People and Place

Herring Harvests: the Good, the Bad, and the (Not So) Ugly, Part 1

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Herring milt fills bays in Sitka Sound. As the water turns white, traditional harvesters set their branches.

If the hundreds of circling eagles, dozens of bubble-netting whales, and armadas of fishing boats didn’t already make this obvious, the most important and controversial marine resource in Southeast Alaska has returned - the herring. Huzzah! Across Sitka Sound, seiners play out their nets, traditional harvesters lay their branches, and kids jig for small fish in the harbors.

Why all this hullabaloo over only one type of fish? We could go on (and have) about herring’s importance to the marine ecosystem. Their importance cannot be overstated. But herring aren’t just important for growing salmon - humans rely on them as well!

You could argue that the health of the marine ecosystem easily trumps any economic benefits we may get from herring harvesting. That argument has been made, and compellingly so. But let’s engage in some productive narcissism for the moment. Let’s only consider the ways that we humans use herring. Even considering our own wants first and foremost, it still behooves us to think about the sustainability of our herring-related harvest.

As it turns out, our harvest of herring and herring eggs spans quite a large swath of the sustainability spectrum, from the good to the bad to the (not so) ugly.

Good news first! The traditional herring egg harvest.

ROB_shears_and_branches.jpgWhile Sitka boasts gorgeous mountain ranges and beautiful natural harbors, it was the herring that made this a desirable place to live thousands of years ago. Herring eggs were one of the first fresh sources of spring protein and were widely traded across Alaska. That trade didn’t stop with the colonial period; even today, Sitka Sound herring eggs can be found as far north as Barrow! Herring eggs continue to be an important special food item and appear at most potlatches and community events.

What exactly is the traditional harvest?

Herring lay their eggs in the shallows just below the low-tide line. The sticky eggs attach to the seafloor, to kelp, and to strategically placed hemlock branches. For thousands of years, Tlingit people from all over Southeast Alaska attached young hemlock branches or trees to anchors just before the herring started spawning. Hemlock is used because it doesn’t impart flavor to the eggs, and it’s also an incredibly efficient surface to collect eggs on. A fully loaded tree can easily hold up to 1,000 pounds of eggs! After 2-4 days underwater, branches are retrieved and the eggs are pulled off. Eggs are eaten fresh or frozen for future use.ROB_towing_a_tree.jpg

The traditional harvest also includes some spawn on kelp (SOK), although roe on branches makes up more than 90% of the typical traditional harvest. Herring eggs will settle on whatever is available, including hair kelp and Macrocystis kelp. SOK is gathered either from boats or from the shorelines with long rakes. Macrocystis SOK is also a commercial product harvested in “pound fisheries,” but that's a future story.


What makes the traditional harvest so sustainable?

ROB_processing_branches.jpgFirst, it’s very small. Tlingit traditional harvesters commonly advocate taking only as much as they need, but true sustainability comes from taking only as much as the ecosystem can support. Happily, the Amount Necessary for Subsistence, the State’s assessment of how many pounds of herring eggs are necessary to satisfy traditional demand throughout Alaska, is well below the carrying capacity of Sitka Sound.

Second, the traditional harvest leaves the herring themselves completely unmolested. The survival rate of herring from eggs to adults has been calculated to range between 1 and 6500 per 1,000,000 eggs, a massively variable amount! Ideally, the more eggs in the water, the more herring in the water, but that enormous variability in survival rates means that egg deposition is not the primary control on herring populations. Fewer herring taken from the water, however, means much more to the population. As a bonus, branches that are lost or otherwise not worth recovering (too little spawn, too much debris) provide excellent habitat for those eggs to develop, but that perk is well overshadowed by the benefits of giving adult herring the chance to spawn another year.

Thats amazing!

It is! We’re lucky to have such a connection to past populations here. We’re luckier still to live in a place that allows us to live with (rather than off) the land and sea. With as much as 95% of our food coming from elsewhere, it’s refreshing to see such a sustainable, culturally-rich use of a local resource.

May the traditional harvest of herring eggs inspire us to gather more local foods in just as sustainable a manner.  



