People and Place

Teaching the Alaska Way of Life: 4H in Sitka

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Mary Wood helps 4-H members get settled into their kayak before going on the water or the first time.

 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 mary@sitkawild.org.

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Protecting America's Last Frontier

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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.

Map showing the proposed mines in the Unuk and Stikine watersheds provided by Rivers Without Borders.

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.

Back to Basics: An Alaskan Wilderness Experience

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Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Directorat SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.

Adventure into the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness.

Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.

A pink salmon swims upstream to spawn.

My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with anarea of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.

Picturesque view of Nakwasina Sound.

From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.

My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I've been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we've reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.

A brown bear lurks across the tidal flat.

From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake.Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.

Holding a Coho at Redoubt weir.
Work station for sampling fish at the Redoubt weir.

With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven't tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.

Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.

View of Crescent Harbor in Sitka, Alaska.

Chris Leeseberg, Scott Harris and I at False Island.

On the 28thof August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.

One of the remarkable inhabitants of the Tongass.

First Fish Wednesday!

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On Wednesday, Sept. 2, all schools in the Sitka public school system will be serving locally-caught fish! The school district will be serving fish every Wednesday this school year.

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.

Redoubt Lake: The Heart of the Tongass

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My internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake, wherethe top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season.

The trap weir has a fish trap used to capture fish in order to weigh, mark, or otherwise handle them.

Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before in Sitka. Not only was it the longest trip of my internship (a total of 6 days out in the field), it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake and tohave a chance to work with the Forest Service. Throughout the entire trip, we lived in a small cozy cabin that is built on an island completely surrounded by water. Every morning, I was up by 6:30 and the day officially started off at 7:00. Through the quiet serene waters,we boated towards the weir, the morning silence broken by the Forest Service employees yelling,"Hey Bear" and the sound of the blow horn. The Forest Service runs a mark and recapture study of sockeye returning to the stream. In addition we sampled the fish, which entailed weighing, measuring and collecting a scale sample.

The Redoubt Cabin.

 

Marking the fish was quite a challenge but fun!

 

Sitting at the weir and counting fish as they pass through was quite an experience. It was fascinating to see thousands of salmon swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water as they fought against the downstream currents. While there was a feast of action packed beneath the waters, the above grounds were active with local dip netters at the outlet of the lake and hungry bears that roamed around the surroundings. One day, as I was sitting at the weir and counting fish with Janelle Horstman, a Forest Service employee, a bear snuck up to the end of the weir. It was a chilling experience, yet quite incredible to see a wild bear within 20 feet. With the gush of rapids pouring out at the outlet, I barely heard the bear coming down from the island. It made me appreciate the rugged beauty and graceful movement of these magnificent grizzly bears.

The method of counting fish as they pass through the opening at the weir.
A bear lurks around in search of food near the weir.

 

Once the fish pass through the weir, they headed up to the northern tip of the lake and traveled up-stream to spawn. Throughout the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies became bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It was definitely a biological process worth observing.

The scenes at Redoubt Lake were pretty mesmerizing. The sight of glassy black pearly water reflecting the clouds above and nearby mountains created a dreamy ambiance. The sounds of nature and refreshing ocean breeze swirled around the lake, creating a perfect blend of serenity. With its picturesque landscape and its importance to the subsistence fishery of Alaska, Redoubt Lake is definitely one of the most precious landmarks of the Tongass National Forest.

The beautiful view of Redoubt lake from the weir.

 

Director Andrew Thoms contributes to Tongass Managment Plan

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The Tongass National Forest is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. Photo by Matthew Jones

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.

Invasive tunicate still plaguing Whiting Harbor

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As published in the Sitka Daily Sentinel on Wednesday, August 20, 2014

D vex is said to look like marine vomit. This picture was taken in Whiting Harbor after the discovery of the invasive. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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."

Salmon Stewardship on the Tongass: Twelvemile Creek

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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.

 

Klawock students investigate and identify bugs on Twelvemile Creek.

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."

 

Steve McCurdy collects coho smolt for measurements and data collection on the Screwtrap on Twelvemile Creek.

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.

 

Kelly is one of three fish technician interns on Twelvmile Creek. She is learning about fish ecology and management from the field crew.

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 US Forest Service monitors steelhead trout on Twelvemile Creek.

 

Sitka Kitch holds its first classes in July

Photo for Sitka Kitch holds its first classes in July

Sarah Lewis, UAS Extension, leads the 'canning the harvest' class. PHOTO: Amy Gulick

Part of my work here at SCS is my role as a community catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP). The SSP focuses on the triple bottom line approach to solving many of the challenges rural communities face in SE Alaska. In keeping with two of the SSP's key directives, focus on local food and economic development, Sitka Kitch was developed. Sitka Kitch is the community project that was born out of the Sitka Health Summit being led by Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and a devoted committee of local volunteers. The goal is to tap into local food resources, provide education and foster the development of new jobs and industries. This will fill a missing niche in Sitka and the region, training students to fill existing jobs in industries related to our region's tourism and food based industry.

Sitka Kitch will also provide emergency preparedness and home economic based classes to increase food security at the household level. Programming and outreach will encourage community wide collaboration to address food-based issues while simultaneously improving economic development. The long term project goal is the development of a sustainable food system for Sitka through empowerment and education. Expected outcomes include an increase in local food production, small business development, and improved household-level food security and local food consumption.

Salmon being prepped for pressure canning. PHOTO: Amy Gulick

This will ideally be achieved through the establishment of a shared-use commercial kitchen. Sitka Kitch does not have a permanent facility yet but is currently partnering with the First Presbyterian Church to provide limited access. The Sitka Kitch Committee prepared a proposal to the Church's national organization and received a $13,000 grant to upgrade the facility for commercial use and we hope to start working with small businesses in the fall. "Sitka Kitch" also offered three classes in July (exceeding one of our goals for the 2014 health summit!). We were able to bring in Sarah Lewis from the UAS Cooperative Extension office to run the classes. Class themes revolved around the primary objectives of Sitka Kitch - cottage food industry development and maximizing household level food security through preservation of food. We had the added bonus of welcoming Amy Gulick to class (Salmon in the Trees) who was on hand to photograph people interacting with salmon! The courses were held at our partner facility, the FIrst Presbyterian Church of Sitka and at Sitka High School.

Pretty maids in a row, pickled veggies fresh from their baths

Overall class metrics: Total student hours: 136 Total students/participants among classes: 34 Individual participants: 25 ( a few students took multiple classes)

Cottage Food Industry: 8 in attendance, 7 female, 1 male. Class focus was on cottage food industry (rules and guidelines for what you can sell, how it must be prepared) Kitch goal: educate locals on small, local food based business to encourage product development for farmers market and other 'booth' vending type events. Class cost was $20 per participant, 3 hours

Canning the harvest: 17 in attendance, 13 female, 4 male. Class focused on handling and processing of meat, fish and vegetables for canning preservation. Kitch goal: educate community members about proper canning techniques and how to maximize preservation of subsistence and other harvests, as well as store bought or bulk purchased produce. This was partly in response to the community food assessment information that found 90% of food preservation methods in Sitka was reported as freezing. Class cost was $20 per participant, 5 hours

Jams and Jellies: 9 in attendance, all female Class focused on multiple recipes for preparing jams, jellies, catsups. Kitch goal: a fun twist on conventional canning, creativeways to produce and preserve local berries and food products Class cost was $20 per participant, 3 hours

Speaking for the Trees of the Tongass

Photo for Speaking for the Trees of the Tongass

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.

Black bear we saw catching fish at one of our campsites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Giant red cedars.

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.

 

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