Photo by Lione Clare
It was supposed to be a day trip. But, as is typical of late November in Southeast Alaska, Mother Nature had different plans.
While much of Sitka was still recovering from the hustle of Thanksgiving, naval architect Erik de Jong bustled around his workshop with haste, in preparation for another trip down to Goddard Hot Springs. After several delays due to weather and fabrications of materials earlier in the week, he was eager to return to complete the water delivery system improvements that the Sitka Conservation Society Community Conservation Corps had been tasked with completing, made possible by the City of Sitka’s allocation of CARES Act funding. The City of Sitka contracted Sitka Conservation Society to develop a transitional employment program to not only relieve the economic burden placed on individuals and families as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also to create new community assets and alleviate the backlog of public works maintenance projects.
By headlamp, de Jong loaded up his boat with shovels and a Pulaski and tool bags and, crucially, a package of bacon. But this wasn’t just any skiff. It was the S/V Bagheera, a 52-foot steel sailboat that de Jong had built with his father during university in the Netherlands, where he grew up. Its distinctive black-and-yellow exterior shone in the cold, early morning, bobbing next to de Jong’s personal dock.
Photo by Lione Clare
Along with Greta Healy, an SCS Corps member, Erik de Jong began the trip to Goddard Hot Springs. Located 16 miles south of Sitka, Goddard boasts two public soaking pools housed in cedar bathhouses maintained by the City of Sitka. Its proximity to town makes it an accessible and popular location for locals and visitors alike. The natural temperature of the hot springs, however, hovers around a scorching 150℉. An enjoyable experience, especially during warmer months, requires a supply of cold water to better control the tub temperatures. The small storage pond, behind a 30-plus year old dam of decaying wood, would regularly run out of cold water.
In an agreement with the City and Borough of Sitka, Sitka Conservation Society set out to design and construct a new wooden dam, tripling the capacity of the previous dam. Dan Jones and Dean Orbison, engineers in Sitka, and Barth Hamberg, a local landscape architect, were key to devising and planning the new and improved structure. Erik de Jong was hired on as the on-the-ground project lead.
Covid-19 negatively affected de Jong’s sailing business, preventing clients from travelling to Sitka and resulting in all of his chartered sailing trips being cancelled this past year. When the SCS Community Conservation Corps needed a project leader with a means of transportation for the Goddard project, de Jong’s wealth of experiences working in remote places and well-appointed sailboat seemed to be the perfect combination. Ever in motion and constantly eager to help out, Erik was just the type of person the City of Sitka was hoping to put to work through the CARES Act-funded SCS CCC.
Photo by Amy Li
During a work trip to Goddard in late October, the Corps deconstructed the existing dam, brushed out vegetation to minimize sediment deposition, expanded the holding pool, and built a new, larger dam using nearly 1,500 pounds of lumber. The tools, building materials, and Corps members required for the multi-day construction effort were all transported on the Bagheera. However, after the initial work week, the dam still required a liner to prevent leaks and reduce subsurface flows.
And so, moments prior to departure in the early morning frost, de Jong found himself hoisting the final piece of equipment aboard—a 250-pound heat-welded liner, custom constructed and donated by Sitka’s CBC Construction Inc. Chris Balovich, owner of CBC Construction, chose to donate the liner, which otherwise would have cost several thousand dollars, for its value to many Sitkans.
“Goddard is important to the community as it is a good stop after a long day of hunting,” Balovich explained. “It really warms you up.”
With the hum of the engine melding with the soft lapping of the tide, de Jong and Healy set out into the gray morning. Once anchorage was dropped in Hot Springs Bay, the dinghy was loaded with materials and the crew set to work. The rest of the day was spent hauling the liner over icy wooden boardwalks where patrons of Goddard generously lent a helping hand. Once at the site, the two-person crew painstakingly installed the stiff, heavy liner along the dam, screw by screw.
Progress was slow but steady. By midafternoon, the sun was already setting but the liner was finally close to being secured along the dam’s wooden planks. Water, however, was still escaping from under the liner. Undeterred, de Jong secured his tools at the worksite and plans to return and finish the next day were made.