Power to the People! Sitka Hosts Board of Fisheries

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 Milt along the Sitka coastline.

The State Board of Fisheries (BoF) met this week to discuss fishery policies and regulations for Southeast and Yakutat finfish. Sound boring? It wasn’t! Herring policy debates were especially animated. This year, the conservation-minded proposals of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska butted up directly against commercial proposals submitted by the wryly named Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance. Every proposal had a counterproposal and every proposal had its champions. Faced with an array of options and with very little hard science to base decisions on, the Board of Fisheries opted to leave the sac-roe status quo intact, voting down every change put before them.

Was this a success story for industry? A success story for conservationists? A bitter pill to swallow for both sides? The continued decline of herring populations or their future recovery will answer that question. The clear success here is the Board of Fisheries process, which heavily emphasizes public participation and comment. Should we be genuinely excited about so much democracy in resource management? Absolutely!  

How does the BoF Process Work?

The Board of Fisheries consists of seven members appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature. The governor’s appointees are chosen for their knowledge of fisheries and interest in public affairs, but with eye toward representing all interest groups (broadly broken into commercial, sport, and traditional). The BoF is advised by ADF&G scientists, but is not typically made of up scientists itself.


Members of the BoF and staff deliberate on proposals. Photo from the Sitka Sentinal.


The strength of the BoF is the degree to which the Board’s meetings draw on public opinion. Comments and testimony were heavily solicited before and during the meeting. The real public process, though, is the “Committee of the Whole”. This was an opportunity for everyone present at the BoF meeting to reach a spontaneous agreement. No time limits, no set order, just discussion between proponents and opponents of each proposal. Unfortunately, unlike a round-table discussion where participants are speaking directly to each other, the open-room format with the Board as an audience seemed to inspire participants to perform for the Board. As salmon troller Eric Jordan pointed out, this part of the BoF is an opportunity for groups to avoid an arbitrary and often unwanted decision by the Board, but if participants don’t have the “fear of the seven dark angels...they have no incentive to come to an agreement.” With herring, this was especially apparent. Traditional and industry supporters upped their rhetoric and moved further apart on every proposal, each fearing compromise far more than the unknown of the Board’s decisions. Does this reflect a broken Board process? I think not. The need for real public input far outweighs the disappointment of watching increasing polarization between groups and with less emotionally-charged fisheries, the Committee of the Whole was productive.


Can we collectively manage this chaos sustainably? Photo from the Juneau Empire. 


After public orations and discussions, the Board deliberates and decides. Now, the public is the passive audience, and the Board restricts their questions to ADF&G staff members. Happily, Board members frequently cited written and oral public comment as well as the open discussions.

Why do we want this to be democratic?

It’s a reasonable question. Why would we want the ultimate decisions about herring fisheries to be made not by scientists, but by, in a worst case scenario, people who are blatantly biased non-experts, thinly disguised industry reps, random members of the public, and arbitrarily chosen government appointees?

First, in many ways natural resources like herring are public goods. Proper management of herring doesn't just benefit sac-roe seiners or roe-on kelp fishermen, it benefits the entire community. Properly managed, herring provide direct economic benefits to the fishermen who harvest them, indirect economic benefits to salmon fishermen, food for the marine ecosystem, a reason for whales to return to Sitka Sound and bring their entourage of tourists, cultural benefits for traditional users… the list is endless. Given this diversity of user groups, would anything other than the messy, publically accessible process of the BoF give adequate representation to all parties?

sitka_harbor.jpgMore importantly, there is no such thing as pure “science-based” resource management. Bias is endemic to the process. Even by calling herring a “resource”, we have introduced a bias toward harvesting and economic exploitation. By contrast, nobody talks about krill as a resource even though they occupy a similar trophic level to herring. After we decide to prosecute a herring fishery, we look to science to tell us how many herring are returning, what levels of harvest are sustainable, and why the population is fluctuating. Science cannot tell us whether seiners or gill-netters should have more of an opportunity to fish. Science does not inform the discussion about whether the cultural benefits of traditional roe on branch harvesting can be replaced by increased access to roe on kelp. Science has no opinion on the number of herring whales should be allocated given concerns of fishermen, nor can science quantify the full inspiration and ecological benefits of having a healthy whale population in Sitka Sound. Science, in short, tells us how much pie we have to manage and how many groups want a piece of said pie, but it says nothing about who “deserves” the largest slice. Resource management lies at the intersection of scientific knowledge and the needs and wants of interested user groups. Who has the right to judge between two groups, each of whom are asking for a larger allocation of herring? Only a collective, democratic body. In Alaska, only the Board of Fisheries.



