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.
Join us in the field to collect ecological monitoring data and learn about our projects! SCS is part of the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network, which integrates citizen science with long-term monitoring of the environment. There are multiple opportunities to join SCS on our field projects this summer. Check this link to learn more....
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.
In 2011, SCS began the Sitka Salmon Tours program. The goal of the tours was to give visitors a salmon's eye view from the forests where the salmon are born, to the ocean, the fisher and processor, and finally to our plates. We've discontinued the Salmon Tours for 2013. Instead, we have distilled all of the great facts, stories, and natural history from the tours into this manual, "Sitka: A Tongass Salmon Town." Now anyone can be an expert on wild Tongass Salmon. We hope that Sitka residents, guides, and naturalist will use this guide to share the miracle of salmon that attracts tens of thousands of visitors to this place each year.
Printed guides are available at the Sitka Conservation Society office. If you'd like us to mail you a copy, send a request to [email protected] Bulk copies are available for purchase at-cost (about $0.80 per copy).
Download a copy of the manual HERE.
Last weekend, SCS organized a work party to replace a broken bridge behind Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School. The bridge is used by students who monitor the stream and its surrounding habitat, but it recently sustained serious damage due to rot and falling trees, and became too unsafe for classroom use.
Requests were made to several organizations and agencies but every one of them lacked either the time, the money or the workers needed to perform the work. SCS turned out to be the perfect catalyst for drawing resources from around the community and turning them into an effective bridge-building team.
- Spenard Builders' Supply paid for about half of the material, and delivered them almost immediately.
- Sitka Trails Work covered the rest of the expenses, and provided tools, a truck, and invaluable expertise.
- Science teacher Rebecca Himschoot and her crew of Keet Gooshi Heen parent volunteers contributed their labor and tools. They also set up an impromptu class on the physics of levers.
- Carpenter Mike Venetti directed the project and designed the bridge.
- Sitka Community Schools and the Sitka Conservation Society contributed volunteer labor.
SCS's short documentary Restoring America's Salmon Forest was selected to show at the Alaska Forum on the Environment Film Festival on Friday, February 8, 2013 in Anchorage. The film focuses on a multi-agency effort to increase salmon returns on the Sitkoh River in Southeast Alaska's Chichagof Island, by improving the spawning and rearing habitat and redirecting a river that was heavily damaged by logging operations in the 1970s.
In the heyday of the Southeast Alaska timber industry, little regard was paid to the needs of salmon. Streams were frequently blocked and diverted, with streams in 70 major watersheds remaining that way decades later. Salmon surpassed timber in economic importance in Southeast Alaska more than two decades ago, but only in the last few years has the Forest Service finally made a serious effort to repair damaged streams. Currently over 7,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska are tied to the fishing industry, compared to about 200 in the timber industry. The Forest Service spends about three times as much on timber related projects as fisheries and restoration projects each year on the Tongass.
While salmon are responsible for 10 times as many jobs in Southeast Alaska as timber, and are also an important food source and a critical part of our cultural identity, the Forest Service still puts timber over salmon in its budget priorities. Recent Forest Service budgets have dedicated in the range of $22 million a year to timber and road building, compared to less than $2 million a year to restoring salmon streams damaged by past logging, despite a $100 million backlog of restoration projects.
Logging damages watersheds by diverting streams, blocking fish passage, and eliminating crucial spawning and rearing habitat structures. Restoration increases salmon returns by removing debris, redirecting streams, stabilizing banks to prevent erosion, and even thinning dense second-growth forest. We believe it simply makes sense to go back and repair habitat if you are responsible for its damage.
TAKE ACTION:Please contact your representatives in Washington to tell them the ways you depend on Tongass salmon, and tell them you support managing the Tongass for salmon and permanently protecting important salmon producing watersheds. Tell them it is time to redirect funds from the bloated timber budget to the salmon restoration budget, and finally transitioning away from the culture of old-growth timber to sustainable practices recognizing all resources and opportunities.
What to say:Check out the talking points in this post for some ideas of what you might include in your letters or calls.
Contact:Undersecretary Robert Bonnie Department of Natural Resources and the Environment U.S. Department of Agriculture 1400 Independence Ave., S.W. Washington, DC 20250 Email:[email protected] Senator Lisa Murkowski 709 Hart Senate Building Washington, DC 20510 Email: [email protected] Senator Mark Begich 825C Hart Senate Building Washington, DC 20510 Email: [email protected] If you have questions, contact the Sitka Conservation Society at 747-7509 or [email protected]
Produced by Bethany Goodrich, a summer staffer at the Sitka Conservation Society, "Restoring Alaska's Salmon Forest" provides a brief look at how a restoration project looks on the ground and what such a project can accomplish in terms of salmon returns.
Bob Christensen, original member of SCS's Groundtruthing Project team, recently completed a comprehensive review of forest restoration methods for The Wilderness Society. This very readable work provides a thorough background of the why, how, and where of restoring forest habitats in the Tongass National Forest. It also describes a concise method for prioritizing restoration locations based on ecological, social, and economic criteria. We used this work to inform the prioritization we conducted for the Sitka Community Use Area. Efforts like this are critical to our understanding and ever-constant learning about how to restore fish and wildlife habitat in Southeast Alaska.
You can view Bob's report below or download an 8 Mb version by clicking on this link.
The survey results are in. And the winner is..... Katlian River! We conducted a survey of Sitkans to identify community priorities for stream and forest restoration. Other places within the top 5 include Shelikof Creek (seen in the photo here), and Nakwasina River. Our survey also identified the values and activities that are most important to Sitkans when accessing public lands.
We combined the best of the ecological assessments with our survey data to come up with a Strategic Plan for restoring the watershed that are important to people living, working, and playing in the Sitka Community Use Area.