Photo by Amy Li
The next day brought about little work. Instead, gusts of 70 knots rocked the Bagheera for the better part of the work day. Valuing safety first and foremost, de Jong spent the morning cooking up bacon pancakes before cozying up to a triple feature from his extensive movie collection—an apparent prerequisite of sailboat ownership. As evil child-eating giants were defeated in The BFG, heavy rains thundered down upon the Bagheera’s hull.
In the drizzly, but calm, morning that followed, de Jong began work in earnest. He and Healy set to work in ankle-deep water, weighing down the edge of the liner using heavy rocks and shovels full of earth. Gradually, the cold water tank’s water level inched higher and higher. By early afternoon, de Jong was chest-deep in the chilly pool of muddy water. With a final few flourishes, their work was complete.
Photo by Amy Li
The day trip-turned-weekend work trip, replete with stormy seas and plenty of setbacks, was finally a success. The Goddard Hot Springs renovations exemplify how difficult and unpredictable field and construction work can be in Southeast Alaska. Nonetheless, SCS and the City of Sitka took on this challenge and many others because of the need for employment opportunities. This is just one of a dozen projects the SCS Community Conservation Corps took on this season, employing nine Sitkans and a dozen contractors like Erik and working on important community assets on City property.
For this year of 4-H Alaska-Way-of-Life Club, we decided to separate our programming thematically into four quarters with each quarter representing one of the four H’s: Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. This fall, “Health” has been the theme, with a specific focus on healthy lifestyles and stress relief. Health has been a concern for all of us recently, given the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is important to have good habits in place for ourselves and the people around us.
4-H Wild Edibles Series walks. Photos by Grace Harang and Emily Pound.
We began with the Wild Edibles Series as a chance to explore Sitka and harvest together. Experiences building healthy habits such as these can be invaluable for youth. Every chance that 4-Hers have to become comfortable picking berries and identifying plants now will mean increased confidence in these abilities later in life. If we make a cup of tea with labrador leaves we picked from the muskeg, we are reaping the benefits of our local environment without plastic, packaging, shipping, and other intermediary steps, which also contributes to the health of our planet. In addition to cooking and consuming wild plants, we also found ways to use them in art. We sketched mushrooms, created watercolor paints out of berries, and made 3-D collages out of fallen leaves. When creating art with natural materials, it is important to think about how much and where you are collecting from. The health of our natural resources depends on our ability to collect and consume them in thoughtful ways.
Mindfulness is a helpful tool to relieve stress. We ended most of our programs with short meditations that serve a similar purpose to creating art; quieting the background noise of our minds and focusing on what we sense directly around us. One program that focused on this idea specifically was the Five Senses Walk through Sitka National Historic Park. We stopped at different points on our walk to focus on each sense; for example, counting how many different sounds we could pick out or using our sense of touch to guess what kind of rock or shell we held in our hands.
4-H Salmon Celebration. Photos by Lione Clare.
In our Salmon Celebration, Renée Trafton of Beak Restaurant demonstrated how to filet a salmon, and 4-Hers were able to practice on coho donated by the Sitka Sound Science Center. We also learned how to cook the salmon together. One health benefit of eating local salmon is they are high in omega-3 fatty acids that help us to maintain healthy brain functions. We are so lucky to have fresh salmon found right in our backyard!
Other programs we had this fall included healthy holiday cooking and gift-making, a wild foods celebration, and a “Movement Mondays” series. In the holiday series, we made gifts with reused materials, like wreaths using fallen plants and seashells. For some youth participating in the Wild Foods program, it was the first time they had cooked with rockfish or eaten locally grown kale. 4-Hers who participated in the movement series sampled different kinds of movement with guest instructors on Zoom: tae kwon do, yoga, strength training, and Inupiaq dance.
As we enter into the winter season, programming will shift to our second theme: Heart. Keep an eye out for the January calendar and programs like Winter Play, Storytelling, and Knitting Club coming up. It has been a joy to work with 4-Hers this fall, and I cannot wait to spend another season learning and exploring Sitka with you all!
