As a small community surrounded by an abundance of natural resources, Sitka has an opportunity to be a leader in community sustainability. The Sitka Conservation Society originally formed around outrage at the large-scale clearcutting practices of local logging companies in the late 1960s and concern about pollution from the Sitka pulp mill. As SCS has grown, our goals and interests have grown with us, but we have remained committed to the improvement of Sitka's greater community. We are especially invested in environmental education, in promoting local business that use locally sourced materials, and in helping Sitkans reduce their energy consumption and transition to clean energy sources.
See the articles below for information on our most recent community projects or take a look at our blog.
The Sitka Conservation Society is involved with a diverse set of environmental education programs that reach hundreds of people from preschool age through retirement age every year. Some of these programs, such as Fish to Schools and Kids Energy Awareness, take place in the classroom. Others, such as 4H and Stream Team, are designed to get Sitkans excited about the outdoor science lab surrounding them. Stay tuned for more public seminars, after-school programs, and even public boat trips!
At the Sitka Conservation Society, we are working towards creating a more robust local food system. We are leading efforts to protect the habitat of wild foods, support traditional or subsistence harvesting, increase local food production, and to make local foods more accessible to the community. Recent successes include the Wild Foods Potluck and the Sitka Kitch.
While Sitka is a small town, the Sitka Conservation Society firmly believes that it can be a national leader in taking on climate change. If small-town Alaska can take meaningful progressive steps, why not any other community? SCS has successfully advocated to increase the city’s hydroelectric capacity and organized programs to help locals reduce their energy consumption.
Judi Lehmann, originally from Minnesota, is a world traveler who calls Sitka home. For the last several years, Judi has been learning the art of fish skin tanning and sewing. Her journey began when she took a fish skin sewing class from Audrey Armstrong. Judi and the other students worked with whole fish donated by Sitka Sound Science Center to learn how to clean, gut, and skin fish. After stripping the skins off the fish, they are soaked in alcohol before being sewn into various items, such as bags, bowls, hats, and even dresses.Read more
This Friday marks the beginning of a well-loved Sitka tradition, the Alaska Seafood Festival! The festival began in 2010, as a way to celebrate the bountiful ocean resources Sitka and Southeast Alaska has to offer. The fishing industry supplies significant revenue and jobs for the community as well as attracting tourists. Because seafood is such an important part of the Sitka community, it is essential that the resource is not only celebrated at the festival but also considered beyond the city limits.
Most Sitka residents and visitors enjoy the benefits of having plentiful wilderness recreation sites just a short distance from the city. These recreation sites are often within the Tongass National Forest. Like all national forests, the Tongass is under management of the US Forest Service. Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to work with Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and the Forest Service to evaluate different forest treatment plans created to ensure the forest, streams, and salmon are all working together in harmony. One concern is ample habitat for rearing juvenile and spawning adult salmon. Salmon depend on wood in the streams to create sheltered areas with a reduced current. However, past harvesting in the Tongass has disrupted the conifer growth that supplies this habitat. The good news is that the Forest Service has been applying different forest treatment plans to different areas with the goal of growing larger conifers that will eventually fall into the stream to provide habitat. Plentiful habitat then ensures thriving salmon populations that will prosper in the future.
Pink Salmon at Indian River
One such area is Appleton Cove located on North Baranof Island. SCS and the Forest Service recently traveled to this area to observe how trees along stream banks are growing and what kinds of trees there are. Our studies consisted of setting up four to six plots along the stream bank and flagging every live tree within these plots. We then recorded the tree species, diameter, and height. This study was also done at Fish Bay, Noxon, and other sites in order to create a representative and diverse sample. These studies will be combined with developing Forest Service research to guide how the trees along stream banks will be managed through treatments such as thinning.
