Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is the largest species of Spruce and takes its name from our community; Sitka, Alaska. Sitka spruce is prized worldwide for a high strength-to-weight ratio and unique characteristics. Its uses have ranged from seagoing canoes to ceremonial masks to housing structures for the Native communities of Southeast Alaska. In the more recent past it was used to manufacture a multitude of items such as ladders, building frames, paddles and windmill slats. Its light weight, combined with strength, that makes it so versatile have also made it the gold standard in the construction of instruments and wooden airplanes. Its resiliency and feathery weight led to it being used for wing structures and the fuselage of early airplanes. Sitka spruce also possesses a highly uniform fiber structure, leading to high quality sound resonance. This means it is sought out for use as sound boards in high end pianos, guitars and other instruments.
The rich and diverse history of the Sitka spruce is so important to remember. It wasn’t long ago that vast stands were liquidated and entire watersheds became massive clear-cut wastelands. The trees were ground into industrial dissolving pulp and exported to foreign markets as a commodity product. That was the past. Earlier this month, USDA Secretary Vilsack outlined the future: he reaffirmed his commitment to conserving the remaining old growth temperate rainforests on the Tongass National Forest. He stated that this will be accomplished with a transition out of old growth and to the harvesting of second growth timber. Old growth will only be used for small scale, specialty value-added uses— like musical instruments. With a renewed focus on creating a sustainable forest industry, and providing jobs and opportunities in Southeast Alaska, the plight of the Sitka spruce may well be coming full circle.
Enter the Sitka Summer Music Festival, currently in its 42nd year. The Festival now supports events in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but Sitka is where it began and is the home of the festival. World renowned classical musicians trek to Sitka every summer for the festival with their cellos and violins, adding to the forest’s own beautiful repertoire of sounds. The festival’s location in Sitka, in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, also allows musicians to connect with the original source of their craft and instruments. One of this summer’s featured musicians is pianist Natasha Paremski who plays in Sitka on Steinway pianos that feature a Sitka Spruce soundboard. Natasha took time out of her trip to visit with SCS media intern Gleb Mikhalev and describes her connections to Sitka and the forest.
Link to the video: https://vimeo.com/70652583
SCS was recently awarded another Community Capacity and Land Stewardship (CCLS) Grant from the National Forest Foundation. The CCLS grant focuses on the use of local, young growth timber and habitat restoration. This grant will sustain and further develop the capacity-building momentum generated from last year’s grant. One of the components of the previous grant was to provide local, young growth timber to the Sitka High School industrial arts classes. Students were provided with red alder for building bed side tables, as well as Sitka spruce to construct a bike shelter. The bike shelter will be finalized this summer and placed at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
Through the current grant, SCS will continue to promote regional young growth markets, incentivize forest restoration and further the Transition Framework by creating an educational opportunity for local youth that focuses on young growth timber for structural and building applications. Currently, SCS will work with a local miller to process local red alder. Red alder has been historically considered a ‘weed species’, however due to its abundance it is quickly becoming valued for use in specialty wood products, cabinetry, furniture and architectural millwork such as wainscoting or molding. SCS is encouraging regional industry integration by building relationships between producers and users. The red alder will become part of the Allen Auditorium renovation project on the Sheldon Jackson campus. This partnership will also allow for SCS to sponsor several local high school students to work under the supervision of local builder Pete Weiland on the renovation project this summer. Students will be given the opportunity to spend approximately one month working on the Auditorium renovation project and will be partnered with a college mentor. The wood will be provided to the renovation project to produce an installation and demonstration project that highlights red alder as a viable material. SCS is now accepting applications from local high school students who are interested in participating in this project. Applications are due by July 1 and can be emailed to [email protected] .
“You’re going to want to burn two and then mark it 13.5,” Judi says to her workshop buddy Linda. Linda carefully measures across a piece of hemlock harvested from Starrigavan Valley and marks it with a pencil. She pulls out the tape measure and goes over it again (measure twice and cut once!) as Judi confirms the pencil lines and arrows. Judi grabs the ‘worm saw’ (a powered skillsaw) and starts ripping the board as Linda holds it down and observes.
After a piece of wood drops to the floor, both women carefully inspect the cut, running their fingers along the edge then nodding in approval. It’s not perfect but pretty close. “We can fix that when we sand it,” Linda says.