– Kate Grumbles, Living with the Land and Building Community Jesuit Volunteer
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:
Restored the Presbyterian Cemetery with the guidance of Bob Sam, a cemetery restoration expert.
- 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.
Renovated the Tom Young Cabin, a high-use cabin maintained by the City of Sitka.
- Designed, manufactured, and installed a new cedar outhouse after removing the existing plastic outhouse.
- Other maintenance efforts include: repaired door jam, cleaned gutters, repaired decayed sections of wooden deck.
Repaired the cold water system at Goddard Hot Springs, a popular recreational site for Sitkans and visitors.
- 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.
Made improvements to the Sitka Cross Trail, an accessible multi-use gravel trail running the length of much of downtown Sitka, include:
- 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.
- Installed mile markers along the length of the trail for wayfinding and emergency response.
Built a mountain bike trail.
- 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.
General deferred public works maintenance projects in Sitka.
- 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.
Began planning stages for multiple other projects.
- A proposed hut-to-hut trail network on remote coastline from Kanga to Big Bay.
- 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. Photos 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.
Photos by Lione Clare.
The Sitka Conservation Society works to protect the Tongass and build sustainable communities. The ability to live sustainably within the natural environment is contingent on the health and wellbeing of the people who call these lands and waters home. At our core, we are a community organization who stands up with our partners and members, to help care for the entire intricate web of life here in the Tongass, our neighbors included.
Food security is foundational to the sustainability of our communities, not just in Southeast Alaska but across the world. In the Tongass, we have a unique accessibility to wild foods, yet at the same time our geography creates its own obstacles; food is expensive and is shipped in from far away to reach our rural communities. In 2020, due to the pressures of the COVID19 pandemic, we saw increased food insecurity among Southeast Alaskans. With partnerships and community support, Sitka Conservation Society fielded programs to to help address this challenge.
In March, SCS established the Sitka Mutual Aid Network, an initiative to build Sitka’s resilience and community health in the face of this pandemic. Sitka Mutual Aid matched requests for assistance with offers of support, connecting Sitkans who could be of service to one another and delivering direct food assistance in the form of gift cards, grocery distributions and free meals featuring local seafood.
In late March, Alaska Governor Dunleavy issued State Health Mandates requiring Alaskans to remain home and ban non-essential travel within the state. The mandates are in effect until April 21. View the state’s FAQ’s for the exceptions to these mandates.
We at Sitka Conservation Society have been compiling a list of resources for communities across Alaska.
Alaska State-Wide Information and Resources
Alaska COVID-19 Community Response
The State of Alaska and the US Government have declared a national emergency due to COVID-19. The Alaska Public Interest Research Group has created a publicly available document with resources for us to keep our communities safe and healthy. This page includes links to government responses, local resources, and Mutual Aid Networks across Alaska. You can visit the page here. If you have any questions, please contact [email protected].
Social Distancing Outdoors
Anchorage Daily News: Heading outdoors? Here’s what Alaskans should consider during the coronavirus pandemic.
News and Updates
KCAW Raven Radio has created a coronavirus information hub on their website providing more information on the local response to COVID-19 in Sitka, including information on closures and event cancellations. Alaska Public Media has also created their own information page that you can find here.
Southeast Alaska Resources
Spruce Root COVID-19 Business Resources: Southeast Alaskan businesses and entrepreneurs: If you are looking for resources to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, we are starting a list. Spruce Root, one of our partners in the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, has compiled a starter set of resources here: https://www.spruceroot.org/covid19. Please also scroll down to the bottom and complete their survey so that we can better support our entrepreneurs.
Sitka Mutual Aid Network
Created by SCS, Sitka Mutual Aid - COVID-19 matches requests for help with offers of support. Currently, we are coordinating supply drop offs to people's doorsteps and provide up to $50 per request for those with financial need, as long as funds last. Folks can also post to this page if they are in search of resources or have goods to share that can be sanitized. Visit the Facebook page here!
To donate to the Sitka Mutual Aid Network - COVID-19, click here. Funds will be used to provide grocery relief for Sitkans with financial need.
If someone doesn't have internet access, they can call 907-738-0357.