Me and the Forest Service crew: Chris Leeseberg, Sarah Rubenstein, and Malachi Rhines
Sarah Rubenstein setting up a plot along a stream bank
Another Forest Service Project dedicated to preserving salmon populations is present at Redoubt Lake. Redoubt Lake is one of the largest meromictic lakes in North America meaning the lake has areas of salt water and fresh water that do not mix. Each year thousands of salmon swim from the ocean and up the falls to reach Redoubt Lake to spawn. The Forest Service has set up a weir at the opening of the lake, which is essentially a gate preventing fish from passing except in specific areas. Forest Service workers are then able to count the fish and identify their species as they swim through the weir or past a camera in the evenings. Sockeye and Coho salmon are also sampled meaning they are weighed, measured, and have a scale taken. This information is then used to further study the fish at Redoubt and their genetic make up. One concern is that farmed fish could be mating with wild fish and disrupting wild type DNA. The scale sample comes into play here as it is analyzed by geneticists to determine if the fish has any DNA inherited by a farmed fish. Counting the fish that return to Redoubt Lake each year will also help the Alaska Department of Fish and Game set appropriate harvest limits to ensure future abundance.
On Redoubt Lake with the weir in the background
This weekend while enjoying festival events such as cooking and canning classes, the seafood banquet, film screenings, and more remember to also consider the connection between forest management and the sustainability of valuable Alaskan seafood.
Learn more about how the US Forest Service manages the Tongass National Forest at www.fs.usda.gov/land/tongass/landmanagement and be sure to visit the SCS booth while at the festival.
Milt along the Sitka coastline.
The State Board of Fisheries (BoF) met this week to discuss fishery policies and regulations for Southeast and Yakutat finfish. Sound boring? It wasn’t! Herring policy debates were especially animated. This year, the conservation-minded proposals of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska butted up directly against commercial proposals submitted by the wryly named Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance. Every proposal had a counterproposal and every proposal had its champions. Faced with an array of options and with very little hard science to base decisions on, the Board of Fisheries opted to leave the sac-roe status quo intact, voting down every change put before them.
Was this a success story for industry? A success story for conservationists? A bitter pill to swallow for both sides? The continued decline of herring populations or their future recovery will answer that question. The clear success here is the Board of Fisheries process, which heavily emphasizes public participation and comment. Should we be genuinely excited about so much democracy in resource management? Absolutely!
How does the BoF Process Work?
The Board of Fisheries consists of seven members appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature. The governor’s appointees are chosen for their knowledge of fisheries and interest in public affairs, but with eye toward representing all interest groups (broadly broken into commercial, sport, and traditional). The BoF is advised by ADF&G scientists, but is not typically made of up scientists itself.
The strength of the BoF is the degree to which the Board’s meetings draw on public opinion. Comments and testimony were heavily solicited before and during the meeting. The real public process, though, is the “Committee of the Whole”. This was an opportunity for everyone present at the BoF meeting to reach a spontaneous agreement. No time limits, no set order, just discussion between proponents and opponents of each proposal. Unfortunately, unlike a round-table discussion where participants are speaking directly to each other, the open-room format with the Board as an audience seemed to inspire participants to perform for the Board. As salmon troller Eric Jordan pointed out, this part of the BoF is an opportunity for groups to avoid an arbitrary and often unwanted decision by the Board, but if participants don’t have the “fear of the seven dark angels...they have no incentive to come to an agreement.” With herring, this was especially apparent. Traditional and industry supporters upped their rhetoric and moved further apart on every proposal, each fearing compromise far more than the unknown of the Board’s decisions. Does this reflect a broken Board process? I think not. The need for real public input far outweighs the disappointment of watching increasing polarization between groups and with less emotionally-charged fisheries, the Committee of the Whole was productive.
After public orations and discussions, the Board deliberates and decides. Now, the public is the passive audience, and the Board restricts their questions to ADF&G staff members. Happily, Board members frequently cited written and oral public comment as well as the open discussions.
Why do we want this to be democratic?
It’s a reasonable question. Why would we want the ultimate decisions about herring fisheries to be made not by scientists, but by, in a worst case scenario, people who are blatantly biased non-experts, thinly disguised industry reps, random members of the public, and arbitrarily chosen government appointees?
