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.
The day we headed out from Hoonah was like most days in Southeast Alaska. Grey clouds diffused the light and an almost imperceptible rain left everything damp. We were headed to the Inian Islands, a cluster of knobby isles on the western end of Icy Strait, just inside the entrance to Cross Sound. Our trip held a dual mission: to conduct volunteer wilderness monitoring for the Forest Service and to gather traditional subsistence foods for the Hoonah locals on the trip: Owen James and Gordon Greenwald, our boat captains and wizened culture-bearers, two young men named Randy and Sam, and another adult volunteer, Kathy McCrobie.
The Inians along with two other large islands make up the Pleasant/Lemesurier/Inian Island Wilderness. The PLI Wilderness is one of 19 areas within the Tongass National Forest designated as Wilderness, the highest form of protection public lands can receive. The islands are also historic gathering and hunting grounds of the Huna Tlingit, the native tribe who call this section of northern Southeast Alaska home. Because the Inians are close to the open sea, they are rich with unique flora and fauna. A trip to these distant islands is an opportunity to collect delicacies not common in interior waters near Hoonah. For instance, one of our subsistence targets was black seaweed, a species that thrives in the cold, wave washed intertidal zone of the outercoast, but is rarely found more than a few miles into the Southeast archipelago.
The outside waters can be a harsh place in the summer and downright inhospitable in the winter. Although the Huna Tlingit are seasoned open ocean travelers and motorized skiffs make the 40-mile journey from the village of Hoonah to the islands much more manageable than a Tlingit canoe, it is still a sizable trip for locals. The same factors—difficult access and a short season—also make it difficult for the Forest Service Wilderness Rangers who are headquartered in Hoonah, to access these areas that they are tasked with managing and protecting.
On the first day of our trip we arrived at the Inian Islands after a few hours of skiffing over unusually calm waters. Our first stop was at lowtide on a rocky beach, the perfect habitat for Black Katy chitons, one of the traditional foods commonly called Gumboots which we hoped to return with.
The beach also looked like it could be a prime camping area, so while the rest of the crew flipped rocks and pried unsuspecting chitons from their hiding spots, I headed up the beach to look for recreational impacts. Monitoring impacts from visitors is one of the tasks the Forest Service has asked us to assist with. Wilderness areas are intended to preserve nature in its wildest state, but trash, campfire rings, and other signs of previous visitors detract from the wild character of these places. Also, once a site has been impacted, the trend is a downward slope to a trashed site. To prevent cumulative impact, we check known campsites and cleanup and naturalize any human traces we find. Fortunately, this site was in the same condition it's probably been in since it was uncovered by the glacier, so I spent some time flipping rocks and adding to the gumboots collection. As the tide neared its apex, Gordon pointed out a small rock island set apart from the larger Inian Islands. For generations, this rock had been the prize destination for Huna families. Set far from land and too small to support trees, the rock is the perfect nesting ground for seabirds like gulls and cormorants and we had timed our trip perfectly to harvest the new eggs. As we approached the rock in skiffs, Gordon and Owen explainedthe protocol: as the swell surges, we run the skiff up to the rock, one person jumps off, and he pulls the bow away before the swell drops the boat onto the shore, then reset and try again for the next person. Before they maneuvered the skiffs toward the rock, they carefully taught the boys the traditional method to appropriately harvest the eggs. If done in an ecologically responsible way, these practices will be able to continue forever. (Learn more about the regulation regarding egg collection by Alaskan Natives).
As we approached the rock in skiffs, Gordon and Owen explained the protocol: as the swell surges, we run the skiff up to the rock, one person jumps off, and he pulls the bow away before the swell drops the boat onto the shore, then reset and try again for the next person. Once on the rocks, Gordon instructed Sam and Randy to only take eggs from nests with multiple eggs, always leaving one behind.