Sitka School District Free School Meals
The Sitka School District will continue to offer meals during the emergency school closure. Grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches are distributed on Tuesday and Friday once a day at community locations. Meal pick up is on Tuesday and Friday 8:30am till noon at SHS main entrance, picking up is encouraged, but deliveries can be arranged. Meals are free to all children age 19 and under, regardless of enrollment, if at least one child in the household attends SSD. Families can sign up for meals by completing a short survey at tinyurl.com/SSDCovidNeeds or by calling 747-8672. For more information regarding the meal program email: [email protected].
Photo by Andrew Thoms
In difficult and uncertain times, it is important for us to hold together as a community, and take precautions ahead of time, instead of doing too little too late.
Right now, distancing ourselves from others may feel especially hard when compounded by the anxieties we are feeling for ourselves, our community, and our loved ones. We want now more than ever to spend time together as a community. Remember though, that while practicing social distancing, you aren't actually alone—we are doing this together. We at SCS find comfort knowing that so many of us are making a compassionate and courageous act for the strength and resiliency of our community. Through temporary isolation, we take care of each other.
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, we at SCS are joining other local organizations and businesses and temporarily shutting down our doors. Our team is focused right now on helping our community and our partners respond to this crisis. Situations like these are exactly why we strive to build sustainable and resilient communities. We are especially working across our network in the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to figure out how Southeast Alaska can respond to this crisis. While there are still no known cases of COVID-19 in Sitka, we know that it is always better to be proactive.
During this time, the best way for you to reach us is by emailing us at [email protected] and through our social media platforms. It is with a heavy heart that we must cancel or postpone all upcoming SCS, 4-H, and Sitka Kitch events. For more information or if you have any questions, please contact the Sitka Kitch at [email protected] or Jill, our 4-H leader, at [email protected]
At SCS, Chandler O'Connell is shifting her position to focus on supporting community health and wellness at this time. Sitka Mutual Aid - COVID-19 is our first project to support the community we love, and a resource to support each other during the COVID-19 public health crisis. This program matches requests for help with offers of support. To start off, we will coordinate supply drop offs to people's doorsteps and provide up to $50 per request for those with financial need, as long as funds last (thanks to a $1,000 starting contribution from SCS).
Huge thanks to all the Sitka individuals, businesses, governments and organizations who are providing diverse forms of community care. Staying at home, avoiding large crowds, practicing social distancing, cancelling unnecessary travel plans, and washing our hands are just some of the important actions we must take to slow this virus down. By doing this, we can limit pressure on our healthcare systems and decrease the spread of this virus to our elders and those with pre-existing health conditions who are the most at risk.
It is also crucial for us to rely on the advice of trusted experts as a sea of misinformation also spreads. During the upcoming weeks we will sharing on our platforms accurate and helpful resources, community updates, resources, inspiration, and ideas for engaging with your loved ones while isolated.
In this hard time, it's as important as ever for us to continue organizing and advocating for a sustainable future and the places that we love. We love you Sitka! Stay safe out there.
As a small community surrounded by an abundance of natural resources, Sitka has an opportunity to be a leader in community sustainability. The Sitka Conservation Society originally formed around outrage at the large-scale clearcutting practices of local logging companies in the late 1960s and concern about pollution from the Sitka pulp mill. As SCS has grown, our goals and interests have grown with us, but we have remained committed to the improvement of Sitka's greater community. We are especially invested in environmental education, in promoting local business that use locally sourced materials, and in helping Sitkans reduce their energy consumption and transition to clean energy sources.
See the articles below for information on our most recent community projects or take a look at our blog.
The Sitka Conservation Society is involved with a diverse set environmental education programs that reach hundreds of people from preschool age through retirement age every year. Some of these programs, such as Fish to Schools and Kids Energy Awareness, take place in the classroom. Others, such as 4H and Stream Team, are designed to get Sitkans excited about the outdoor science lab surrounding them. Stay tuned for more public seminars, after-school programs, and even public boat trips!