We Love the Tongass Gathering - Come One Come All!

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 Do you care about the future of the Tongass National Forest? Do you want to learn more about tiny houses? Or ocean acidification?

Join the staff and board of the Sitka Conservation Society for an evening filled with great food, conversation, and idea sharing. The We Love the Tongass Gathering will take place on Sunday, February 15 from 4-6 pm at Swan Lake Senior Center (402 Lake Street). Staff and board of the Sitka Conservation Society will discuss tiny homes, local wood, climate change, 4-H programming, and Tongass timber sales. Bring your ideas about how to promote sustainable communities in Southeast Alaska. Let your voice be heard!

This annual meeting is free and open to the public.  For more information call SCS at 747-7509 or [email protected]





Sealaska Bill Privatizes 70,000 Acres of the Tongass

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Terrible news for the Tongass this week: Around 70,000 acres of the Tongass are being turned over to Sealaska for development.

As Davey Lubin told the Sitka Sentinel this week, “I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized. It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”

This week’s developments show that not even our National Forests are protected from corporate control. Congress and the American public need to give this issue more scrutiny. Read the article below to hear SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms’s take on the Sealaska Lands Bill. The article below was printed in the Sitka Sentinel on Monday, December 15.


By SHANNON HAUGLAND, Sentinel Staff Writer

A bill transferring 70,000 acres of land from the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corp. passed Congress on Friday.


Rodman Bay (Photo provided by Sitka Conservation Society)

“It has taken seven years, but I’m proud to say that we finally completed the land conveyance for Southeast Alaska’s nearly 20,000 Native shareholders, and at the same time ensured that the region’s remaining timber mills have timber,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a news release, following the vote on Friday.

The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act was included in the bipartisan package of lands bills approved Friday as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. It provides Sealaska with 70,075 acres to finalize the transfer of land owed to the Native shareholders under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“Some 43 years after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal government will finally finish paying the debt we owe Natives for the settlement of their aboriginal land claims,” Murkowski said in the announcement.

The land transfer includes more than 68,000 acres available for logging, including land in Rodman Bay and Sinitsin Cove near Sitka, as well as 1,009 acres for renewable energy resources and recreational tourism, and 490 acres of Native cemetery and historic sites.

The legislation also includes about 152,067 acres of old-growth timber in new conservation areas to protect salmon and wildlife habitat, Murkowski said. The bill goes next to the president for his signature.

Representatives of Sealaska Corp. were unavailable for comment.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council Chairman Michael Baines said he was pleased by the news, which he ran across this weekend on Facebook.

“I’m 100 percent pleased, the council is pleased,” he said. He noted that the STA Tribal Council passed a resolution last week in support of the compromise legislation proposed by Murkowski.

Baines said he believes the legislation will be beneficial to tribal citizens.

“I hope it will mean an improved economic development for the corporation which will mean more dividends for the tribal citizens,” he said. “I hope it will mean jobs in Sitka but as far as I know there hasn’t been any jobs from the regional corporation.”

Asked whether he believes the land will be developed and logged any differently than in the past, Baines said, “I hope they’ve learned their lesson. They’ve done that before – and it’s taken decades to bring back more trees that they can log.”

Sitka Conservation Society Andrew Thoms said he was disappointed by the news.

“Anytime that public lands are given to a private corporation, it’s a loss for everyone,” he said. “It’s going to mean 70,000 acres of some of the best timber land in the Tongass put into Sealaska hands, and the old-growth stands they’ve been given are some of the best remaining stands of cedar left on the Tongass. The burden is on Sealaska now to do what’s best for the shareholders in the region.”