First, in many ways natural resources like herring are public goods. Proper management of herring doesn't just benefit sac-roe seiners or roe-on kelp fishermen, it benefits the entire community. Properly managed, herring provide direct economic benefits to the fishermen who harvest them, indirect economic benefits to salmon fishermen, food for the marine ecosystem, a reason for whales to return to Sitka Sound and bring their entourage of tourists, cultural benefits for traditional users… the list is endless. Given this diversity of user groups, would anything other than the messy, publically accessible process of the BoF give adequate representation to all parties?
More importantly, there is no such thing as pure “science-based” resource management. Bias is endemic to the process. Even by calling herring a “resource”, we have introduced a bias toward harvesting and economic exploitation. By contrast, nobody talks about krill as a resource even though they occupy a similar trophic level to herring. After we decide to prosecute a herring fishery, we look to science to tell us how many herring are returning, what levels of harvest are sustainable, and why the population is fluctuating. Science cannot tell us whether seiners or gill-netters should have more of an opportunity to fish. Science does not inform the discussion about whether the cultural benefits of traditional roe on branch harvesting can be replaced by increased access to roe on kelp. Science has no opinion on the number of herring whales should be allocated given concerns of fishermen, nor can science quantify the full inspiration and ecological benefits of having a healthy whale population in Sitka Sound. Science, in short, tells us how much pie we have to manage and how many groups want a piece of said pie, but it says nothing about who “deserves” the largest slice. Resource management lies at the intersection of scientific knowledge and the needs and wants of interested user groups. Who has the right to judge between two groups, each of whom are asking for a larger allocation of herring? Only a collective, democratic body. In Alaska, only the Board of Fisheries.
Do you care about the future of the Tongass National Forest? Do you want to learn more about tiny houses? Or ocean acidification?
Join the staff and board of the Sitka Conservation Society for an evening filled with great food, conversation, and idea sharing. The We Love the Tongass Gathering will take place on Sunday, February 15 from 4-6 pm at Swan Lake Senior Center (402 Lake Street). Staff and board of the Sitka Conservation Society will discuss tiny homes, local wood, climate change, 4-H programming, and Tongass timber sales. Bring your ideas about how to promote sustainable communities in Southeast Alaska. Let your voice be heard!
This annual meeting is free and open to the public. For more information call SCS at 747-7509 or [email protected]
SCS is not involved with this project, but we are excited to highlight the exciting science our neighbors at the Sitka Tribe of Alaska are starting. We wish them sunny skies and toxin-free plankton samples!
No Southeast Alaskan wild foods potluck would be complete without butter clams, blue mussels, or geoducks harvested from along our local beaches. Unfortunately, the fear of picking up shellfish contaminated with paralyzing or brain-damaging toxins, such as those found in a “red tide”, is enough to make most shellfish aficionados stick to the grocery stores. Luckily, subsistence and recreational shellfish harvesters got their first helping of good news this week at the Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) conference organized and hosted by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. Starting next week, seven tribes from Southeast Alaska will begin collecting and analyzing plankton samples from local beaches to use as an early warning system for toxic plankton bloom events. Within a few years, this species monitoring will be accompanied by direct testing of shellfish samples in the Sitka Tribe’s new lab. The end goal, although a few years away, is for subsistence Southeast harvesters to have the up to date information necessary to make an informed decision about the risks of harvesting on a given beach. At stake? An abundant, local, delicious, and currently underutilized source of protein. Let the testing begin!
