energy, the committee meetings on August 6 – 8 in Ketchikan also focused on subsistence, tourism and recreation.
Thoms is honored to be a member of this committee and to be a part of implementing a new management plan in the forest. While the actual transition may be several years away, he is working with the Forest Service to ensure they are taking steps in the right direction.
As published in the Sitka Daily Sentinel on Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Scientists are searching for a method to eradicate the invasive tunicate species that has kept Whiting Harbor closed since 2010. This invasive sea squirt has been found all over the world and can have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems if not controlled. But killing the invasive, is not so easy.
“Sometimes people have this notion that you can just kill anything,” Ian Davidson, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, said in a recent interview. “There is not a standard template you can just follow and do.”
Whiting Harbor is the cove between the Northwest end of the airport runway and the causeway linking the islands of the Fort Rouseau State Historical Park. If not for the tunicate contamination, Whiting Harbor would be the preferred access to the state park, which is accessible only by boat.
This September, Davidson and other scientists from the Smithsonian will be testing a possible treatment method for the invasive tunicate to see if they might be able to remove the species from Whiting altogether.
Didemnum vexillum, or D vex, is a fast-growing sea squirt sometimes called marine vomit. It has been found all over the world and has greatly impacted ecosystems off the coasts of New Zealand and Wales and has been particularly harmful to scallop populations near Massachusetts. Scientists believe D vex originated in Japan.
“It establishes well over surfaces,” Tammy Davis, invasive species program director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said. “It’s a really fast grower.”
Fortunately for Sitka and the rest of Southeast Alaska, despite the fast-growing characteristics of D vex, surveyors have not found evidence of the tunicate spreading anywhere else in Alaska.
D vex often attaches to boats and fishing lines and is spread to other areas, so Davis said Whiting Harbor has been closed to all human activity since the discovery of the tunicate to limit the spread of the organism. As for what brought it to Sitka, no one knows.
“We can’t say what the vector was,” Davis said.
Scientists can’t say just how long it’s been here either.
Marnie Chapman, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast, was on the bioblitz expedition that discovered the tunicate in 2010.
“It’s hard to identify on first look,” Chapman said. If the scientists hadn’t realized what they had found, “that would have been a nightmare scenario,” she said.
Containing and ultimately eradicating the species is important because “invasive species compromise our sense of place,” she said. “They take what is special and unique about a particular area and they make it less special.”
But while the tunicate has remained contained in Whiting Harbor, scientists still don’t know how to get rid of it. Davidson explained part of the research this fall will be testing the effects of increased salt content in the water of the harbor. A higher salinity of the water may help kill the tunicate, he said, but the scientists need to figure out if they can control the salt content in the harbor long enough to be effective.
Davidson’s team of scientists will return early next year or in the spring for full on experiments in eradication, he said. This first trip is just testing the methods.
“I want to emphasize that this is not an eradication attempt, but rather a trial to determine how one might go about an eradication effort,” Linda McCann of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said. “We face several challenges with the work,” she said including managing the delivery of the treatment and not harming the substrates the tunicate is attached to.
Davidson said that mobile creatures in the harbor will disperse if the salt content gets too high for them during the testing. He said the scientists were not worried about other invertebrates that may not be able to escape, because they were positive the harbor would repopulate because of Sitka’s healthy intertidal zones.
Getting rid of the D vex tunicate in Whiting Harbor is another important step in the management process. Davidson said Alaska has less of an invasive problem than many other coastline states, particularly California.
“Alaska has a stronger reason to protect its territory,” Davidson said. “You can get back to a pristine condition.”
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.
The last marathoner in the Sitka Cross Trail Classic ran confidently across the finish line as the Sitka Seafood Festival parade started to get underway on Saturday. Floats spewing bubbles and candy made their way down Lincoln Street towards the Sheldon Jackson campus just before noon on August 5 as just one part of a weekend-long celebration of successful wild fisheries in the Tongass National Forest.
“It’s a celebration of how lucky we are,” Cherie Creek, a regular volunteer at the festival, said. “We are a seaport and have tons of fisheries and fresh food.”
On Aug. 1 and 2, the community gathered for the fourth annual Sitka Seafood Festival. The festival included a marathon, kids’ races, cooking demonstrations, food booths, festival games, a fish head toss and the parade.
While it is a community event, Creek said she enjoys having people from out of town join in the festival activities. Her favorite event of the festival is the children’s crab races.
The Sitka Seafood Festival is a great way to “show off to visitors how important seafood is to the Sitka community,” Lon Garrison, president of the Sitka School Board said. He said he enjoys celebrating the well-managed and sustainable resource of the Tongass every year.
Garrison also participated in a new event at the festival this year: the Fish to Schools recipe contest. He helped judge 8 different recipes provided by locals to find the new recipe to be used in local schools this fall. The Fish to Schools program, initiated by the Sitka Conservation Society, brings locally caught fish into school cafeterias twice a month.
One in ten jobs in Sitka is related to the fishing industry and the Tongass National Forest provides 28 percent of all salmon produced in the state of Alaska, so the festival really does rejoice in local endeavors. It’s something outsiders can’t help but take notice of.
“Everyone I’ve met has some kind of tie to fishing,” Ali Banks, a visiting Chicago chef said. “It really drives everything.”
Banks teaches in a recreational cooking school in Chicago and uses salmon from Sitka Salmon Shares in her classes. She said she encourages her students to buy wild rather than farmed fish because there really is a difference in quality. She also writes basic and fun recipes for the Sitka Salmon Shares website, which distributes mostly in the Midwest.
Traveling to Sitka for the seafood festival was a real treat for Banks. She spent a few days in Sitka out on a boat fishing. “I got the best Alaska has to offer,” she said. “I love knowing where my food comes from.”
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.