He called old-growth cedar a “cultural treasure of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.”

“As Sealaska now owns those best stands of cedar, are they going to continue to foster that connection, or will it be exported to Asian markets?” Thoms said. “It’s about more than just (habitat). The cedar trees in those stands are thousands of years old, and they won’t grow back in our lifetime.”

He cited Rodman Bay, on the north end of Baranof Island (30 miles north of Sitka), and Sinitsin Cove on North Kruzof (25 miles northeast of Sitka) as two areas closest to Sitka that are identified as “economic development” lands in the transfer.

Clarice Johnson, a Sealaska shareholder, said she was opposed to the lands transfer as proposed. (Johnson works at the nonprofit SCS but specified that she was speaking only as a shareholder.)

“I think there are a number of shareholders who are supportive of receiving our full land selection but not the way it was put in the rider, and they don’t think it will be much benefit to the average shareholder,” she said. “Possibly because Sealaska has lost so much money, they’ll probably cut the land quickly; and a large portion of any natural resource development in regional corporation land will be shared with other regional corporations.”

She noted that this provision – calling for regional corporations to share profits – has made it possible for Sealaska to pay out dividends, since the local regional corporation has not been profitable in recent years. She added that she believes the main beneficiaries of the land transfer and development of the lands will end up being the corporation’s board and staff through salaries and other compensation.

Johnson said she believes one of many results of the transfer will be the inadequate protection of karsts in Southeast.

“There is no protection compared to the U.S. Forest Service,” she said.

Johnson said that although only two “economic development” land selections are near Sitka there are others she believes are designated as “historic sites” including Kalinin Bay. She said the 15-acre site is the fifth largest historic site in the land selection.

Johnson said she’s concerned about what may happen at this location. “They can’t log, and they can’t mine there, but they can develop it,” she said.

Davey Lubin, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., five times in the last six years to testify against the Sealaska lands bill, said he was “highly disappointed” with the news.

“I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized,” he said. “It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”

The Sealaska lands bill is separate from legislation to transfer 11 acres near Redoubt Lake to Sealaska, which is now in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management, Baines said.

Living With the Land Radio Episode 12: What's Your Wilderness?

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In this episode of “Living with the Land,” SCS’s Tracy Gagnon takes her recording equipment into the Wilderness! When she isn’t paddling 18 miles straight or desperately trying to keep the mic dry, she speaks with visiting artist Ray Geier, and SCS Staff members Paul Killian and Edie Leghorn about their own relationship with wilderness. Listen to this weeks episode to hear more!

What’s your Wilderness?

Living with the Land is a 12 part radio series exploring stories of place in Sitka. It is produced by the Sitka Conservation Society in collaboration with Raven Radio. You can also hear the episodes every Sunday at 10:27am on KCAW, just before Living Planet.


Meaning of Wild Film Screening

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Changing the Face of Affordable Housing

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tiny_house1.jpgThe term ‘affordable housing’ sometimes has a stigma associated with it. Depending on who you ask, It also means multiple things to various people. When we say affordable housing, we mean a rental or permanent home that may be rented or purchased by an individual or family with a living wage. There are multiple, creative housing types for increasing the amount of affordable housing in Sitka. The most desirable approach would be one with a triple bottom line ethic, not just highlighting the social justice issue of affordability, but also encouraging economic growth of local builders and suppliers, and reducing the carbon footprint of our homes. This means not only saving energy through design, but locally sourcing materials and decreasing our reliance on barged products for construction.

