When collecting baseline solitude, campsite and invasive plant data in remote Wilderness areas throughout the Tongass National Forest, getting to these areas often presents a challenge, most often alleviated by taking a floatplane. However, to survey the greatest distance to help manage the most Wilderness, sea kayaks are needed for swift and efficient transportation. But how can a kayak fit in a small plane? The creators of the TRAK kayak are a company that offer a solution to this problem with their polyurethane fabric and foldable lightweight aluminum frame, allowing us to survey locations that may have otherwise been unrealistic.
This spring, generous donors rose to a matching challenge, allowing the Sitka Conservation Society to raise the funds to buy a TRAK kayak, and the kind folks at TRAK kayaks donated another three! This allowed us to take four people (the maximum number that fits in a beaver floatplane) into remote Wilderness areas and have kayaks after landing. This summer, we put the TRAK kayaks to the test, using them on five Wilderness Trips to five different Wilderness areas. The TRAKs were also used as part of a kids kayak course and were paddled on Mendenhall Lake in front of the Mendenhall Glacier.
The most trying trip for these TRAKs was a 13 day, 130 mile survey of the Portland Canal. The Portland Canal is a 100-mile long fiord that separates Canada from Southeast Alaska, with almost the entire Alaskan side lying within the Misty Fiord Wilderness area. However, the steep, almost unbroken rock walls, unrelenting wind and sheer remoteness makes it nearly impossible for the Forest Service to manage this canal. Thanks to the flexibility of the folding TRAK kayaks, we were able to survey this often overlooked canal. Still, before this trip we had only used the TRAKs once before and it was on a base camping expedition. Thus, there were some reasonable concerns about packing two-week’s worth of supplies in a folding boat. Luckily, the TRAKs packed well and handled amazingly. On this trip, we put the TRAKs to the test as we paddled in sizable chop nearly every day, dealt with the huge 20 foot tidal exchanges that were occurring at the time, and to our surprise we experienced the natural anomaly of a jökulhlaup—meaning a glacial lake broke free from the Salmon Glacier at the head of the fiord—resulting in a week-long constant ebb current. Nonetheless, the TRAK kayaks handled impressively well and it was easy to forget you were in a folding Kayak.
Another noteworthy expedition taken with the TRAK kayaks was on a trip down the west coast of Admiralty Island in Kootznoowoo Wilderness. On this trip, a crew of four took the ferry to Angoon and arrived in early afternoon. We were then able to take the Kayaks and gear to the sea, and we were on the water in time to find a good camp in the Wilderness by sunset. On this expedition, we paddled and surveyed 105 miles within the “Fortress of the Bear” before getting picked up by a floatplane. The flexibility to fold the kayaks into duffle bags greatly improves our ability to be stewards of the Wilderness and survey locations otherwise too remote.
Once again, we want to sincerely thank the kind and generous donors who helped SCS buy a TRAK, and we would also like to thank TRAK Kayaks for donating three boats to our project. Although the TRAK kayaks’ Wilderness field season is over, there are always remote Wilderness Areas in need of baseline Wilderness surveys, and we look forward to use these boats to manage our Wilderness areas in the future. If you are interested in learning more about the Community Wilderness Project, please feel free to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first 2014 summer Wilderness was a trip to the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness area, where we based camped at Baird Island. Here, we conducted visitor use monitoring, surveyed for invasive plants and completed campsite inventories. Additionally, we picked up a lot of beach trash and cached it on the island. During this trip, we also revisited sites where there were roofing materials and other trash cached from past field seasons. On October 8, SCS employees Mike Belitz and Sophie Nethercut and volunteer Paul Killian took a boat captained by Charlie Clark back to these locations to remove and dispose of the trash.
The Wilderness Act, which celebrated its 50th birthday last month, states that Wilderness Areas must be areas “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” Thus, as Wilderness stewards, we are inherently committed to collecting and removing trash, which compromises the naturalness of an area. While marine debris has been washing up on Alaska’s shores for decades, there has been an increase in marine debris since the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. This disaster makes the tireless endeavor of picking up trash appear even more insurmountable.
