by Sarah Stockdale
I am in a land of light. Alaska is alive in the summer, and in southeast, the rainforest is abundant with green foliage. As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation Summer internship program, I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend three months here in Sitka as a media and storytelling intern with SCS. And in the three weeks since I arrived here, I've found Alaskans themselves to be not unlike the native flora and fauna that surround them in the summer. They take advantage of their daylight hours, knowing that winter will bring plenty of time for hibernation. The fisherwomen from whom I rent sleep only three hours a night, especially when they're on their boat and alert for King salmon snapping at the line. Karen Schmidt, an attorney who hosted me in Anchorage for the ACF intern orientation, was the same way. She worked tirelessly during the day, but was still happy to spend the late evening down at the beach until midnight, treasuring every last glimpse of light that bounced across the Cook Inlet mudflats.
As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation internship program, I attended a weeklong orientation in Anchorage before heading off to my internship placement site. There, I met with young folks interning with conservation organizations across the state. We heard from conservation leaders on a variety of topics, from organizing to Alaskan history and GIS. While in Sitka, it's easy to feel like one of only a handful of groups concerned with issues of conservation. In Anchorage, however, I was able to experience the interconnectedness of all the conservation movements across this enormous state. We certainly need one another.
In my first three weeks in Sitka, I've been able to sit back and breath in the Tongass, orienting myself to the sites, smells and culture. And when I look around me I see… green!!! For a New Mexican like me, you can't imagine my awe at the density of life that the rain brings to this unique and hidden corner of the world. As one of the Alaska native speakers commented during the orientation, it's less like subsistence out here, and more like abundance. And the Tongass is certainly abundant. Food prices may be high, but looking around, I see nourishment on ever corner from the salmonberry bushes to king salmon coming into the harbor on trollers.
I couldn't feel further away from the suburban desert where I grew up. Yet it's clear to me that maintaining and protecting the future of these natural resources is an issue that is not just important to Alaskans. With almost 80% of wild-caught salmon in North America coming from Alaskan fishermen, campaigns like the fight to protect Bristol Bay impact people all over the United States. Recently, New Mexico senator and congressman Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich spoke out against the Pebble mine. People are concerned, even down south.
And while a lot of people have a stake in the future of these lands, the people in southeast who have the time and energy to work on these issues are few. This is both overwhelming and deeply hopeful. It reminds me of the way a friend from Southern Colorado once described ranch culture. On a ranch, everyone's help is needed. Nobody is turned away and everyone's contribution is welcome. When there is a job to be done, you need all the hands you can get. Southeast Alaska feels similar to me. Every person's energy adds to the greater goal. It's nice to feel that you can really make a difference.
As a Media and Storytelling Intern, my job is to capture the ways that people in Sitka live in relationship with their natural environment. By sharing these stories, SCS hopes to connect people with their own sense of place in the Tongass, and their personal reasons for contributing to the fight to protect it from abusive extraction practices. There is certainly no shortage of stories here in Sitka. Every person I have spoken with has a relationship with the rhythms of the rainforest, whether through fishing, hunting, foraging, hiking, wood-work, etc. From artists, students, carvers, fishermen, elders to avid gardener, everyone has an appreciation for their home. And I'm falling in love more quickly than I'd imagined.
While my job here is to inspire others to recognize the singularity of the Tongass and the importance of protecting it, I'm not surprised to find that I'm the one being inspired. As the intern coordinator for ACF, Claire Pywell, commented: people come to Alaska for the landscape, but they stay for the people. And I'm starting to believe her.
Tommy Joseph is a Tlingit master carver in Sitka. He teaches and carves what he is commissioned to do and what he feels inspired to create.
His apprentice, Kristina Cranston, says of him: "I think (Tommy) could recall probably where each tree came for probably if not most, all of his jobs. This tree came from this, and the other half of it went to this job. And so it becomes personal. It's like when you go into a grocery store and you see all these fruits and vegetables, you're really just getting the final product. You don'tknow where it was planted and who grew it and how it was harvested and cared for and transported. Whereas with his trees he's usually part of most of the process and knows where it comes from…And I think when you have that experience it's not a commodity, it's really the entire process, this whole cycle. And the end result is this beautiful totem pole, and usually somebody really happy."
Continue reading to see some of Tommy's work and how it relates to the community!
