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.
Story and Images By Amy Li
It’s a brilliantly sunny day and just across from Kaasda Heen Circle, Sitka Conservation Society’s Community Conservation Corps members are working hard, filling the otherwise serene forest with sounds of buzzing weed wackers and humming chainsaws. For about a week, the Conservation Corps worked alongside local cemetery restoration expert Bob Sam on maintaining and beautifying the historic Presbyterian Church cemetery. Under the guidance and direction of Sam, they trimmed the understory, cleared out brush, and removed hazard trees.
After SCS received CARES funding for the Conservation Corps, helping Bob Sam with his decades-long effort to maintain and restore the cemeteries in Sitka immediately came to mind for Executive Director Andrew Thoms and SCCC project lead Ben Hughey when deciding what projects the Conservation Corps should work on.
“The Corps’s core mission is to support Sitka’s community assets, and the cemeteries are a very important part of our community,” Thoms said. “We hope to honor the people buried here by doing this work.”
The historic Presbyterian Church cemetery is the resting place for roughly 400 to 500 Alaska Native people, many of whom lived in the Cottage Community adjacent to Sheldon Jackson College. Despite the many important social justice figures buried in the cemetery, Sam believes that “few people in this community” know of its existence. Many key figures from the beginnings of the Native civil rights movement are buried in the cemetery, including Peter Simpson, the famous Alaska Native rights activist. Beyond helping found the Alaska Native Brotherhood and serving as its first Grand President, he also contributed significantly to Alaska Native land claims efforts in the early 20th century. Today, the cemetery is owned by the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
“I don’t know how many Native American places that own their ancestors and their cemeteries,” said Sam. “Sitka is one of those places, where we actually own our ancestors and lineal descendants have ultimate say-so of their ancestors. Powerful. We have a responsibility to take care of this place and make sure it’s not forgotten.”
The Sitka Community Conservation Corps worked diligently to help Sam in his ongoing upkeep of the cemetery. The three acres of lush forest shrouding the cemetery was so overgrown that just 20 years ago, it was impossible to walk through. Over the past two decades, Sam has worked tirelessly to thin the understory, remove standing dead trees, and restore headstones, improving the well-being of the forest and cemetery.
Before & After Clearing Work
“A sign of a healthy community is a clean cemetery,” explained Sam. “If we keep this place clean, it falls on the descendants in a good way. It helps us become better people, more thoughtful of our ancient connections as people that come from this place.”
With over 18 cemeteries like the Presbyterian Church cemetery scattered around Sitka, the work Sam and others have done to conserve and reinvigorate these resting places is crucial for not just the community, but also for those who have come before us and those to follow.
“I’m indigenizing this place, making it blend into nature, to decolonize and make it Tlingit,” said Sam. “It’s become a very beautiful place now.”
The moss-covered logs, bushes dripping with ripe huckleberries, and now-restored headstones concur. The Sitka Conservation Society Community Conservation Corps has helped Bob Sam in making the cemetery a bit more beautiful, for past, present, and future generations to find respite in.
“I’m very grateful that we have a cross section of the community working here,” said Sam of the Conservation Corps members, noting that they are local Sitkans. “It educates the community to respect this place with dignity and honor.”
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.