Sam was the first to make the jump. The birds immediately erupted in a cacophony of squawks and feathers. Randy and I traded apprehensive glances. I made an excuse that I needed to pack my camera gear in drybags before I could jump...really I just wanted one more chance to see how it was done. Randy landed an impressive leap, despite receiving a bootfull of water. I followed him up the rock. As a non-Native, without subsistence rights to the eggs, my job was to enjoy the view. Blankets of birds flapped above us. The few green tufts of grass made a stark contrast to the guano-bleached stone and the blue-grey sky and water. It took no time for Sam and Randy to collect plenty of eggs to share with family and elders back in Hoonah. With concentration, steady boat handling, and good timing, we all made it safely back aboard the skiffs.
As the day went on, I was impressed with the way Owen and Gordon pointed out new landmarks to the two young men. Every remark about a headland or bay included not only geographicalreferences, but also historical, cultural, and subsistence context.
That night, while we ate chowder made with local salmon, smoked octopus and cockles, I reflected on the education Randy and Sam had inherited on this trip. I have no doubt that they were more interested in learning about hunting spots, edible shellfish, and traditional stories than they were about the Wilderness land designation of their home. But, I would like to think that by relating the cultural values and subsistence practices of the Inian Islands along with the Wilderness values that will continue to protect this place for those practices, they have a better chance of retaining a favorable perspective of public lands, too.
In the end, the idea and values of Wilderness are stories, stories that must be repeated and retold to maintain their relevance. Gordon and Owen have endeavored to pass those stories to Hoonah youth. My esteem and thanks goes out to them for including the value of respect for public lands in the stories they tell.
Investigating a Responsible Timber Industry on the Tongass: A Conservationist’s Perspective (1 of 6 part series)
The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) formed almost fifty years ago when citizens banded together to take grassroots action to protect the natural environment of Southeast Alaska. Massive clearcuts were threatening our quality of life and the ecological integrity of our forests. Startlingly, the majority of these huge stands of temperate rainforest spruce and hemlock was being pulverized into pulp- hardly the best use of our globally rare and awe-inspiring trees. The pulp days brought transient economic stimulation and left behind clearcuts, impaired forest systems and rural communities desperate for sustainable economic stimulation and a more responsible timber industry.
Compared to the pulp behemoths of yesterday, the current logging scene on the Tongass is almost unrecognizable. Because the most economical, highest quality, and easiest to access trees have been cut, today's timber industry is much smaller in size and scope. Tongass lumber is being used for products beyond pulp such as soundboards for guitars, dimensional lumber, shingles, and furniture.
The work of the Sitka Conservation Society is also changing. We work in a new atmosphere on the Tongass, where stakeholders prioritize the forging of collaborative partnerships to tackle regional challenges and capitalize on regional opportunity.
The need to promote a land management regime that represents sustainability, rather than the ‘boom-and-bust' mentality of the past, in recognized as critical to the long-term prosperity of communities in Southeast Alaska. The composition of our forest is also changing. Clearcut areas are becoming commercially viable young-growth stands while old-growth forests become increasingly rare in the region and across the globe. The Tongass announced its Transition Framework in 2011, with the intent of moving forest management from an unsustainable and myopic focus on old-growth harvest to young-growth management and a more holistic approach to governing the Tongass.
Andrew Thoms, executive director for SCS, has been named a member of the Tongass Federal Advisory Committee and SCS staff are busy meeting community members, recording interests, ground truthing timber harvests, and digging deeper and wider to understand timber on the Tongass. We intend to use these experiences, insight, values, and ideals to help inform the Tongass Advisory Committee process as it shapes future Tongass management. Our guiding question is simple:
How can we maximize local benefits to our communities here in the Southeast while minimizing negative impacts to the ecological integrity of the forest we depend on and love. How do we ensure long-term ecological integrity and renewable resource returns?
Easy enough, right? Wrong. Answering this question is no easy task. The stakeholders are many, the ways of achieving this are endless and the goal itself is a spectrum. As daunting a course this is, we are dedicated to the cause.