At the Sitka Conservation Society, we are working towards creating a more robust local food system. We are leading efforts to protect the habitat of wild foods, support traditional or subsistence harvesting, increase local food production, and to make local foods more accessible to the community. Recent successes include the Wild Foods Potluck and the Sitka Kitsch.
While Sitka is a small town, the Sitka Conservation Society firmly believes that it can be a national leader in taking on climate change. If small-town Alaska can take meaningful progressive steps, why not any other community? SCS has successfully advocated to increase the city’s hydroelectric capacity and organized programs to help locals reduce their energy consumption.
The Sitka Conservation Society protects the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest while supporting the development of economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable communities within Southeast Alaska.
Our Focus Areas
The community of Sitka has a long tradition of local grassroots activism and engagement in local, state, and national politics. Sitkans value their home in this temperate rainforest and take political action to ensure the Tongass continues to provide for future generations of Southeast Alaskans. Through community events and by with individuals, we amplify the voices of Southeast Alaskans. Take action, donate, or become a member of SCS today!
We are helping empower young people to lead and thrive on a local, state, federal, and global scale. By sharing intergenerational knowledge, instilling values of conservation, teaching essential skills including hunting, fishing, gathering and gardening, and providing programming that fosters leadership, civic engagement, and environmental advocacy, we are preparing youth for the challenges of the future. These goals are achieved through our 4-H Alaska-Way-of-Life program, our high school civic engagement class, and the Sitka School District and local educational institutions.
Salmon unite Alaskans. We rely on salmon to fill our freezers, feed our families, and sustain our economy. Salmon are an essential component of culture and tradition, and feed our wild eagles, bears, and nutrient-rich forests. We encourage the protection of critical salmon habitat, support small businesses and economic development, and promote sustainable harvest in commercial fisheries. Working and organizing with partners locally, regionally, and across the state, we advocate for land management policies that protect wild salmon habitat and our way of life.
As a founding member of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, we have the opportunity to work with diverse partners across the region towards the common goals. We are striving for cultural, ecological, and economic prosperity for our families, communities and region.
This Friday marks the beginning of a well-loved Sitka tradition, the Alaska Seafood Festival! The festival began in 2010, as a way to celebrate the bountiful ocean resources Sitka and Southeast Alaska has to offer. The fishing industry supplies significant revenue and jobs for the community as well as attracting tourists. Because seafood is such an important part of the Sitka community, it is essential that the resource is not only celebrated at the festival but also considered beyond the city limits.
Most Sitka residents and visitors enjoy the benefits of having plentiful wilderness recreation sites just a short distance from the city. These recreation sites are often within the Tongass National Forest. Like all national forests, the Tongass is under management of the US Forest Service. Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to work with Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and the Forest Service to evaluate different forest treatment plans created to ensure the forest, streams, and salmon are all working together in harmony. One concern is ample habitat for rearing juvenile and spawning adult salmon. Salmon depend on wood in the streams to create sheltered areas with a reduced current. However, past harvesting in the Tongass has disrupted the conifer growth that supplies this habitat. The good news is that the Forest Service has been applying different forest treatment plans to different areas with the goal of growing larger conifers that will eventually fall into the stream to provide habitat. Plentiful habitat then ensures thriving salmon populations that will prosper in the future.
Pink Salmon at Indian River
One such area is Appleton Cove located on North Baranof Island. SCS and the Forest Service recently traveled to this area to observe how trees along stream banks are growing and what kinds of trees there are. Our studies consisted of setting up four to six plots along the stream bank and flagging every live tree within these plots. We then recorded the tree species, diameter, and height. This study was also done at Fish Bay, Noxon, and other sites in order to create a representative and diverse sample. These studies will be combined with developing Forest Service research to guide how the trees along stream banks will be managed through treatments such as thinning.