Many of us have heard of phytoplankton, but not many of us have a working knowledge of the different species or why they might be dangerous. Phytoplankton, or microscopic marine plants, are the world’s most important primary producers and are responsible for at least half of the global annual oxygen production. Microscopic oxygen-emitters floating through our oceans may sound like a dream come true, but phytoplankton are also capable of producing some of the world’s deadliest toxins. The HAB conference was introduced to Alaska’s three main phytoplankton villains: the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia and the dinoflagellates Dinophysis and Alexandrium. Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, a poison that targets brain cells and leads to permanent short-term memory loss known as Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP). Dinophysis is the most benign of Alaska’s toxic plankton and merely induces “food-poisoning on steroids”, or Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP). Alexandrium, the most well-known and feared species, produces saxitoxins that inhibit nerve function. This leads to Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) and, occasionally, to death. Saxitoxins are so potent that they have been weaponized by the U.S. military and are classified under Schedule 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Toxins classified as chemical weapons are terrifying, but plankton are hardly alone among organisms in their ability to produce deadly poisons. The reason planktonic toxins in particular get so much attention is the ease with which they make their way into the human food chain. Plankton are filtered indiscriminately out of the water by shellfish. In a bloom situation, when one plankton species multiplies especially rapidly, any toxins produced can quickly accumulate to lethal levels in all of our favorite mussels, clams, scallops, and even in crustaceans. Humans are not the only species affected by high toxin concentrations in our seafood; sea lions and whales are known to have died from ASP while sea otters in areas with frequent Alexandrium blooms have learned to taste and spit out shellfish with high saxitoxin concentrations.
All this terrifying information from was almost enough to turn me off mussels forever. Thankfully the goal of the HAB conference was not to terrify the tribes in attendance, but rather to empower them to test their own beaches and ultimately to predict risk. That risk is real – in May of 2011, for example, thirteen people in Ketchikan and Metlakatla were admitted to the hospital with symptoms of PSP. But there is hope: in contrast to Southeast Alaska, where recreational shellfish harvesters are playing Russian roulette every time they eat a clam, Washington State has established a highly effective system of early monitoring and shellfish testing throughout Puget Sound. The HAB conference heard from Dr. Vera Trainer (NOAA) and Dr. Jerry Borchert (Washington Department of Health) about how they have coordinated a crew of volunteers and amateurs to make one of the most impressive, comprehensive, and up to date risk maps for the public to use.
Under the tutelage of NOAA scientists Dr. Trainer, Dr. Steve Morton, and Dr. Jennifer Maucher, the HAB conference attendees learned how to collect a plankton sample at a local beach (the primary site for the Sitka Tribe will be at Starrigavan), how to prepare a slide of that sample, and finally how to interpret and identify the organisms present under a microscope. As the attendees ogled at their water samples, they learned to measure the relative abundance of a species. They also learned how to collect and upload our data to a shared website so that all seven tribes involved in this project can see the results of the others. The goal of this plankton monitoring is to use plankton abundances to predict whether there will be a toxicity spike in shellfish in the immediate future.
The Sitka Tribe’s program is modeled after Washington State’s, but the Washington program does have some important differences. First, Washington testers enjoy funding and support from the state’s Department of Health, support that shellfish testers in Alaska will not receive. That support means the Washington DOH can certify beaches as safe or close them to harvesting at any time. The Tribe will have no such authority. No one will be certifying beaches as definitively safe, nor will they be closing beaches that are deemed unsafe. It will be up to us as consumers to pay attention to the Tribe’s data. Secondly, Washington’s program currently consists of both weekly sampling of plankton and of direct testing of shellfish toxin levels. For now, the Alaska program will just consist of plankton sampling, with direct, weekly shellfish testing possibly a year or two away.
So if the beaches won’t be certified, and no one is going to be testing the clams I want to eat next week, and I’m not a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, why should I be excited about this HAB conference as a casual harvester? Because this is the first step to what may in the not-too-distant future grow into a Washington-style risk-assessment program. Because coordination between seven far-flung communities in Southeast Alaska will likely give us some surprising insights on plankton movements and habits, and possibly on local currents. Because watching private citizens collect and interpret valuable scientific data may eventually spur the state to get involved. And because waiting a few years to know that your local shellfish are safe is definitely worth it when the alternative is to risk paralysis and suffocation, permanent brain damage, or (best case) horrible food poisoning. In short, we should all be excited because this is the first step anyone in Southeast Alaska has taken to reclaiming some personal ownership of a local food resource. Bravo and smooth sailing to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska!
