Most of the oldest and largest trees on the Tongass were cut in the decades following World War II. The patches of old growth that do remain may never be safe from danger. The Sitka Conservation Society strives to protect the remaining old growth forest and to advocate for wise and sustainable development of alternative Tongass resources such as salmon, second-growth timber, and tourism. Timber sales within the National Forest frequently result in substantial road building and habitat loss. Outside the National Forest and under the ownership of Native Corporations, or other private industrial interests, logging and habitat degradation can be pursued even more readily. Though the old growth timber in the Tongass is in danger, SCS is hopeful that by working with both the US Forest Service and private corporations, we can continue to spur our Southeast economies with Tongass resources without repeating the mistakes of the past.
SCS is keeping a close watch on how climate change affects the Tongass through annual summer field work. This research includes monitoring changes in ice packs, glaciers, and plant and animal populations. While it's hard to watch the negative impacts on the Tongass from global warming, having good data on those impacts is crucial for our climate change advocacy work that could ultimately prevent future harm.
A healthy and intact forest is the best defense against non-native species; however, human impacts through climate change, logging, and the introduction of exotic organisms weakens a forest’s natural defenses. In order to prevent invasive organisms from spreading and threatening native species, SCS helps monitor for invasives and assists in eradication and removal projects through the Community Wilderness Stewardship Project.
Do you want to do your part to help protect the Tongass and its communities? Check out the most recent Action Alerts for immediate steps you can take. From signing petitions to volunteering some hours in our office, anything you can do is crucial to our mission and much appreciated! Protecting the natural environment of the Tongass while promoting the development of sustainable communities is only possible with your help and support.
Terrible news for the Tongass this week: Around 70,000 acres of the Tongass are being turned over to Sealaska for development.
As Davey Lubin told the Sitka Sentinel this week, “I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized. It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”
This week’s developments show that not even our National Forests are protected from corporate control. Congress and the American public need to give this issue more scrutiny. Read the article below to hear SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms’s take on the Sealaska Lands Bill. The article below was printed in the Sitka Sentinel on Monday, December 15.
By SHANNON HAUGLAND, Sentinel Staff Writer
A bill transferring 70,000 acres of land from the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corp. passed Congress on Friday.
Rodman Bay (Photo provided by Sitka Conservation Society)
“It has taken seven years, but I’m proud to say that we finally completed the land conveyance for Southeast Alaska’s nearly 20,000 Native shareholders, and at the same time ensured that the region’s remaining timber mills have timber,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a news release, following the vote on Friday.
The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act was included in the bipartisan package of lands bills approved Friday as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. It provides Sealaska with 70,075 acres to finalize the transfer of land owed to the Native shareholders under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“Some 43 years after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal government will finally finish paying the debt we owe Natives for the settlement of their aboriginal land claims,” Murkowski said in the announcement.
The land transfer includes more than 68,000 acres available for logging, including land in Rodman Bay and Sinitsin Cove near Sitka, as well as 1,009 acres for renewable energy resources and recreational tourism, and 490 acres of Native cemetery and historic sites.
The legislation also includes about 152,067 acres of old-growth timber in new conservation areas to protect salmon and wildlife habitat, Murkowski said. The bill goes next to the president for his signature.
Representatives of Sealaska Corp. were unavailable for comment.
Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council Chairman Michael Baines said he was pleased by the news, which he ran across this weekend on Facebook.
“I’m 100 percent pleased, the council is pleased,” he said. He noted that the STA Tribal Council passed a resolution last week in support of the compromise legislation proposed by Murkowski.
Baines said he believes the legislation will be beneficial to tribal citizens.
“I hope it will mean an improved economic development for the corporation which will mean more dividends for the tribal citizens,” he said. “I hope it will mean jobs in Sitka but as far as I know there hasn’t been any jobs from the regional corporation.”
Asked whether he believes the land will be developed and logged any differently than in the past, Baines said, “I hope they’ve learned their lesson. They’ve done that before – and it’s taken decades to bring back more trees that they can log.”
Sitka Conservation Society Andrew Thoms said he was disappointed by the news.
“Anytime that public lands are given to a private corporation, it’s a loss for everyone,” he said. “It’s going to mean 70,000 acres of some of the best timber land in the Tongass put into Sealaska hands, and the old-growth stands they’ve been given are some of the best remaining stands of cedar left on the Tongass. The burden is on Sealaska now to do what’s best for the shareholders in the region.”
He called old-growth cedar a “cultural treasure of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.”
“As Sealaska now owns those best stands of cedar, are they going to continue to foster that connection, or will it be exported to Asian markets?” Thoms said. “It’s about more than just (habitat). The cedar trees in those stands are thousands of years old, and they won’t grow back in our lifetime.”
He cited Rodman Bay, on the north end of Baranof Island (30 miles north of Sitka), and Sinitsin Cove on North Kruzof (25 miles northeast of Sitka) as two areas closest to Sitka that are identified as “economic development” lands in the transfer.