To ground our vision as conservationists, it is necessary to step beyond conventional norms and walk among the lumberjacks and millers for a while. How is old-growth lumber being used, processed and manufactured on the Tongass today? We grabbed our field notebooks, left our insulated and cozy home of Sitka, hopped on a Harris Airplane and flew to Prince of Wales Island (POW) where the action is.
Prince of Wales Island: Where the action is
Unlike Sitka and much of Southeast Alaska, POW is criss-crossed with roads, old logging roads to be specific. The network of asphalt connects the towns of POW as it winds through old-growth stands, clear cuts, over rivers, along estuaries, through valleys, and over mountain passes. Our travel guide was Michael Kampnich, the Field Representative for The Nature Conservancy on Prince of Wales. Kampnich arrived to Alaska in the 1980's to log. He found a home in the area and never left. Kampnich has built a relationship with a few of the mills here on POW. Michael has a high regard for the effort it takes to operate and maintain these mills. Owners aren't in an office directing others, they're running the sawmill or operating one of the many pieces of equipment necessary to produce a shingle, a board or a piece of trim. Most of them are acquainted with Michael, and for that reason they were willing to break away from their busy schedule to chat with Marjorie and I.
Tune in tomorrow to meet Brent and Annette Cole ofAlaska Specialty Woods. This family of musicwood producers has more than just a great story to share, check in to oogle at their gorgeous 2,800 year old 'Ancient Sitka Line' of soon-to-be guitars.
The Dargon point Timber sale was offered on May 10, 2014. Prospective bidders are given 30 days to respond in a sealed bid process. The estimated value, as appraised by the USFS appraisal system, for the 4,520 mbf* of young-growth timber offered was $440,035.85. The official sale and opening of the bids was held on June 10, 2014 with four bids received as follows:
- Frontier Inc. $ 797,915.00
- Good Faith Lumber $ 682,800.00
- SEALASKA Corp. $ 626,236.00
- Dahlstrom Lumber $ 470,000.00
So what's the big deal? To understand the issues, let's start form the beginning. The Dargon Point timber sale is a young-growth timber harvest involving 57.7 acres on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. This sale presents a unique, new economic opportunity and is one of the first of its kind in SE Alaska. The sale provides large expanses of valuable and viable young-growth timber accessible by road, a characteristic uncommon in remote Alaska.
Dargon Point and the Transition Framework
The Dargon Point sale is significant because of the opportunity to stimulate the Tongass Transition and promote resilient, sustainable and economically diverse Southeast Alaskan communities by catalyzing in-region business development, in-region manufacture of value-added products, and more value-per-board-foot. However, the same threat still exists, the exportation of the long-term benefits, along with jobs and profits, overseas. The size, logistical ease and value of the sale has attracted the attention of large-scale lumber exporters, primarily in Asian markets.
Dargon Point represents a real opportunity to stimulate economic diversification in the region. The Tongass Transition Framework was put forward by the US Department of Agriculture in 2010 with the support of communities, tribes, and entities throughout the region. The framework was initiated to stimulate job creation, address the dwindling supply of old-growth timber, and transition Southeast Alaska into a sustainable, economically diverse region with a healthy young-growth timber industry.
A large component of the Tongass transition involves moving the region out of old-growth timber harvest and into young-growth management. The outcome of the Dargon Point sale can set a promising precedent for the future of young-growth sales and stimulate a successful integrated transition.
Outdated Policy and Practices:In 2012, during the NEPA scoping process, Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole promised expansive regional benefits
"The project will be pretty wide-ranging in its impacts, from improving forest health and wildlife habitat to providing sawlogs to mills and job opportunities for local contractors…If approved, the young-growth volume will diversify the current Southeast Alaska timber industry".However, these "wide-ranging" local impacts are unlikely to be realized if Cole, the US Forest Service and the region fail to address shortcomings in the current timber appraisal system. The existing appraisal system virtually eliminates local businesses by making it near impossible for small-scale miller operations to realistically compete with timber exporters. Timber sale layouts, offerings, harvest timing, and size, could be carried out in a responsible manner that encourages business investment, job growth, and value-added manufacturing in Alaska. As it stands, the appraisal system does not fully capture the value that young-growth timber offers our region, nor does it catalyze local development.