The term ‘affordable housing’ sometimes has a stigma associated with it. Depending on who you ask, It also means multiple things to various people. When we say affordable housing, we mean a rental or permanent home that may be rented or purchased by an individual or family with a living wage. There are multiple, creative housing types for increasing the amount of affordable housing in Sitka. The most desirable approach would be one with a triple bottom line ethic, not just highlighting the social justice issue of affordability, but also encouraging economic growth of local builders and suppliers, and reducing the carbon footprint of our homes. This means not only saving energy through design, but locally sourcing materials and decreasing our reliance on barged products for construction.
The tiny house movement is a design and social movement centered on living small and simply, and is one solution to affordable housing. Sitka is surrounded by federal and state private lands, so as a community, it is faced with a conundrum. How to encourage growth and promote sustainable development with literally no room to grow? The simple solution is going smaller and denser. Density is a valuable tool, allowing a municipality to control growth and develop districts. In many communities where space isn’t an issue, it is used to preserve open space and agricultural lands outside of a community. In a place like Sitka, it is necessary to allow for sustainable growth and affordable housing options which lead to mixed-income and diverse communities. The tiny house is the symbol of living with less and in a smaller space, as opposed to recent trends of maximizing square footage. Tiny houses add environmental value to homes and set a new standard. While it may not be for everyone, tiny house living can contribute to a greater environmental ethic in more ways than one. In addition to the tiny home or microhome style houses, another planning and development tool for affordable housing that is gaining momentum is the Community Land Trust. The SCDC (Sitka Community Development Corporation) has established the Sitka Community Land Trust, an entity that maintains ownership of a lot or parcel, to ensure the house or residence remains affordable. The local land trust is currently working on its first project, the Lillian Drive house.
When rethinking housing options, a heavy focus on the triple bottom line and sustainability broadens the scope of the issue to include local energy needs and costs. This means transforming the face of not only affordable housing, but community development, which has become a significant force in the national sustainability movement. Given our location, Sitka is heavily reliant on imported materials, food and fuel. All of which are associated with rapidly rising costs. However, with planning, deliberate design, innovative amenities and import substitution, Sitka’s housing model can be redefined. This new way of thinking about housing may generate community awareness and lead to more local jobs along with providing new, innovative housing options.
Sitka and its efforts have been fortunate enough to catch the attention of the State of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development (DCCED). The DCCED worked with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) to conduct a case study on Sitka and the Land Trust’s Lillian Drive project. The CCHRC prepared a full report that addressed design elements, energy efficient construction methods, housing features and components, and local timber materials. They also prepared concept designs that illustrate how these elements may be incorporated into the design and planning of a home with goals of maximizing space, building in energy efficiency, and sourcing local materials to reduce the overall carbon footprint of a house.
As Sitka’s housing needs grow and change, SCS is hoping to see more projects that embrace at least one of these key features: affordability, energy efficient, locally sourced and produced. SCS is especially interested in the use of local materials as our community explores these various housing models. We will be partnering with UAS and SItka High School on projects this spring. SCS hopes that pilot projects can help change perceptions and lead to more community development that focuses on a paradigm shift and diversifies our local, affordable housing stock.
Visiting Forest Service Wildlife Technician, Gwen Baluss carefully loosens the tie of a little sac and slowly reaches in. Delicately grasping the fragile creature within, she reveals the dark eyed junco to a resounding “AWE” echoing across the classroom as students pile on top of one another to get a closer look.
For the third year in a row, Baluss has returned to Sitka to continue studying and teaching the community about bird ecology. While juncos and other songbirds may frequent our feeders and whistle familiar songs during our afternoon strolls, there is still ample mystery to these birds. Scientists and land managers know relatively little about their range, distribution and migration ecology for one. Secondly, very few of us have been lucky enough to encounter our skittish feathered friends up close. As one of the participants ruefully commented, “The closest I’ve ever been to one of these birds has been sweeping away the unfortunate remains the cat dragged in.” “Don’t worry,” she facetiously reassured the bird banding team, “This will be my last cat.”