Sitka Kitch will be kicking off some classes this month. From July 25-27th Sitka Kitch welcomes Sarah Lewis from UAF Cooperative extension. Sarah is theFamily & Community Development Faculty for the Southeast Districts. Beginning Friday evening, Sarah will lead a 'Cottage Food Industry' class. This class is geared towards those wishing to produce value added products for the cottage food industry. Saturday, July 26th Sarah will be at the Sitka Farmer's Marketassisting vendors and answering questions. Starting at 3:00pm Sarah will lead a 'canning the harvest' course, focusing on canning and preserving fish and veggies. The weekend will wrap up Sunday with a 'Soups and Sauces' workshop beginning at noon.
Classes will be held at Sitka High School and run several hours.
- Friday, 5:30-8:00pm
- Saturday, 3:00-8:00pm
- Sunday, 12:00-5:00pm
Sitka Kitch will be partnering with Sitka Tribe of Alaska to offer a pickled salmon course on in August.This class is offered free of charge, but space is extremely limited. More details on date and location will be available soon.
To register for any course please contact Marjorie or Tracy at 747-7509.
Sitka Kitch is a new community food project in Sitka. We seek to provide community education, training, small business development and access to commercial kitchen space with the end goal of improving our local food security. This is the first series of classes to increase community knowledge and awareness around nutrition and local foods.
We rolled up to our next stop to visit Keith Landers at H&L Salvage. Keith has been making shingles here for twenty years. In the last decade, H&L began manufacturing dimensional lumber as well. Landers was eager to chat and there was no shortage, or filter, to the wisdom he was willing to share about the industry, society, timber sales and even his opinion of environmentalists. When we asked him how he found himself in the Alaskan industry he smirked.
"You want to know how I came here? I came here because of the spotted owl okay."
Keith's operation in Oregon was shut down with the controversial protection of the Northern Spotted Owl. Keith didn't blame the owl, but he was concerned about environmentalists abstaining from level-headed discussions with millers and loggers. We need to obtain wood from somewhere and displacing logging activity from the United States, to say- the Amazon Tropical Rainforest is a ‘not in my backyard' attitude that doesn't tackle the roots of the problem- overuse, waste and unsustainable management. He also reminded us that unlike historical logging in Southeast Alaska, when loggers were often transient visitors who worked out of logging camps and eventually packed up and left when the season or era ended, today's workforce is here to stay.
"The people that are here now are people that are living here, this is where their family is, they purchased property, this is where they live and it's the last thing anyone wants to do here is dirty the water, dirty the air, and massive cut our forest to the point where environmentally it's hurting the animals, the water- that type of thing. The people here are very conscious about the environment and how we should handle this forest, we live here."
Like most residents of Southeast Alaska, Landers and his employees depend on the forest for more than economic prosperity.
"We invite anybody to come and visit us and see the way we see the forest. Not necessarily, do I see it strictly as as a way to make a living. There are many different uses in this forest and we use it in many different ways. From berry picking, to subsistence, we live off of this land here. We are one of the few people that are able to do that still, and we want to protect that. That is why a lot of us came here, because of the way we still get to live. We aren't really city people."
Landers let out a belly laugh and Marjorie and I nodded in unison. Most Alaskans aren't really ‘city people' after all. Recognizing our common goals is necessary for defining a sustainable timber future for the Tongass. We need to break down this false dichotomy that pits environmentalists against all development initiatives. This summer, the Tongass Advisory Committee and the Tongass Land Management Plan amendment process will put our capacity to collaborate to the test as industry representatives, environmentalists and other stakeholders discuss face to face what the future of timber on the Tongass should be. Landers stressed the importance of securing a long-term timber plan. He emphasized the particular devastation this ambiguity and uncertainty has on small mills. Uncertainty in the industry prevents small operators from investing in growth, innovation, retooling and even replacing damaged and outdated equipment that impacts productivity and poses a safety risk.
"The timber industry needs to have a twenty year plan- at least, because of the expenses involved. That guy right there, when it was new [points to excavator] costs 700,000 dollars- that's a lot of second growth and old growth…That's what I would like to see, everyone get together and try and make a decision about what we are going to do on the Tongass instead of all this uncertainty."