This system needs to be reformed or amended to realistically support the values and goals of the Tongass Transition and value local processors for a young-growth industry. Alaska Region 10 is undoubtedly unique and has logistical, cultural and historical differences that need to be reflected in the governance of its natural resources. The system needs to encourage business investment and business development.
In the last decade, the USFS has fore fronted the need to collaborate with partners as it realizes its mission across the United States. Many regional entities have been collaborating effectively with the USFS, local mills, schools, contractors, and businesses to ensure an efficient young-growth process that supports job creation, capacity building, economic diversification and a healthy future for our young-growth industry. For instance, the Nature Conservancy's retooling loan fund intends to aid regional mills in building infrastructure for processing young growth. The Sitka Conservation Society has worked with partners to build young-growth community assets, test business plans and understand the best-use of young-growth wood.
All of these activities are in line with the USDA's Strikeforce initiative, a "commitment to growing economies, increasing investments and creating opportunities in poverty-stricken rural communities". While Strikeforce and the Transition Framework support economic growth and a smaller scale timber industry suitable for SE Alaska, there is a marked disconnect between these initiatives and the sales being planned and offered. The success of the transition and the full, long-term benefits of our combined work cannot be realized without legitimate access to young-growth timber for local mills and businesses. The next major collaboration may be one that explores and evaluates the timber appraisal system and the goals of the US Forest Service. Do they want to develop and support a timber sale program that is appropriate to the scale and needs of Region 10? Or will it remain business as usual with our resources exported for others to profit from them.
Dargon Point: The Bottom Line:All of these issues are evident when reviewing the bids put forth for the Dargon Point sale. In addition to the notable variety of bid amounts, one thing is evident; multiple buyers all see a value in young-growth timber. However, this is likely due to the export market value. The USFS needs to follow suit and start valuing timber resources in a way that affords SE Alaska a future in young-growth timber. According to Keith Rush, Forester with The Nature Conservancy
"Alaska uses about 80 million board feet of lumber every year. Almost all of this is young-growth lumber shipped up from the lower 48. Some of this could and should be processed locally."If the appraisal calculator were reflective of actual regional needs and the value of local resources, we would already be doing just that. In-region processing must be represented in the appraisal system, if not promoted over export. Young-growth is a forest resource that is valuable and we should be moving the transition forward by investing in young-growth opportunities.
The solution is two-fold, first the USFS should design and offer young-growth sales that are scaled to benefit local processing rather than attract export companies. This means sales of less than 1 MMBF. Secondly, designing and offering young-growth sales located on the existing road systems for local processing only will enable smaller outfits to be competitive in the bidding process.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org 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!
On Tuesday night, June 10, just over 40 people gathered at Crescent Harbor to embark on a three hour boat cruise that travelled out of Sitka Sound, all the way to West Crawfish Inlet and back. Fresh off the plane from Boston, MA, I was lucky enough to be one of those participants, and had my first real introduction to the Alaskan landscape that I will be working with closely this summer as SCS's Wilderness Intern. We were exploring by boat the South Baranoff Wilderness Area, one of the nineteen wilderness areas that is managed by the United States Forest Service within the Tongass Forest of Southeast Alaska. The cruise, the first of four trips being sponsored by SCS over the course of the summer, had as its educational theme the concept and land designation of "wilderness," in honor of this year's 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. A landmark moment in American history, this act, signed into law in 1964 by President Johnson after almost unanimous Congressional approval, officially recognized as important the designation and legal protection of places "without permanent improvements or human habitation" (Wilderness Act of 1964, Section 2 c. "Definition of Wilderness). Wilderness was meant to be a place where nature reigned and humans remained solely as visitors.