Although the tsunami debris has not been found to have radiation, it still causes serious risks to other animals. Marine debris is often made up of products that do not naturally decompose and would remain in the environment for years. Some of the most common marine debris is plastic and Styrofoam, which are often mistaken for food by fish, bears and seabirds. These animals are unable to digest these products which can be fatal to these animals because an accumulation of plastic and Styrofoam in their body may cause the animal to feel full, leading to death from starvation.
An additional concern is that Japanese tsunami debris was covered by Japanese plant or animal organisms and may reach coastlines outside their native habitats, becoming destructive to local fish, wildlife and plant species. Marine invasive species can seriously affect Alaskan marine ecology by outcompeting native species for food and habitat and their presence must be monitored.
Trips to the wilderness are often fantasized as remote excursions where one is surrounded by snow covered peaks, apex predators and clean running water. This trip to the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness did have its own grandeur scenery, as we were among vast old growth forest, spotted a regal black-tailed deer and in the distance stood the stunning Fairweather Range. But look a little closer and the algae ridden plastic bottles and half-chewed Styrofoam blocks painfully come into view. This trip was about recognizing the trash among the treasure and removing the items that should not be in Wilderness, a place federally protected as a safe haven from human impact.
The signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964 legally mandated the preservation of designated wilderness areas throughout the United States. Section 2 (c) elegantly defined wilderness to be "…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man" as well as "…an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions." In regards to managing these wilderness areas, two contradictory phrases emerge from this definition: "untrammeled by man" and "natural conditions." They may not seem to be inherently contradictory, but even with minimal human activity, over time the idea of "wild" and "natural" have begun to clash.
In order for an area to be wild, it must be unfettered by human control and manipulation. Wilderness areas, however, are frequented by visitors whose visits, sometimes quite negatively, impact the area. As a result of all this human interaction with wilderness, native species, patterns and ecological processes change. So the question arises, in these circumstances, where the natural conditions of the wilderness have been unsuccessfully preserved, should people enter these areas and attempt to restore them to their natural condition?
Ecological restoration is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration as an "intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability." Thus, restoration with its innate quality will bring conservationists into wilderness areas, compromising the wild aspect of the wilderness. Still, if restoration is not pursued, the naturalness of the area may be further diminished, as native ecosystems degrade. So, herein lies the management dilemma for restoring wilderness—striking the balance between wild and natural. The vague definition of wilderness adds to the management conundrum, as what aspect of wilderness takes priority (being "wild" or "natural) is up for interpretation.
The Tongass, with 18 wilderness areas spanning 5,746,000 acres, presents a unique vignette of this dilemma. Recently, a group consisting of Scott Harris (SCS's Conservation Science Director), Kitty Labounty (SCS board member and Botany Professor at University of Alaska Southeast), Jen McNew (Botany Intern) and myself ventured to Rust Lake, located in the West Chichigof Wilderness area, to take our stab at wilderness restoration. Our task was to locate and eradicate non-native dandelions (Taraxacum officnale).
This recent trip was the second time that Kitty had been to Rust Lake this summer. The dandelionpopulationwas present but not overwhelmingly so. During our three days at Rust Lake we pulled over 1,000 dandelions from gravel bars along the Rust Lake stream. One thousand plants may seem like a lot, but it is likely that your backyard has over 100 individual dandelion plants. Still, dandelions are well adapted to distributehundreds of seeds great distances and are capable of outcompeting the native plants at Rust Lake. This is why we were motivated to manage the population. That being said, the native flora, including monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) and alpine bog swertia (Swertia perennis), currently appear unharmed. Thus, with two trips per year to Rust Lake to pull dandelions, the native ecosystem will likely flourish.