Of course, this constant uncertainty is also taxing on the well-being of workers and their family who are interested in continuing, growing and supporting the family business. As is the case with Landers, "My son would like to move back into the company again if we can see some longevity in the industry."
So why should we support small mills? Supporting the longevity of these operations benefits those directly involved with the mill: the owners, employees and family members. The direct impact can be pretty substantial, these operations provide quite a few stable local jobs.
"The small mills are high in employment - it takes us quite a few guys to produce a board due to the fact that we are not as efficient as an engineered mill. So, [small mills] may not have the type of payroll that some of the larger mills have but there is longevity in having more small mills than just one large mill. If one large mill goes down, the impact that it has on the communities is huge. Whereas if one small mill goes down, there's very little impact. "
As Keith points out, having a number of smaller operations not only supports more jobs. It also provides a security to rural towns that a single, large scale operation does not. In the past, when a small mill goes out of business, other operations, like H&L Salvage hire laid-off employees and pick up the slack. If large scale timber industries go under, like the giant pulp operations of the past for example, the ensuing devastation to communities is much more severe.
We toured the facility and witnessed raw lumber being sliced up and processed into shingles at the hands of specialized machines and talented woodworkers. My ears were ringing and sawdust soon coated every cranny of my camera. I started to wonder whether our Nikon warranty covers sawdust damage but was quickly distracted and refocused on the scene before me. The sheer enormity of the operation and the amount of talent and work required to turn trees into shingles was startling.
Keith gave us insight and a marked goal: how can we support these local operations, maximize benefits to our communities and minimize irreversible degradation to our environment? We need to quell the animosity between environmentalists and the timber industry, recognize our common goals and draft a timber plan.
How can we better design timber sales to support small scale local millers?
Part of that entails designing small manageable sales that attract bids from smaller operations. Michael Kampnich, Field Representative from The Nature Conservancy and our avid tour guide and mentor, explained the need for ‘no export provisions' on a selection of timber sales to level the playing field. According to Michael,
"As it is now, its apples against oranges and mill owners who want to focus on a higher percentage of local processing are at a disadvantage when bidding on sales that include an export provision."
‘No export provisions;' on targeted timber sales would incentivize in-region manufacturing of raw lumber and help small mills fairly compete for, and win, small timber sale bids. As Landers pointed out, small mills are high in employment, provide stable jobs, and use wood resources on a sustainable scale. However, many of the woodworkers we met, including Landers, stressed the important balance of larger and small mills. The larger, more engineered mills (mainly Viking Lumber) support regional infrastructure that the smaller mills, and communities more generally, depend on (e.g. barge, road systems etc.). It's a tricky balance and one that will require more thought, fieldwork and discussions in communities with a great variety of stakeholders. Understanding the impact this balance has on our forests, how we can more carefully and responsibly craft timber sales is also an important piece of the puzzle.
We thanked Landers for his wisdom, dusted ourselves (and our camera equipment) off and left R&L Salvage for our next stop, Good Faith Lumber.
We rambled down a maze of logging roads in search of the bucket Larry left by the road to signify our pulloff. Eventually, we spotted the bucket and a sedan pulled conspicuously off the gravel. We were greeted by Larry Trumble who owns and operates Wood Marine a soundboard manufacturer. Larry is intriguing. He often speaks about himself in the third person and mumbles off topic pretty regularly. All his idiosyncrasies contribute to his charm and we were eager to follow him to his worksite. We trudged behind him up the cliffside. Larry maneuvered through the forest with an unexpected agility and grace. It became clear that Larry spends a lot of time in the Tongass. We balanced behind him, filed up the trunk and along the spine of his treasured Sitka Spruce. We arrived to his ‘office' and Larry quickly began rigging up a makeshift antenna so he could access some motivational music before he began harvesting future soundboards from the spruce laying before him.
".. It's always country music," he murmured in disappointment once the sound waves hit our spot. He began to work, splitting the spruce and hammering out pieces with the occasional curse and remark about the quality of each block, "It's a pig in a poke, a pig in a poke!"
The view was inspiring. We were perched on a huge stump, balanced on a cliffside, overlooking a calm and misty afternoon settle across the Tongass and coast. The peace was quickly interrupted by the sawing and chatter of Larry. Larry wasn't used to having guests tag along; he talked incessantly. He commented how in most cases, he hikes across rough terrain and eventually camps beside his beloved spruce for the time it takes to buck it up.