Me and the Forest Service crew: Chris Leeseberg, Sarah Rubenstein, and Malachi Rhines
Sarah Rubenstein setting up a plot along a stream bank
Another Forest Service Project dedicated to preserving salmon populations is present at Redoubt Lake. Redoubt Lake is one of the largest meromictic lakes in North America meaning the lake has areas of salt water and fresh water that do not mix. Each year thousands of salmon swim from the ocean and up the falls to reach Redoubt Lake to spawn. The Forest Service has set up a weir at the opening of the lake, which is essentially a gate preventing fish from passing except in specific areas. Forest Service workers are then able to count the fish and identify their species as they swim through the weir or past a camera in the evenings. Sockeye and Coho salmon are also sampled meaning they are weighed, measured, and have a scale taken. This information is then used to further study the fish at Redoubt and their genetic make up. One concern is that farmed fish could be mating with wild fish and disrupting wild type DNA. The scale sample comes into play here as it is analyzed by geneticists to determine if the fish has any DNA inherited by a farmed fish. Counting the fish that return to Redoubt Lake each year will also help the Alaska Department of Fish and Game set appropriate harvest limits to ensure future abundance.
On Redoubt Lake with the weir in the background
This weekend while enjoying festival events such as cooking and canning classes, the seafood banquet, film screenings, and more remember to also consider the connection between forest management and the sustainability of valuable Alaskan seafood.
Learn more about how the US Forest Service manages the Tongass National Forest at www.fs.usda.gov/land/tongass/landmanagement and be sure to visit the SCS booth while at the festival.
The island of Admiralty remains to this day a place preserved almost entirely as Wilderness. Home to the highest density of brown bears in North America, a population of a few hundred residents, and prolific stands of old-growth that never saw the saw, this country, by anyone’s definition, the federal government’s included, is Wild. But the briefest of glances at Admiralty’s history makes immediately evident that this future was never assured; the preserved state of this landscape never necessarily its inevitable fate. To quite the contrary, nature on Admiralty has known many threats, its trees for decades the particular envy of loggers throughout Southeast. But despite the long history of people seeking to degrade Admiralty, there exists an equally long history and tradition of people working to defend it. This past week, I had the privilege of meeting the four individuals adding yet another chapter to this story of wilderness stewardship on Admiralty Island.
The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) project taking place on Admiralty is engaging four youth from around the country in community and conservation work. Sponsored by the Forest Service and supported by the Sitka Conservation Society, this corps has been tasked with initiatives that address the health of Admiralty’s Kootznoowoo wilderness, its community of Angoon, and, hopefully, each YCC’s commitment to conservation, by bringing them into contact and communion with the land. Such connection, SCS has always believed, lies at the essence of environmental ethic and action. Or in other words, the land itself is oftentimes its own most effective advocate, the best thing we can do being simply to bring people out to it. By employing youth to work with our public lands, the YCC program is thus very much aligned with the model of conservation advocacy that SCS has always practiced. And by helping the Forest Service host this corps branch, we have been able to foster these person-place connections with an incredibly important segment of society: the rising generation of potential environmental stewards.
When I arrived in Angoon, the YCCs had just completed construction of a community greenhouse, and were soon to set off for three weeks in the Kootznoowoo Wilderness. There they would be participating in shelter and trail maintenance, non-native plant control, and general restoration and monitoring – projects to which the Forest Service had put the Civilian Conservation Corps over eighty years ago, as part of the New Deal.
Sitting at the doorstep of Kootznoowoo – having just witnessed a whale pass by, listening to the roaring of a sea lion, and sated by the salmonberries we had picked on our hike – I had the chance to talk to the YCCs about their thoughts on the Wilderness, this tradition of stewardship, and the Southeast Alaskan environment in which they were immersed.
Below is some of what each of them had to say:
How much did you know about Wilderness before this program?
Jaxon Collins: Not a lot.
Breeze Anderson: I didn’t know anything.
Elizabeth Crawford: Not really anything.
Travis Maranto: Not very much.
And what do you know and think now?
Jaxon: I know that there are people who have been trying hard their whole lives to keep wilderness intact, and I think other people should try and respect that.
Breeze: I think that to work with nature, in particular these Wilderness areas, is a necessity, and that it needs to be done before we ruin it.
Elizabeth: This landscape already feels as if its home to me.
Travis: I’ve always had a love and respect for nature, but I never truly understood Wilderness as being so free and untrammeled. Just being in this space you immediately sense something special about it.
Why are you excited about the wilderness stewardship work ahead?