We’ve come a long way from our first workshop class when we built our saw horses, making sure to pad the top of them with ‘sacrificial’ wood. The sacrificial wood being scrap that we don’t mind chipping, cutting and scarring as a result of our novice woodworking abilities. Our first class began with instructions from Marcel LaPerriere, local craftsman and owner of Southeast Cedar Homes. He gave us the basic DOs and DON’Ts of the wood shop as we eyed the unfamiliar gadgets and tools that surrounded us. The next few meetings we learned how to use tools, how to change drill bits and saw blades and the difference between crosscut and plane cut. Despite our rapidly growing repertoire of skills and vocabulary, we were still short on confidence, often having to encourage one another to take the helm when it was time to start up a saw. Now, class participants are confidently using saws, drill presses, and are continually awestruck all while being steeped in the delicious smell of fresh cut wood. Our class is small (eight participants) but maxes out the space in the wood shop. It is also a diverse group of women ranging from an opera singer to a retired teacher to a Sheldon Jackson summer camp organizer proficient in Chinese.
In April SCS and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp partnered to offer a ‘Women in Carpentry Workshop’. The workshop, a brain child of SCS board member Judi Lehman, and she thought it would tie in nicely with our young growth projects that were funded by the NFF Community Capacity and Land Stewardship program. The course provides locally harvested wood, tools, supplies and instruction from SCS board President Marcel LaPerriere. The product of the class is quite simple: six wooden benches to be placed at the Allen Auditorium on the SJ campus. The goal, however, is much more involved. SCS wanted to showcase young growth timber, contribute to the production of a local wood product and shed light on the quality and usefulness of young-growth timber. This class takes it one step further by providing an opportunity for women who had little to no experience with wood working to learn new skills and create something for the community.
One class member, Kenley, described why she decided to take the course: “I signed up because I really wanted to learn how to use power tools and wanted to gain skills for volunteering and life projects. I’ve learned so much already! The vocabulary and skills are foreign to me and I’ve reveled in learning the names of tools, techniques, and processes. I have a much deeper respect for how buildings are constructed and how wood objects are made. I’ve learned a lot about trees and wood and really appreciate Marcel’s dedication and patience in teaching this awesome class”. We aren’t quite ready to start building our dream homes, but we are learning and having fun along the way. For now, I just wish I could wield a planer or skillsaw fluidly and one handed like Marcel!
This school year, SCS partnered with the Sitka High School Construction Tech program to explore and demonstrate ways that young-growth red alder and Sitka spruce from the Tongass can be used in building and woodworking. The projects that resulted are profiled, along with others from throughout the region, in “Alaskan Grown: A Guide to Tongass Young Growth Timber and its Uses,” published by SCS this month.
Whether you are a builder, woodworker, consumer, or simply interested in the growing conversation around Tongass young-growth timber, the guide profiles projects throughout the region and shares practical insights about the quality and performance of local young-growth in a variety of applications. It also discusses basic challenges and opportunities surrounding the eventual U.S. Forest Service transition to young-growth timber harvest on the Tongass, which was announced in 2010.
Funding for this guide was provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation as part of an ongoing effort to support sustainable timber harvest and local markets in the Tongass National Forest. The purpose is to invigorate markets for Tongass young-growth timber products, particularly in Southeast Alaska, by exploring their performance in a variety of interior and exterior applications. By sharing practical information, broadening the knowledge base, and connecting local producers with consumers, we hope to help builders, woodworkers, resource managers and others make more informed decisions about using Tongass young-growth.
Check out the guide to learn more about:
- Why Tongass young-growth is important right now
- What the most common species are, and how they can be used
- Where Tongass young growth is being used, including in the Sitka High School construction tech program, U.S. Forest Service public recreation cabins, and private homes
- When experts predict economic harvest of young-growth will be possible on the Tongass
- What it will take to start shaping a sustainable local young-growth industry with the opportunities we have today
We know there is significant interest in the use of young growth, and we believe Southeast Alaska communities can sustain small young-growth timber operations that support local expertise and sustainable economic development. Harvesters, processors, builders, and consumers throughout the region are interested in realizing this vision. We hope that this guide will be one small step toward expanding and informing this conversation.