The work was hard and I felt a bit guilty snapping photos and asking questions while he sweat and toiled over his woody bounty. This particular spruce will take Larry an estimated five weeks to process between chopping up the tree, packing down to the wood, processing the raw lumber into a ‘book set' for soundboards, drying and selling. Larry will salvage about six trees a year and produce from the raw lumber, valuable book sets that will be sold at a high price to a variety of guitar markers across the country. Trumble stressed the rarity of musicwood trees and emphasized how this invaluable resource should be managed to incentivize the in-region manufacturing of high value added products like soundboards.
It doesn't get more ‘small scale' than Larry. He prospects for trees alone and chops up the wood by himself. He processes and sells the boards on his own and it only takes six selectively harvested dead and down trees a year to sustain his valuable business providing musical instruments for the world. He's an atypical kind of guy, that flourishes in an atypical ‘self employed' type of business. The kind of peculiar resident that gives rural Alaska its distinct character.
Keeping characters like Larry in business requires more than just the careful management of old-growth trees. According to Larry, "The most important thing for keeping the microscale program going is keeping roads open."
The US Forest Service intends to close fifty percent of existing roads across the region. These musicwood businesses operate under the US Forest Service's microsale program and as Larry points out, depend on access to old-growth stands in timber designated areas to prospect and find appropriate dead wood that meet the stringent qualifications for musicwood.
The microsale program is a valuable timber initiative that facilitates the extraction of high value products from fallen trees within a short distance of particular road systems. Programs of this scale and minor environmental disturbance should be supported and efforts taken to prevent subsistence loggers like Larry, who obey all protocols and responsibly extract a high value product from dead trees on an already disturbed roadside, from being forced out of business. Existing roads that the Forest Service made, are depended on by Larry and other residents and businesses across the region. This is particularly evident on Prince of Wales. A careful selection of existing roads should be maintained for sustainable timber microsales and to maintain access into forest stands for management activities such as silvicultural thinning and restorative restoration. Instead of focusing efforts on building additional roads, the Forest Service could instead maintain the ones we have. The specific roads that access timber designated areas, support a valuable and diverse microsale industry that is becoming increasingly relevant on the Tongass as large-scale mass timber harvests subside and small, value added, innovative woodworking enterprises flourish.
We left Larry to his work and jumped into our rig. As we drove past, we could hear a chainsaw firing up somewhere hidden in the treeline. Musicwood producers on Prince of Wales Island showed us how you can flip an astonishing profit from the careful use of a small amount of dead old-growth spruce. We left the glamorous world of musicwood behind and headed next to a mill where we would learn a thing or two about shingles, dimensional lumber and spotted owls. Tune in tomorrow.
Brent and Annette Cole have been supplying sustainably sourced, high quality sound boards or 'tone wood' to string instrument producers since 1995
We ambled down the road and through the rain to our first lesson in woodworking. Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is a major soundboard producer on the island. We pulled into the drive and were immediately welcomed by Annette who was grinning and eager to show us the operation. The place was caked in sawdust. Antlers dangled from the rafters and every available space was jam packed with plates of wood. These soundboards will be mandolins, guitars and other string instruments someday strummed by the hands of established musicians and frustrated hopefuls.
Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business' humble and family oriented beginnings.
"The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with him [Brent] and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack…"
Today, business is booming and the charming bucolic series of wood sheds in the Cole's yard is being replaced by a shiny new manufacturing facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. This advancement is welcomed by Annette and Brent who explained how even minimal exposure to the elements can influence a sound board.
So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the glory of sound board wood, which is why Brent's products are in demand by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent string-instrument crafters across the globe. To demonstrate the quality of this wood for sound production, Annette pinched a ‘½ sound board set' between her thumb and forefinger and let the wood hang. With her other hand she tapped and flicked the center of the sound board. A beautiful sound reverberated from the wood and a big grin crawled across her face. "Just listen," she said.
Straight, slow growing, ancient Sitka spruce with tight uniform rings (and the way the wood is cut) produce the stiff, tough softwood quality necessary for musicwood. The particular trees that meet the stringent requirements necessary to produce high quality sound are not widespread. ASW salvages ‘dead standing' or ‘dead down' old-growth spruce for their production. They will search the forest for appropriate trees and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service who then refer to a long-list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges! This mantra of salvage, reuse and eliminating waste is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.