Jaxon: It’s just amazing to be one of the first youth groups out here in a while doing this. Maybe it can inspire others who have an interest to take action too.
Breeze: This work gives me hope. Hope that these efforts to conserve can keep going, since they’ve already been going on for so long.
Elizabeth: I just feel very fortunate to have been picked to come here. You need trees to breathe and well, to really do everything. And now here I am standing in their beauty and I get to help protect them. That makes me excited.
Travis: I have such a deep respect and love for wild places, and I don’t think there’s enough of them. In the modern age, humans have been destroying them rapidly. When you think about the millions of years Earth has been here, we’ve only been here a very short period of time, and we’ve already done a great deal to screw it up. I’m here because I want to do a something to fix that, and convince others to do so too.
If there’s one thing you would say to people to convince people that these places are worthy of protection, what would it be?
Jaxon: When you’re out here, you get to forget about all of the worries of life and just be yourself. It’s incredibly freeing.
Breeze: There’s a saying I like which goes: “we think we own the land, when really the land has no owner.” Being out here, in this stunning landscape, I get reminded of that fact. I mean, this place has been here for ages, and to help it stay the way it is rather than destroying it, that’s a powerful thing to be a part of.
Elizabeth: We always say in my family that we only have one Earth. In society we’re always searching for the newer, cooler thing. But why ruin what we already have, what we’ve relied on for all our lives? We need to appreciate and protect our Earth, because it gives us so much we don’t even realize.
Travis: Nature gives so much to us – wood, salmon, sustenance, fresh air – and we’ve been taking these things from nature for thousands of years in a manner that didn’t also destroy it. But now in modern times we’ve just been trashing the ecosystem. And I can participate in that destruction, or I can jump in and help.
Hailing from as nearby as Tenakee Springs, Alaska or as faraway as Mobile, Alabama, these four YCC members represent a diversity of background and experience. But it was clear from our conversations that a commonality of spirit exists amongst them when it comes to caring for and conserving the land. Which comes as good news, because as Matthew Fred Sr., the Tlingit elder of Angoon, bluntly put it, when it comes to conservation, “there are no guarantees. You have to fight for what you want.” Just as we owe Kootznoowoo’s current state to our predecessors who fought to preserve it, generations to come will inherit the landscape that our actions in the present have left to them.
And although wilderness exists in the minds of many an inviolable place, the truth is that these landscapes are not immune to assault. Just this year, an airport has been proposed within the boundaries of Kootznoowoo, and as of a few days ago, Admiralty’s Green's Creek Mine expansion project broke ground, threatening to leach more contaminants into the nearby Wilderness environment as waste product. All of which just serves as a reminder that wilderness work is the responsibility of each successive generation, or at least each generation that continues to find some value, apart from the economic, in these areas. It is unfortunate, but a reality, that lands with many threats require many defenders. Whether you’re examining the specific story of Admiralty, the history of Alaska, or America’s past more broadly, one fact will remain true throughout: the tree one person alone could fell it has taken many people to defend.
On the surface, I admit, this seems a depressing reality. But I wonder if, in some ways, this is actually the condition from which conservation also derives its strength, as it makes conservation, in my mind at least, inherently an act of community – something that requires conversation with the past, cooperative action in the present, and a commitment to fostering stewardship in the caretakers of the future. What I saw during my visit to Angoon was the YCC program doing just that: educating youth about the history of our public lands; engaging them in present preservation efforts; and empowering them to be future conservationists. And thus, while the future of public lands should not be taken for granted, never assumed as assured, of one thing it seems we can be certain: if the YCC is any indication, there remain those out there willing and eager to take on the cause of continued stewardship and service.
The YCC crew, from left to right: Travis, Jaxon, Breeze, and Elizabeth
Be sure to stay updated on the YCC throughout the remainder of the month by way of the SCS Facebook page. Have specific questions about the YCC? Feel free to email to their crew leader, SCS’s own Mike Belitz ([email protected]). And for more on wilderness stewardship at SCS, keep checking our website, or call (907-747-7509) or email ([email protected]) to get involved. We’d love to hear from you!