The visitors on this week's boat tour certainly got a taste of wilderness' wonders, catching sight over the duration of the trip of sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, and sweeping old-growth forests of western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and Alaskan yellow cedar. About halfway through we even caught a glimpse of one of the brown bears for which Sitka, and Southeast Alaska in general, is so famous. In some ways, the boat cruise, and the natural beauty being appreciated from its decks, thus functioned as a celebration of the past – a celebration of the 50 years of committed stewardship that has kept such pristine places intact, and preserved them for the enjoyment of future generations and those who have yet to behold the natural splendor of Alaska.
But even as it commemorated past achievements, the tour also served as a stark reminder that the battle for the protection of wild places is not yet over. As of only a few months ago, a Department of the Army permit was issued for work in the waters of Crawfish Inlet – the very inlet to which our cruise had come. The permit will allow the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA) to moor structures and store net pens in the inlet, which stands to interfere with the current use of these woods and waters for subsistence, recreation, and tourism operations. The land's "outstanding opportunities for solitude," one of the quintessential pillars and promises of wilderness areas, will no doubt also be negatively affected by the presence and operation of these large, metal enclosures.
Fish are a fundamental part of the Southeast's ecosystem, economy, and identity. And as such, they are a vitally important and valuable resource. But in a landscape that has so much to offer, we must be careful not to manage one resource – fish – at the expense of another – wilderness. The boat cruise, filled to capacity Tuesday night, stands as a testimony to how many people put value in the existence of these wild waters and forests of Alaska. Which is good news – because even 50 years out from the designation of the Wilderness Act, there clearly remain many natural and wild landscapes still in need of defense.
Information on the other boat cruisesbeing offered by SCS this summer can be found on our website.And for a glimpse of even more Alaskan wilderness, be sure to check out The Meaning of Wild,a 30-minute documentary that brings you deep into some of the most remote areas of the Tongass.Interested in getting out there yourself? Head to SCS's Wilderness pagewhere you can learn about opportunities to volunteer for the Sitka Conservation Society and explore remote and beautiful places all while making a difference!
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.
Greg Killinger fell in love with Southeast Alaska when he volunteered with the US Forest Service in 1983. During that first summer, he worked in fisheries surveying dozens of streams on Baranof and Chichagof Islands and other places on the Northern Tongass. This first summer was enough to convince him that this was where he wanted to be. He spent his next 30 years on the Tongass doing great things for our public lands and the natural world. Greg grew up in western Oregon. He graduated from Oregon State University with a Bachelor's degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Science. He went on to complete a master's degree in Natural Resource Management. Greg married his wife Lisa Petro, a local Sitkan, in 1990.
We worked very close with Greg in his position as the Tongass lead staff officer for Fisheries, Wildlife, Watershed, Ecology, Soils, and Subsistence. Greg held that post and worked under the Forest Supervisor from the Sitka Forest Service office. In that position, he oversaw and helped with all the programs across the Tongass for fisheries and watersheds. Greg was a key partner and helped build important relationships between the Sitka Conservation Society and the Forest Service. With him, we worked together on salmon habitat restoration projects like the Sitkoh River Restoration, restoration projects on Kruzof Island, and many other salmon-related projects across the entire Tongass.
Our working relationship with Greg and his employees was so close that we even shared staff. In 2011, SCS and Greg developed a position we called the Tongass Salmon Forest Resident. SCS funded the position and they worked under Greg. The position's goal was to "tell-the-story" of all the innovative and important programs that Greg managed on the Tongass that protected, enhanced, and restored salmon habitat. When SCS created the position, our goal was to shine the light on this great work. Greg put the spotlight on his staff and the partners that he worked with to make the Tongass's Fisheries and Watershed programs successful. That was the kind of leader that he was: he never wanted to take credit but always wanted to empower others and build more leadership and capacity.