"All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste- not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on- as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture...This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don't know that it's a waste. But, I like to see it get used and if it's used to put groceries on a family's table then, I think that's a good thing."
As Brent points out, although wood is technically a ‘renewable' resource, the types of trees he sources are limited and stewardship and care are required to assure their presence in the long run. One thing is for certain, once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little is ‘wasted'. Every possible space on their property is cram packed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by ASW and not a single inch of this wood will be unused. When excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried during a landslide, twenty feet under the earth.
"We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray." Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. "It's 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years" Annette proudly announced. This wood is being processed and soundboards are sold under the ‘Ancient Sitka Line'. The story of this wood reminds us just how astonishingly unique our natural resources are. The rarity, age and significance of our forests gives a story to our lumber that adds unparalleled value to wood products manufactured here in Alaska.
The Ancient Sitka Line of sound boards is crafted from a 2,800 year old Sitka Spruce that was uncovered during excavation on their property. Once unearthed and exposed to the air, the blonde wood turned a brilliant blue gray color with spectacular streaks. This tone wood is available for purchase on the ASW website.
"There's a lot of history recorded in these boards... every one of those growth lines is a year and we aren't going to use anything less than a 300 year old tree to get a sound board out of."
Protecting the longevity of the musicwood industry rests on the careful management of old-growth forests in Southeast Alaska. Part of a responsible management scheme will involve maximizing the best use and highest value for the raw material.
"I like to see the resource, the fiber, being used for its best purpose... I wouldn't take something that could be a sound board and turn it into a floor choice. Now you need good quality timber, but there's certain criteria that is specific for a soundboard and yea, it would make 2 x 2 for a wall but, it needs to be used for what it's best value is-where it will do its best for everybody."
Recognizing the most suitable and valuable use of a given tree or piece of lumber is a critical component to maximizing benefits from our invaluable old-growth forests. Understanding when we can and can not substitute second-growth, or younger timber for wood products is an important piece to a successful industry and a responsible timber program.Business is booming and Annette and Brent are moving their family business from their humble woodshed to a refurbished facility across the street. Like the lumber ASW utilizes, the original building frame was salvaged and transported from an unused facility on South Prince of Wales.
Brent and Annette were wonderful hosts who taught us a great deal about the careful use of our globally rare wood. We admired the beautiful Ancient Sitka Line a bit longer before Michael herded us back into the truck. We slid beside piles of boards and were careful not to be hooked by a saw.
We left Alaska Specialty Woods and headed for our next stop. There, in the company of an unconventional guide, we would witness raw musicwood being extracted from the rainforest floor. Check back tomorrow to meet Mr. Larry Trumble.
Sitka Kitch is the recent community food project that arose from the 2013 Sitka Health Summit. SCS is spearheading this effort along with a committee of dedicated volunteers. The overall goal of SitkaKitchis to improve health, provide a new community resource and promote community development; all through the lens of food security. SCS has a history of success when it comes to promoting local food and we hope that Sitka Kitch will be no different. There are numerous opportunities for Sitka Kitch to continue to foster programs like Fish 2 Schools, partner with local food organizations, all through a shared use community kitchen.
The SitkaKitchwill start with food based education and emergency preparedness at the household level. In fact we will be offering several classes in July on how to can and prepare food for your pantry. As it grows, theKitchseeks to provide career and technical training, and entrepreneurial development opportunities. This will be achieved through a shared use community kitchen. We have partnered with the First Presbyterian Church to provide space on a limited basis. SCS and the church collaborated in April to prepare an application to the "Northwest Coast Presbytery community blessings grant." The proposal outlined a budget to renovate their existing kitchen to meet the requirements of becoming a DEC certified Kitchen and thus meet the needs of potential SitkaKitchusers. The application was successful and we were awarded $13,000 for the project! The renovations will be underway this summer with a goal of offering commercial space to users in the late summer or early fall.
For more information on classes or being a new tenant contact Marjorie at SCS ([email protected]or 747-7509).
