Habitat restoration in Tongass young-growth forests is expensive. If we can utilize the by-products of restoration projects to offset the costs, we can conduct more restoration. For the past several years, SCS has studied the potential of the restoration technique of creating "gaps" in even-aged young-growth forests. A "gap" is a very small clearcut (about 1/4 acre or less) that emulates the small-scale windthrow that is common in old-growth forests. With the USFS Sitka Ranger District, SCS recently monitored a restoration site and completed an analysis of a 23-year old data set. This study is unique in that it is the only study of the gap restoration technique in a commercial-aged young-growth forest, and the only gap study with a long-term data set. We found that the technique is effective at restoring deer habitat. The trees that were cut to create the gap have commercial value, which presents an opportunity to experiment with ways to remove the trees. Maybe we can have our cake (restoration) and eat it (wood products) too!
To read the report, follow this link HERE to the website of the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network.
This restoration site and the long-term monitoring effort is due to the persistence of the late Greg Killinger, USFS Wildlife Biologist. Greg is in one of the study site gaps in the photo below.
In the spring of 2011, the Sitka Conservation Society partnered with the Tongass National Forest to restore viable wildlife habitat in the second growth forests in Starrigavan Valley. Funding for this project was provided by the National Forest Foundation and SCS. Our efforts restored 5.2 acres of wildlife habitat by removing slash, provided firewood to 68 local families to help heat their homes, and initiated a student-based long-term monitoring project that continues to this day.
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!
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.
This school year, SCS partnered with the Sitka High School Construction Tech program to explore and demonstrate ways that young-growth red alder and Sitka spruce from the Tongass can be used in building and woodworking. The projects that resulted are profiled, along with others from throughout the region, in "Alaskan Grown: A Guide to Tongass Young Growth Timber and its Uses," published by SCS this month.
Funding for this guide was provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation as part of an ongoing effort to support sustainable timber harvest and local markets in the Tongass National Forest. The purpose is to invigorate markets for Tongass young-growth timber products, particularly in Southeast Alaska, by exploring their performance in a variety of interior and exterior applications. By sharing practical information, broadening the knowledge base, and connecting local producers with consumers, we hope to help builders, woodworkers, resource managers and others make more informed decisions about using Tongass young-growth.
Check out the guide to learn more about:
- Why Tongass young-growth is important right now
- What the most common species are, and how they can be used
- Where Tongass young growth is being used, including in the Sitka High School construction tech program, U.S. Forest Service public recreation cabins, and private homes
- When experts predict economic harvest of young-growth will be possible on the Tongass
- What it will take to start shaping a sustainable local young-growth industry with the opportunities we have today
Starrigavan Creek CabinThe Starrigavan Creek Cabin is not only the most popular cabin in the Tongass National Forest, it's also a tangible example of how sustainable second growth timber harvest can be utilized. Who needs old growth harvests when such beautiful things can be built with sustainable second growth?
Even building the cabin was a learning experience! This beautiful cabin was constructed as a part of University of Alaska Southeast's two-week log home building course. Check out a video about the building process here.
More important than being an example of the use of second growth timber, the Starrigavan Creek Cabin is a great place for family and friends to get out and explore the Starrigavan Recreation Area. There's a reason this cabin is the more frequently used in all of the Tongass National Forests - great times and great memories to be made!
What are your favorite memories from time spent at the Starrigavan Creek Cabin?
Each May in Starrigavan Valley, nearly 100 7th Graders from Blatchley Middle School in Sitka spend a couple days doing hands-on stream restoration and monitoring. In the classroom, the students learn about watershed ecology and salmon habitat. Then they hit the field and help professional watershed managers actually install in-stream wood structures to rebuild fish habitat. They also monitor water quality and changes is stream structure. This project has a slew of partners that includes the Sitka Conservation Society, Sitka Ranger District, Sitka School District, Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, National Park Service, and others.
This winter, students from Sitka High's Field Science Class worked with the Sitka Ranger District to target wildlife habitat restoration activities. We mapped occurrences of Vaccinium species (Blueberry) and other deer forage plants in young growth forests. We then used data analysis and mapping technologies to identify potential locations where the Forest Service can create canopy gaps. Gaps provide more light to the forest floor and encourage the growth of plants deer eat to survive snowy winters.