tiny_house2.jpgThe tiny house movement is a design and social movement centered on living small and simply, and is one solution to affordable housing. Sitka is surrounded by federal and state private lands, so as a community, it is faced with a conundrum. How to encourage growth and promote sustainable development with literally no room to grow? The simple solution is going smaller and denser. Density is a valuable tool, allowing a municipality to control growth and develop districts. In many communities where space isn’t an issue, it is used to preserve open space and agricultural lands outside of a community. In a place like Sitka, it is necessary to allow for sustainable growth and affordable housing options which lead to mixed-income and diverse communities. The tiny house is the symbol of living with less and in a smaller space, as opposed to recent trends of maximizing square footage. Tiny houses add environmental value to homes and set a new standard. While it may not be for everyone, tiny house living can contribute to a greater environmental ethic in more ways than one. In addition to the tiny home or microhome style houses, another planning and development tool for affordable housing that is gaining momentum is the Community Land Trust. The SCDC (Sitka Community Development Corporation) has established the Sitka Community Land Trust, an entity that maintains ownership of a lot or parcel, to ensure the house or residence remains affordable. The local land trust is currently working on its first project, the Lillian Drive house.

tiny_houe3.jpegWhen rethinking housing options, a heavy focus on the triple bottom line and sustainability broadens the scope of the issue to include local energy needs and costs. This means transforming the face of not only affordable housing, but community development, which has become a significant force in the national sustainability movement. Given our location, Sitka is heavily reliant on imported materials, food and fuel. All of which are associated with rapidly rising costs. However, with planning, deliberate design, innovative amenities and import substitution, Sitka’s housing model can be redefined. This new way of thinking about housing may generate community awareness and lead to more local jobs along with providing new, innovative housing options.

tiny_house4.jpgSitka and its efforts have been fortunate enough to catch the attention of the State of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development (DCCED). The DCCED worked with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) to conduct a case study on Sitka and the Land Trust’s Lillian Drive project. The CCHRC prepared a full report that addressed design elements, energy efficient construction methods, housing features and components, and local timber materials. They also prepared concept designs that illustrate how these elements may be incorporated into the design and planning of a home with goals of maximizing space, building in energy efficiency, and sourcing local materials to reduce the overall carbon footprint of a house.

As Sitka’s housing needs grow and change, SCS is hoping to see more projects that embrace at least one of these key features: affordability, energy efficient, locally sourced and produced. SCS is especially interested in the use of local materials as our community explores these various housing models. We will be partnering with UAS and SItka High School on projects this spring. SCS hopes that pilot projects can help change perceptions and lead to more community development that focuses on a paradigm shift and diversifies our local, affordable housing stock.

Banding Songbirds With Gwen Baluss: a Closer Look at Our Tiny Feathered Neighbors

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Visiting Forest Service Wildlife Technician, Gwen Baluss carefully loosens the tie of a little sac and slowly reaches in. Delicately grasping the fragile creature within, she reveals the dark eyed junco to a resounding “AWE” echoing across the classroom as students pile on top of one another to get a closer look.

For the third year in a row, Baluss has returned to Sitka  to continue studying and teaching the community about bird ecology. While juncos and other songbirds may frequent our feeders and whistle familiar songs during our afternoon strolls, there is still ample mystery to these birds. Scientists and land managers know relatively little about their range, distribution and migration ecology for one. Secondly, very few of us have been lucky enough to encounter our skittish feathered friends up close.  As one of the participants ruefully commented, “The closest I’ve ever been to one of these birds has been sweeping away the unfortunate remains the cat dragged in.” “Don’t worry,” she facetiously reassured the bird banding team, “This will be my last cat.”



Last week, Blatchley middle school students, Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary classes, Sitka High students and the Sitka Conservation Society’s (SCS) 4-H program experienced a more pleasant close encounter with our beloved song birds. In the frosted garden behind Blatchley Middle school, Baluss and Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Director with the Sitka Conservation Society carefully and delicately untangle tiny trapped birds from the mist nets. Baluss bands their legs and the team begin taking measurements. Gwen’s enthusiasm for these often overlooked natural wonders peaks as she explains to wide-eyed students how the sheen of a junco’s eyes changes with age from gray to red, how males boast darker plumage atop their heads and how a surprising diversity between individual juncos exists if you just take the time to look carefully. Captivated students edge closer as she starts blowing tenderly on the bird’s belly to reveal yellow fat deposits visible beneath their paper-thin skin. The classroom is fully engaged.