In 2010 local fish was absent from the school lunch menu--now, less than four years later local fish is offered at every school in Sitka. It all started at Blatchley Middle School and along the way Keet Gooshi Heen, Pacific High, Mount Edgecumbe High, Sitka High, and SEER Schools joined the ranks. With a hugely successful trial lunch at Baranof Elementary, they have agreed to participate regularly next school year. Each year we take steps towards a sustainable Fish to Schools program.
I love this program for so many reasons. I love how it brings the community together--fishermen in the schools, parents joining students for lunch, local fish supporting local processors, testimonials on the radio. And I love that it's taken the whole community to make it successful--schools investing in the idea, food service preparing meals from scratch, teachers opening up their classrooms, parents encouraging their children to choose fish for lunch, students eating fish, and local citizens taking a stand politically by advocating for state support through letters and testimonials.
Nothing makes me happier than hearing stories of children trying fish for the first time through Fish to Schools and loving it. Or students who used to hate fish, now eating it at home prepared just like Chef Colette made it in the classroom. Or the stories of children pointing out different fishing boats on the water that they learned in Stream to Plate.
Fish to Schools is a program that brings together community around food--a food that is so culturally, traditionally, and economically important to Sitka. If we can teach children that salmon require respect--respect in their harvest and habitat--we will continue to have a thriving fishery that supports subsistence, recreation, and commercial needs for..ever. We hope this program lays the groundwork on how fishing works and inspire children either support or become involved in the industry. We've had a few successes in the 2013-2014 school year. Here's a snapshot we want to celebrate with you.
- Baranof Elementary School joins the ranks!
- Our story has been featured in a number of Alaska and national media outlets including National Fisherman Magazine (check out the Northern Lights column and follow-up story currently going to print) and Chewing the Fat, a WBEZ radio podcast in Chicago. We're featured in the same radio hour as Chez Panisse Chef Alice Waters and Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper. I would encourage you to listen to the whole program but if you want to hear just the Fish to Schools bit scroll to 35:25.
- We also had the opportunity and privilege to speak at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference this spring on a "protein" panel. Many schools around the country are comfortably integrating local fruits and veggies into their school lunch program but proteins are a different beast. This panel focused on seafood, beef, chicken, pork, and legumes as viable protein sources for schools. The conversation is expanding and constantly changing!
- We're thrilled to announce that our advocacy efforts this last legislative session paid off! Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools was funded for the third year in a row, which means more funding for schools to purchase Alaskan foods. It's a win for the schools to purchase healthy, local foods while at the same time providing a stable market for local businesses. It's also stretching schools to prepare more meals from scratch because most of the Alaskan foods currently on the market are raw: seafood, livestock, and vegetables. Nearly every district in the state is using this funding to purchase Alaskan seafood!
- And finally, we've been contracted by the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to support Fish to Schools efforts in four Southeast Communities: Hydaburg, Kasaan, Kake, and Hoonah. We have been welcomed in each community and have had great conversations about how to get local fish into the schools. More details on this soon!
Understanding ‘The Tongass Transition': What It Means for Our BackyardMaybe you've seen or heard some of these terms being thrown around our website, news publications, in conversations or radio pieces: the Tongass Transition, the Tongass Land Management Plan, Second Growth, Young Growth, Old Growth, Tongass Advisory Committee. Maybe not.
Either way, lets look at what the Tongass Transition means for our public lands and how it will impact our 17 million acre backyard. Lets dissect some of this jargon.
Southeast Alaska is broken into private land, state land, native corporation property and many small, rural communities. The Tongass National Forest encompasses the great majority of land and includes forest, alpine, mountains, coastline, , glaciers, estuaries, rivers and streams. These lands are managed very differently compared with national parks like Glacier Bay. While both are ‘public lands', National Forests are managed for multiple uses. You can fish here, hunt, camp, log timber, harvest mushrooms, and start a business based on the extraction or admiration of, natural resources. That being said, you can't just do whatever you want in National Forests. These public lands are managed for ecological integrity and public use by the US Forest Service. Our 17 million acre backyard is chopped up into different subsections with differing land use designations that determine where timber can be extracted, where wilderness is maintained, where ‘modifications' can occur and what types of projects and interventions can happen here.
The Tongass Transition Framework refers to a shift in management of these public lands. In 2011, the framework was first announced by leaders in the Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that houses the United States Forest Service. The goal of the management shift being to transition focus from old growth clear cutting to young growth management and a more holistic approach to governing these lands that integrates all non-timber harvest economic values that the Tongass generates. To understand the significance of this from an ecological standpoint let's visit the forest.