Last week, Blatchley middle school students, Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary classes, Sitka High students and the Sitka Conservation Society’s (SCS) 4-H program experienced a more pleasant close encounter with our beloved song birds. In the frosted garden behind Blatchley Middle school, Baluss and Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Director with the Sitka Conservation Society carefully and delicately untangle tiny trapped birds from the mist nets. Baluss bands their legs and the team begin taking measurements. Gwen’s enthusiasm for these often overlooked natural wonders peaks as she explains to wide-eyed students how the sheen of a junco’s eyes changes with age from gray to red, how males boast darker plumage atop their heads and how a surprising diversity between individual juncos exists if you just take the time to look carefully. Captivated students edge closer as she starts blowing tenderly on the bird’s belly to reveal yellow fat deposits visible beneath their paper-thin skin. The classroom is fully engaged.
Southeast Alaska offers diverse opportunities for scientific inquiry and exploration just a few yards from the school door. With the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest as our backyard, children here grow up immersed in this outstanding landscape. Experiences like Gwen’s visit, encourage our youth to approach exploring the environment from an academic or potentially career-driven perspective. Students continue to steward this project throughout the year. In the past, a Sitka High School student Naquioa Bautista, working with the Science Mentor Program coordinated by SCS, based her science fair project on studying the banded bird’s movement. From Naquoia’s study, we learned that Sitka’s winter juncos do not stray very far from their banding sites. On the back wall of Ms. Dick’s 6th grade science classroom, a modern twist on the infamous ‘wanted poster’ is displayed, showing each tagged bird and their band color combination. Students, families and all of Sitka’s residents are encouraged to keep a lookout for tagged birds on their feeders or fluttering about on the trails (please report sightings here).
This week, a few lucky students were given a particularly memorable experience. After a bit of fumbling, the student’s tiny hands encapsulated the virtually weightless fragile feathered mess, their tiny heartbeat pumping against the student’s palm. After taking a knee, the top hand would slowly lift and in an instant burst of energy, the birds would return to the trees of our backyards leaving only tiny soft floating feathers in the air and grins of admiration across each onlooker’s face.
This project is supported by the University of Alaska Southeast’s Natural History Seminar Series, the Sitka Charitable Trust, the Sitka Conservation Society and UAS Biology professor Kitty LaBounty. Gwen Baluss is a biologist with the US Forest Service in the Juneau Ranger District and a member of Juneau’s Audobon Society. Please report any banded bird sightings to [email protected] or report to the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network (SALMoN) . To learn more about Sitka’s 4-H program including how to enroll visit our 4-H page.
Two weeks ago, youth volunteers from 4-H harvested apples that were grown as a result of one of the initiatives from the 2010 Sitka Health Summit. Volunteers and their parents came together once again to decorate fabric for mason jars and to cook applesauce. The aptly-named event, Applooza, was hosted by the Sitka Kitch at the First Presbyterian Church. Sitka Conservation Society, in conjunction with the Sitka Food Co-Op and the Sitka Local Foods Network, supported and promoted this event. SCS staff members Mary Wood and Sarah Komisar encouraged the engagement of youth volunteers, providing the 4H participants with an opportunity to make a valuable contribution to our community while educating them about the importance of local food production and consumption. The beautifully-decorated jars of applesauce were donated to the Swan Lake Senior Center and the Salvation Army.
To increase the future capacity for successful food projects like Applooza, SCS will be sponsoring the planting of additional apple trees in Sitka. Please join us for our ‘Apple a Day’ apple tree workshop next week. Our Yale Fellow, Michelle Huang, has been working with Jud Kirkness to plan the event. Jud will be on hand to present everything you need to know about apple trees. We will have ordering instructions on hand and encourage everyone to order a tree. We have a goal of increasing the number of apple trees in Sitka by 15 this year! SCS will also be ordering an apple tree for the Pacific High school campus.
This is something SCS, Sitka Kitch, Sitka Local Foods Network and the Sitka Food Co-op would like to see become an annual event. Special thanks to all the Sitkans who supported this event through donations of jars, time, knowledge and offered up their apple trees for harvesting, including the trees at KCAW.