That initial project led to two similar positions in 2012 and 2013. Greg worked with SCS staff to make two beautiful short films that shared the story of important fisheries management programs. One, called "Restoring America's Salmon Forest", illustrated a project Greg helped orchestrate that improved the health of the Sitkoh River—a major salmon producer damaged by past logging. The other, "Subsistence in Southeast Alaska: The Tongass National Forest's Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program", showcases the importance of Tongass salmon for subsistence use. This film also highlights important joint fisheries projects that Greg's program created with various Tribes across the Tongass. These programs continue to empower Native Alaskans to monitor important salmon runs across the region. Greg understood the importance of sharing the story of Tongass programs with the larger public. He was driven to showcase the importance of this forest in producing salmon and share how the Forest Service's staff cares for salmon, fisheries, and wildlife habitat. These films—and the many additional products that came from these partnerships—were catalyzed by Greg. Despite his heavy involvement, few recognized it was he who made them happen. Again, that was just the type of leader he was. He empowered and inspired us as a key catalyst that made things happen but did so from the background, never seeking credit or recognition.
Greg was also a serious outdoorsman. He loved fishing for king salmon in the early summer and dip-netting for sockeye in July. He was a very accomplished alpine hunter whose passion was chasing after sheep in the Alaska interior. Greg did a number of epic hunts solo. He once shared the story of a solo mountain goat hunt that he did during a particularly dry summer. He became severely dehydrated high in the mountains. At one point he was crawling into a gorge looking for water while hallucinating because he had already been without water and under the sun for 2 days (in a rainforest!). He did get his goat in the end though.
That type of solo hunting in big mountains really characterized the kind of person Greg was-- not macho and he didn't do any of that to show-off or to be the guy that got the biggest trophy-- rather, he did those hunts for the pure challenge and as the highest form of communing with the natural world of Alaska. Greg loved wildlife. He loved the land and the water and the oceans. He loved the ecosystems of Alaska and all the natural processes that tied them all together. Hunting for him was one of the many ways that he was part of those ecosystems and part of how he connected with the natural world.
Greg didn't just challenge himself on Dall Sheep hunts in the Alaska Range. Greg took on enormous challenges in the work that he did and with the same calm and unassuming manner that he talked about his extreme outdoor exploits. One isn't the type of leader that Greg exemplified or is responsible for the variety and complexity of programs that Greg oversaw on a whim. In fact, balancing all the issues and programs that Greg oversaw was more of a challenge than the hunts he loved so much. Protecting salmon habitat under pressure from development, finding the resources and coordinating the partners to restore critical salmon systems, bringing together extremely diverse interests to work together, and being responsible for defining the strategy for how our largest National Forest deals with Climate Change are just the tip of the iceberg of what Greg did in his day-to-day. In most likelihood, those extreme hunts for Greg were actually a simplification of life for him: a situation where the most logical rules of nature are paramount and where the most basic instinctual conflicts of man-vs-nature and man-vs-himself are played out amongst the most perfect and beautiful of our planet's natural creation.
Greg died suddenly, unexpectedly, and in his prime. The one and only grace of his passing is the fact that it happened on a mountainside, in the arms of the beautiful forest he loved, and on one of the most spectacular spring days there ever was in Sitka. He enjoyed that last day to its fullest fishing for King Salmon in the morning, gardening, and then a trip up the mountain.
Greg's unexpected passing left all of us who knew him shocked. We lost a mentor that we admired, a colleague that inspired us, and a friend that we could always count on. Greg came to the Tongass and when he left, he left it a better place. We will always remember him and we will always strive to be as good a person as he was.Written by: Andrew Thoms, Bethany Goodrich, Jon Martin, Kitty Labounty; May 30th, 2014
Video and Slideshow by: Bethany Goodrich, Corrine Ferguson, Pat Heur and the great help of Lisa, Su Meredith and all who scanned photos, dug through the archives and even digitized slides to memorialize Greg
Note: Greg Killinger will be added to the Sitka Conservation Society's Living Wilderness Celebration Board which honors the people who cherish and protect the wild and natural environment of the Tongass and have a passion for Wilderness. The above essay will be added to a book that tells the story of the people we honor and forever celebrate their lives and actions. In this way, we will continue to draw inspiration from Greg and all the others whose lives we celebrate.