Old Growth, Second Growth, Young Growth : A Very Brief Ecology
The differences between ‘old-growth' and ‘young-growth' are important and a little background in forest succession will help you see why. First off, the term ‘stand' is often used to describe a tract of forest with similar characteristics. The characteristics of our old-growth stands include mature, ancient trees, represented primarily by Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock and Alaska Yellow Cedar. Of these trees, the Alaska Yellow Cedar are especially ancient: some may be as old as 3000 years. When these trees were saplings, the Ancient Egyptian empire was just coming to a close. So it's no surprise that it takes time for a forest to show old growth characteristics- hence ‘old' growth.
These stands are critical for wildlife who depend on the specific characteristics of this forest structure. For example, during harsh winters Sitka Black Tailed Deer depend on the lush understory and protection from snowpack that the old-growth canopy provides. Also, old-growth stands that are adjacent to salmon rivers facilitate fish production. When standing, these trees regulate stream temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and their ancient roots prevent erosion of stream banks. When they die and crash into the water, their trunks and root wads create pools and make habitat for salmon to spawn and smolts to rest from rushing currents. These forest stands are ecologically important for sustaining healthy populations of wildlife, regulating clean water, fresh air, sequestering carbon etc. These stands are also economically significant and currently represent the bulk focus of timber harvesting on the Tongass.
When large expanses of old-growth stands are clear-cut, the characteristics of the forest are dramatically altered. As the trees begin to grow back in unison, they pack together densely in competition for sunlight. The top canopies of these even aged trees close and overlap so tightly that plants thriving on the forest floor (e.g. forbs, berry bushes, ferns, and shrubs) don't receive sunlight and eventually die. Wildlife (and humans) struggle to navigate through the dense trees and slash (woody material left behind during the harvest that clutters the forest floor). Although not worthless, these stands are considerably less valuable for wildlife due to an eventual lack of understory plants for forage and the limits to motion the forest structure creates. These trees have often been called second-growth because they are the ‘second' group of trees established in an area, after the initial clearcut. They are more accurately called young-growth because they can be cut again and again and a 'third' and ‘fourth' growth of trees would follow. If you hike off the trails in Southeast Alaska, the difference between stands is intuitive: you can take a nice stroll through old growth, you need to bushwack through early second growth. Thinning second-growth stands, or removing a percentage of the trees, can help wildlife while providing timber. This is the timber source the Transition intends to move to.
Why Do We Need A Transition?
A healthy forest landscape includes a mixture of forest stands in varying stages of succession. Disturbances happen naturally (think landslide and blowdown) and forest succession is an inevitable process. The ecological issues lie in the extent and sheer magnitude of past clearcuts that left behind an unnatural mosaic of forest succession and salmon streams devoid of large trees. Over the course of 60 years the Forest Service and private native corporations sold and harvested almost 1 millions acres of our rainforest. We crushed the majority of this wood into dissolving pulp and barged it, and eventually the economic stimulation it brought, away. This has left behind vast acreage of second growth, impaired landscapes and streams and, rural communities that desperately need sustainable economic stimulation.
The reasons for the Transition however, extend beyond ecological needs. The reasons are vast and also social, economic, political, ideological. Unsustainable timber liquidation is a story retold across the globe- the world is running out of ancient trees and old-growth forests. We want to protect our remaining stands because healthy ecosystems provide clean water, air, atmosphere and energy. We also want to protect old-growth forests so our children can inherit these spectacular landscapes. We want to recreate here and we need healthy wildlife populations to continue to hunt deer, harvest plants and fish. We want to maintain our national heritage and the quality of life in Southeast Alaska we cherish. Old growth is a big part of a healthy environment and healthy communities. Practically and economically, a continued sole dependence on old-growth lumber can not be sustained long-term. Although wood is technically a ‘renewable' resource, without careful management and patience, 300 year old spruce and hemlock trees can not realistically support industry if the harvest of these trees is not done with silvicultural tenets in mind like sustained yield, appropriate harvest scale for regeneration and rotation, and long term stand management and planning.
