Above: Sitka Conservation Society Community Conservation Corps crew leaders and members pause for a photo along the Cross Trail, where they have revegetated and naturalized 1.3 miles of trail. Photo by Lione Clare.

Like much of Alaska, the impacts of COVID-19 were felt throughout the Southeast—closing schools and businesses, cutting back transportation between communities, and increasing food insecurity. Employment opportunities, too, became harder to come by. Earlier in 2020, the pandemic caused unemployment to spike to 14.7% nationwide. According to economic development organization Southeast Conference, Southeast Alaska lost 17% of jobs in the region, making it the most economically impacted region in Alaska. In Sitka, the third largest community in Southeast Alaska, a challenging fishing season was exacerbated by low harvests and reduced global demand. This, compounded with the economic losses due to COVID-19 within the transportation, tourism, and retail sectors, led to a great need for economic relief and employment opportunities in Sitka.

Sitka Conservation Society, a non-profit that seeks to both conserve the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest and support sustainable development within communities across Southeast Alaska, identified employment and economic needs in Sitka and stepped up to help. Sitka Conservation Society partnered with the City and Borough of Sitka to establish the “Community Conservation Corps,” a transitional employment program aimed at stimulating the local economy and building local workforce by giving jobs to unemployed, underemployed, and furloughed workers.

Corps member Greta Healy works on clearing the area next to the dam. Work continued through several inches of rainfall over the week. Photo by Lione Clare.

Despite the incessant rain and wind, dropping temperatures, and shortened days that accompany fall in Southeast Alaska, the SCS CCC took on a multitude of projects, ranging from cemetery maintenance to mountain bike trail construction to engineering improvements for a popular local hot springs (see list below). Through the program, SCS hired two Corps leaders and six Corps members who had all been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, several contractors and local organizations who have also been impacted were also hired for their expertise as consultants or to provide services. Community non-profits were also hired to provide workskills and specialized training to help Corps members develop additional skills. The Corps program launched in September and will continue until the end of the funding period in late December. Prior to beginning work, SCS also developed general work safety and COVID-19 protocols to maintain the safety of Corps members and to minimize spread of COVID-19 in Sitka.

Corps project leader Erik de Jong, owner of Bagheera Sailing, wades through the cold water storage pool to place finishing touches on the dam liner. Corps member Greta Healy is pictured behind. On this work trip, the crew endured gusts of over 60 knots during a storm they waited out. Photo by Amy Li.

List of Accomplishments:

  1. Restored the Presbyterian Cemetery with the guidance of Bob Sam, a cemetery restoration expert.
    1. Roughly two acres of historic burial grounds were brushed out, cleared of hazard trees, and beautified. Felled trees usable as firewood were delivered to elders through Alaska Native Brotherhood. Read more here.
  2. Renovated the Tom Young Cabin, a high-use cabin maintained by the City of Sitka.
    1. Designed, manufactured, and installed a new cedar outhouse after removing the existing plastic outhouse.
    2. Other maintenance efforts include: repaired door jam, cleaned gutters, repaired decayed sections of wooden deck.
  3. Repaired the cold water system at Goddard Hot Springs, a popular recreational site for Sitkans and visitors.
    1. A landscape architect and engineers in Sitka designed a new cold water storage dam. Corps members hauled 1,500 lbs of lumber through difficult terrain, demolished the existing dam, excavated the pond, constructed the new wooden dam, and installed a liner. Covered in a Sitka Sentinel article.
  4. Made improvements to the Sitka Cross Trail, an accessible multi-use gravel trail running the length of much of downtown Sitka, include:
    1. Revegetating the banks of the trail, removing stumps, and clearing brush to improve erosion control and trail aesthetics and restore vegetation that was impacted during construction. Roughly 1.3 miles of trail was revegetated.
    2. Installed mile markers along the length of the trail for wayfinding and emergency response.
  5. Built a mountain bike trail.
    1. Partnered with Sitka Cycling Club, Sitka Trail Works, and Southeast Alaska Independent Living. Contracted out planning, site selection, and design to local entities. Materials and equipment were purchased or rented from local businesses. Read more here.
  6. General deferred public works maintenance projects in Sitka.
    1. Improvements to several trails, replacing a bench commemorating the life of anthropologist and author Richard Nelson, cleaning up over 400 lbs of trash on public lands.
  7. Began planning stages for multiple other projects.
    1. A proposed hut-to-hut trail network on remote coastline from Kanga to Big Bay.
    2. Developing a local timber drying shed for the Sitka High School construction program.

Constructing the mountain bike trail involved clearing the path of obstacles and brush, building a corduroy foundation with logs, and covering it with gravel for draining and tread. Photo by Amy Li.

Inclement weather, treacherous terrain, and record amounts of rainfall posed their fair share of challenges, but the Corps accomplished these projects in the short timespan of less than four months. With over half a dozen substantial public works projects completed, the SCS CCC helped the City and Borough of Sitka with deferred public works maintenance efforts and created new community assets benefiting Sitkans, Alaskans, and visitors alike. Not only were Corps members, contractors, and partner organizations directly involved with these projects aided through work opportunities, but the thousands of future trail runners, mountain bikers, and hot spring enthusiasts who live and visit the Tongass will also reap benefits.