Southeast Alaska offers diverse opportunities for scientific inquiry and exploration just a few yards from the school door. With the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest as our backyard, children here grow up immersed in this outstanding landscape.  Experiences like Gwen’s visit, encourage our youth to approach exploring the environment from an academic or potentially career-driven perspective. Students continue to steward this project throughout the year. In the past, a Sitka High School student Naquioa Bautista, working with the Science Mentor Program coordinated by SCS, based her science fair project on studying the banded bird’s movement. From Naquoia’s study, we learned that Sitka’s winter juncos do not stray very far from their banding sites. On the back wall of Ms. Dick’s 6th grade science classroom, a modern twist on the infamous ‘wanted poster’ is displayed, showing each tagged bird and their band color combination. Students, families and all of Sitka’s residents are encouraged to keep a lookout for tagged birds on their feeders or fluttering about on the trails (please report sightings here).




This week, a few lucky students were given a particularly memorable experience. After a bit of fumbling, the student’s tiny hands encapsulated the virtually weightless fragile feathered mess, their tiny heartbeat pumping against the student’s palm. After taking a knee, the top hand would slowly lift and in an instant burst of energy, the birds would return to the trees of our backyards leaving only tiny soft floating feathers in the air and grins of admiration across each onlooker’s face.


This project is supported by the University of Alaska Southeast’s Natural History Seminar Series, the Sitka Charitable Trust, the Sitka Conservation Society and UAS Biology professor Kitty LaBounty. Gwen Baluss is a biologist with the US Forest Service in the Juneau Ranger District and a member of Juneau’s Audobon Society. Please report any banded bird sightings to [email protected] or report to the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network (SALMoN) . To learn more about Sitka’s 4-H program including how to enroll visit our 4-H page.




Applelooza 2014

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applepalooza_a.jpgTwo weeks ago, youth volunteers from 4-H harvested apples that were grown as a result of one of the initiatives from the 2010 Sitka Health Summit. Volunteers and their parents came together once again to decorate fabric for mason jars and to cook applesauce. The aptly-named event, Applooza, was hosted by the Sitka Kitch at the First Presbyterian Church. Sitka Conservation Society, in conjunction with the Sitka Food Co-Op and the Sitka Local Foods Network, supported and promoted this event. SCS staff members Mary Wood and Sarah Komisar encouraged the engagement of youth volunteers, providing the 4H participants with an opportunity to make a valuable contribution to our community while educating them about the importance of local food production and consumption. The beautifully-decorated jars of applesauce were donated to the Swan Lake Senior Center and the Salvation Army.

applepalooza_b.jpgTo increase the future capacity for successful food projects like Applooza, SCS will be sponsoring the planting of additional apple trees in Sitka. Please join us for our ‘Apple a Day’ apple tree workshop next week. Our Yale Fellow, Michelle Huang, has been working with Jud Kirkness to plan the event. Jud will be on hand to present everything you need to know about apple trees. We will have ordering instructions on hand and encourage everyone to order a tree. We have a goal of increasing the number of apple trees in Sitka by 15 this year! SCS will also be ordering an apple tree for the Pacific High school campus.

This is something SCS, Sitka Kitch, Sitka Local Foods Network and the Sitka Food Co-op would like to see become an annual event. Special thanks to all the Sitkans who supported this event through donations of jars, time, knowledge and offered up their apple trees for harvesting, including the trees at KCAW.


Living With the Land Radio Episode 5: What's Jud Kirkness Dreaming About?

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As a employee of Parks and Rec, Jud Kirkness keeps Sitka’s parks, lawns and flowerbeds beautiful for all of us to enjoy. Yet while he is mowing Sitka’s lawns, he admits to daydreaming about other uses for our public city land. What’s Jud dreaming about? Gardens! Gardens! Gardens! But Jud isn’t just dreaming. He is also making these imagined gardens a reality. Listen to his story below.

What’s Jud Dreaming About?

Living with the Land is a 12 part radio series exploring stories of place in Sitka. It is produced by the Sitka Conservation Society in collaboration with Raven Radio. You can also hear the episodes every Sunday at 10:27am on KCAW, just before Living Planet.


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