We are lucky in the Tongass because we still have considerable areas of virtually untouched forest, healthy salmon habitat and a variety of natural resources that, if managed carefully, can sustain diverse and vibrant economies in Southeast Alaska long term. We still have time to make this work and exploring uses for second growth is a good start.
The Big Picture: What is the Transition Really About
While a wholesale halt to all old-growth harvesting is both unrealistic and unnecessary, changes to our timber policy are integral. We need policies that value this globally rare commodity for what it really is: precious. We need to harvest carefully, selectively and manufacture and utilize this lumber in a way that maximizes stable jobs in the Southeast, respects the resource, and uses it responsibly.
The agency is also transitioning from a narrow focus on timber to the reality that the Tongass National Forest provides ample resources beyond wood. How can we maintain these other resources and stimulate additional economic opportunity around them? In the words of the same miller, "If we depend on just fishing, just mining or just timber- we are going to deplete one or the other." [quote]So the Tongass Transition is not just about pursuing smaller trees and leaving the old ones behind, its about establishing a more balanced and holistic management regime that values this land and its residents long term[/quote]. Investigating the best use of, and sustained management of our timber resources is part of it. Rebuilding the health of habitat damaged by past logging is part. Understanding how these resources will be impacted by climate change and preparing is a piece. Recognizing the significance of recreation and tourism to our economy is a big chunk of it too.
The Transition in Practice: The Tongass AdvisoryCommittee
Accomplishing this transition is no easy task. Southeast Alaska is a unique place where a single agency is responsible for the vast majority of land in a region that depends on the natural resources it provides. We need a healthy and stable supply of natural resources for our economy, our subsistence, for clean water, fresh air and energy production. We need our forest to keep producing salmon, the key economic driver and cultural lifeblood in the region, and we need to protect all of this from overharvest and climate change. That is certainly not an easy task and a massive amount of responsibility for an agency with limited resources. To the great benefit of all, the Forest Service has been strengthening its capacity for collaboration and partnership building and this is where our final terms enter the story- the ‘TAC' and ‘TLMP'.
The members of the TAC were selected and announced in May. The ‘Tongass Advisory Committee' is an official Federal Advisory Committee that includes conservationists, industry representatives, native interests, and other stakeholder leaders. The team of fifteen will participate in a series of meetings and discussions led by a professional and highly experienced facilitator and mediator. In 2015, the group will provide guidance to the Forest Service, make recommendations, and propose alternatives to amend the Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP). TLMP is basically a constitution for how our 17 million acre backyard should be managed. It is a dynamic document that needs to be amended and updated when our values, economies, and resources shift. With respect to timber specifically, this document outlines where and how lumber can be harvested, how forest stands are ‘upkept', thinned and managed for future harvesting and what regulations and rules must be upheld to protect wildlife. TLMP is the ‘go-to' document for forest management and adjustments and amendments to the plan will have lasting and important impacts on our forest.
The Sitka Conservation Society is pleased that our executive director, Andrew Thoms, will be standing on the TAC committee and providing support and guidance alongside a variety of stakeholders. [quote]SCS is working in the field, on the forest and in rural communities to flesh out our vision, inform our objectives and prepare recommendations for TAC. We will continue to share our findings, our vision and seek input from our community so that we can best represent our collective vision.[/quote]
So again, what is the Transition? [quote]Simply put, the Tongass Transition is about maximizing local benefits to our communities while minimizing negative impacts to the ecological integrity of the forest we depend on and love.[/quote] The Transition is about responsibility and caring for a landscape that can provide resources while maintaining its full compliment of ecological diversity- something that is increasingly rare across the globe. The Transition is a refusal to repeat history. The Transition is about being proactive rather than reactive and TAC and the future amendment process is about giving voice back to variety stakeholders who love and depend on our 17-million acre backyard.
In an effort to build community around Fish to Schools we've invited you to give a testimonial about the program. We've heard from the generous fishermen who donate to the program, to parents, to teachers, and students. The beauty in working with the schools is that everyone can be involved. Regardless of income, students can order the finest quality fish in the world, caught right here in the Sitka Sound. It's environmentally and economically responsible. And it tastes really good.
This is the latest Fish to Schools promo we produced through KCAW, Raven Radio. I hope it puts a smile on your face. Alexandra was a wonderful interview, enjoy.
Click the link to listen: Alexandra PSA