Rust Lake offers another possible wilderness restoration project, because it has a "tap" for a hydroelectric plant that used to provide power to the historic Chichagof mine. The hydroelectric plant and mine are both inoperative, but the tap continues to function, significantly lowering the Lake's water level below its natural level. In fact, the water level is so low that our floatplane pilot remarked that landing in Rust Lake is "always an experiment." Plugging this spigot appears to be a straightforward project that would not be too difficult, but go a long way in restoring Rust Lake to its natural condition. This brings me back to my original point, what takes priority? Restoring the lake to its natural condition? Or keeping it "untrammeled" by human activity?
The majority of my knowledge stems from learning about and working to restore highly degraded environments. Here in Southeast Alaska, I have spent the bulk of my time monitoring restoration of forests and streams in areas that were once clear-cut. The idea of restoring wilderness vastly differs from these kinds of restoration projects. These areas are not completely degraded by the interruptions of humans. These areas are the last stronghold of what once covered the earth—natural and unhampered ecosystems. The unique habitats found at Rust Lake include many magnificent sub-alpine wildflowers that must be protected from weed invasion. Wilderness areas are the last refuge for countless species and ecosystems and in order to best protect these areas, managers must work to find that balance between wild and natural. The fact that these areas are so extraordinarily sparse is exactly why I think we should cautiously pursue wilderness restoration.
Is it possible to restore clear-cut areas of the Tongass National Forest back to their original composition? While this question will remain unanswered for generations, we do know some things about restoration in the Tongass. Trees regrow in logged areas, with the assistance of people or not. However, the natural succession of second-growth forest in the Tongass results in a dense forest filled with numerous spruce stems and little to no understory growth. The characteristic moss, fern, and shrub understory that illuminates the forest floor in old-growth forests is replaced with bare ground and needles. This not only decreases the biodiversity found on the forest floor, but it also provides poor habitat to many species. There are techniques being used to restore the ground cover of second-growth forest in the Tongass, and we at SCS are committed to making sure these projects continue to be implemented and monitored.
My most recent endeavor involving the restoration of the Tongass National Forest was at Kruzof Island. Kruzof Island is an important neighbor to Sitka that offers recreation activities, tourist attractions and an area for subsistence hunting. Still, this island is scarred from the clear-cutting that occurred in central Kruzof. Of course, as the forest on Kruzof Island regrows, central Kruzof Island becomes a great location for restoration work.
On my trip to Kruzof, Scott Harris (SCS's Watershed Program Manager) and I ATVed and bushwacked our way to artificial gaps cut in Kruzof's second growth forest. These gaps are part of a program to restore wildlife habitat in logged forests, and we were monitoring the effectiveness of these gaps. An effective gap would be filled with shrubs like blueberry for deer to browse on, while an ineffective gap would be overrun with salmonberry or hemlock flush. After collecting countless scratches on our arms from crawling through the dense spruce forest to get to these gaps, we were able to draw some conclusions about the forest succession occurring at Kruzof. Where thinning of the forest or artificial gaps were cut, the forest was filled with shrub thickets, while moss, ferns, and forbs covered the forest ground. Thus, these artificial disturbances appear to be working as designed! They are providing space for the young trees to grow, while improving shrub growth. However, there is still a lot of unthinned forest on Kruzof and some of the gaps are filling in, meaning there is still a critical need for further restoration work. If restoration projects continue to be implemented on Kruzof and throughout the Tongass, we may be able to catalyze the establishment of healthy secondary forests.
Logging Kruzof Island not only affected its terrestrial ecosystems, but the streams were greatly affected as well. While streams running through old-growth forest are filled with fallen trees and root wads which provide great habitat for salmon, the streams we walked through in central Kruzof are deprived of fallen trees, leaving the salmon habitat highly inadequate. These streams offer ideal locations for future stream restoration work. They are located near trails used by Alaska ATV tours (among other users) and allow easier access to possible restoration sites, allowing more restoration work to occur for less time and money. In order to restore Kruzof's terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, trees must be placed into the streams and the forest should be thinned. Thus, the trees cut to thin the forest surrounding the streams may be placed into the stream. In this way, both the stream and forest may be restored together.
Kruzof Island offers a great opportunity to implement restoration projects and bring a clear-cut island back to an island dense with shrubs, deer, and salmon. The time frame and viability of restoring Southeast Alaskan ecosystems back to their original structure may be unknown, but we are capable of propelling the process forward. As natural resources continue to deplete and climate change adds to the insecurity of the environment we live in, we must not watch the world go by. Instead, we must actively work together to help conserve and restore the Tongass National Forest, our forest.
My title for the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is "Wild Salmon Conservation and Restoration Intern", and yet, outside of taking a couple of water samples, I have not directly worked with salmon or rivers. How is this possible? How can I spend a majority of my time in the forest while emphasizing in my title that my work is dedicated to conserving and restoring wild salmon? Well, many Sitkans know the answer. They will tell you that the salmon are in the trees. In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Greater Sitka Arts Council and Sitka Summer Music Festival held an art event called "Salmon in the Trees." This slogan is wonderful because we too often forget that all of our actions are connected to ecosystems, and the salmon and the trees reminds us about how we do have this connection. So as the salmon are in the trees, my work for salmon takes me to the forest.
The mutualism between salmon and trees is fascinating. Old growth forests provide great habitat to salmon by providing shade to stabilize stream temperatures, while fallen trees and broken branches form pools giving shelter to salmon. The trees benefit from the salmon as well. This is because as salmon swim upstream, they take with them the prefect fertilizer package, filled with protein, fat, nitrogen and phosphorus. Bears, eagles, and other dispersers move salmon throughout the forest, fertilizing trees far from the stream. So not only are the salmon in the trees, but the trees need salmon.
I arrived in Sitka a little over a week ago, and since arriving, the stunning sights around me have constantly amazed me. I am surrounded by beautiful scenes of mountains, forests, and maritime infrastructure that drastically differ from the everyday sights of my Wisconsin upbringing. Luckily, I will be immersed in the natural beauty of the area all summer, as my summer position with the Sitka Conservation Society will involve a good amount of fieldwork. For my position as the wild salmon conservation and restoration intern, I will need to familiarize myself with the Pacific Northwest ecosystems, and considering I have never been west of South Dakota, I have a lot to learn.
Reading about ecosystems is an excellent beginning step in the learning process, but I think in order to best understand an ecosystem, you must physically venture into the ecosystem. Luckily for me, I am surrounded by largest national forest in the United States, the Tongass National Forest, giving me a classroom of 17 million acres.
One particular area of the Tongass National Forest where I will be spending a lot of time this summer will be at Starrigavan, a site that was extensively logged in the 1970s and is now a second growth forest. At Starrigavan, the U.S. Forest Service cleared eight gaps in an attempt to help improve the understory vegetation, which in turns helps provide forage vegetation for deer. One of my projects this summer will be helping to create small (5m X 5m) deer exclosures in six of these gaps in order to study how deer foraging affects the understory development. The most difficult part of this project has already proven to be hiking all of the equipment through the dense second growth forest to the gaps.
A different task this summer will be setting up and collecting data for a study looking at the insect diversity and abundance found in second growth forest. Due to the fact that most restoration projects are geared towards salmon and deer, little is known about the habitat suitability of second growth forests on species other than salmon and deer. For this reason, this work is extremely compelling and relevant. In fact there is not even a good list of possible insects that could be found in the pit-fall traps we are setting up!
All in all, this summer looks like it is shaping out to be an experience of a lifetime, an experience that will be mentally and physically challenging at times, but one that will be perpetually rewarding. I look forward to becoming a better field biologist and conservationist, and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from my colleagues at the Sitka Conservation Society. I also look forward to learning from listening, feeling, and experiencing the wilderness of the Tongass National Forest.