Clarice Johnson, a Sealaska shareholder, said she was opposed to the lands transfer as proposed. (Johnson works at the nonprofit SCS but specified that she was speaking only as a shareholder.)
“I think there are a number of shareholders who are supportive of receiving our full land selection but not the way it was put in the rider, and they don’t think it will be much benefit to the average shareholder,” she said. “Possibly because Sealaska has lost so much money, they’ll probably cut the land quickly; and a large portion of any natural resource development in regional corporation land will be shared with other regional corporations.”
She noted that this provision – calling for regional corporations to share profits – has made it possible for Sealaska to pay out dividends, since the local regional corporation has not been profitable in recent years. She added that she believes the main beneficiaries of the land transfer and development of the lands will end up being the corporation’s board and staff through salaries and other compensation.
Johnson said she believes one of many results of the transfer will be the inadequate protection of karsts in Southeast.
“There is no protection compared to the U.S. Forest Service,” she said.
Johnson said that although only two “economic development” land selections are near Sitka there are others she believes are designated as “historic sites” including Kalinin Bay. She said the 15-acre site is the fifth largest historic site in the land selection.
Johnson said she’s concerned about what may happen at this location. “They can’t log, and they can’t mine there, but they can develop it,” she said.
Davey Lubin, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., five times in the last six years to testify against the Sealaska lands bill, said he was “highly disappointed” with the news.
“I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized,” he said. “It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”
The Sealaska lands bill is separate from legislation to transfer 11 acres near Redoubt Lake to Sealaska, which is now in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management, Baines said.
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.
Do you like wild Alaskan salmon? Then you should also like stream buffers.
What exactly is a stream buffer? It’s the area of land on either side of a stream, river or lake that is excluded from logging when the Forest Service designs timber sales. Stream buffers are extremely important because they ensure that old growth trees are left near salmon spawning and rearing sites. Old growth trees shade salmon spawning grounds and help regulate stream flow to facilitate future salmon runs. Their roots also protect salmon spawning and rearing areas from erosion, without them soils and sediments would wash into the stream choking the water and smothering the eggs. Stream buffers make it possible for delicious wild salmon to appear on your dinner plate!
Want to learn more about stream buffers? Check out the fact sheet below. Also, please take a moment (it will only take 30 seconds) to send an email to Chief Tidwell, the Chief of the Forest Service. Ask him to protect wild Alaskan salmon by prioritizing salmon in Forest Service budgets and management practices. Just copy and paste the blurb below (make sure to fill in your state, name, and address)!
Thanks so much for helping to protect wild salmon, the most vital resource of the Tongass National Forest.
BCC: [email protected] (BCC me so that we can use your letter as evidence that people are writing to him)
SUBJECT: I support your efforts on the Tongass Transition
Dear Chief Tidwell:
I am an (type your state here) constituent that commends your efforts to protect the wild salmon of Alaska through the Tongass Transition.
The Tongass Transition puts the focus back on salmon and healthy intact forest ecosystems. In other parts of the country, our lack of foresight and the misuse of our resources have significantly impacted salmon populations. Let’s not see the same thing happen in Alaska. We must work to protect salmon habitat and restore damaged salmon streams. Please prioritize salmon in Forest Service budgets and management practices to help us sustain this vital resource.
Chief Tidwell, please continue your work on implementing the Tongass Transition.
Thank you for your time and for protecting our salmon,
What do Canadian mines have to do with Alaskan wild salmon? Almost everything.
This link became all too apparent on August 4, when a tailings pond breached at Mount Polley mine in British Columbia. Millions of gallons of metal-contaminated water and sand poured out of the tailings pond and into the arteries of the Frasier River system, transforming healthy salmon-spawning rivers into wastelands. Several newspapers referred to the Mount Polley breach as one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history.
But it’s not just a Canadian disaster, it’s an Alaskan disaster. While the breach occurred on Canadian soil, it will adversely impact Alaskan waters and Alaska wild salmon. As Senator Begich noted in an August 26 press release, “The dam failure validated the fears that Alaskans have regarding Canada’s proposed development of large-scale hardrock mines near transboundary rivers like the Unuk, Stikine, and Taku Rivers.” For Southeast fishermen, this is not welcome news. And what’s worse…Mount Polley is only the beginning.
In northwest British Columbia (B.C.), a mining boom has begun that could threaten Southeast rivers, salmon, and Alaskan jobs in fishing and tourism. There are currently 21 mining projects in Northwest BC that are either active or in the later stages of exploration. At least 5 of these projects are located along the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk Rivers, key salmon rivers that flow right into Southeast Alaska.
The development of large-scale hardrock mines in BC is alarming. Almost all of the proposed mines involve large-scale hydro projects, transmission lines, roads, and storage areas for acid-generating waste rock and mine tailings. Threats posed by these mines to water quality and salmon habitat include tailings dam breaches, spills, long-term acid mine drainage, and habitat fragmentation. These concerns prompted a group of 36 Canadian and U.S. scientists to write a letter warning officials of the environmental risks posed by transboundary mines. To see the letter in full, click here: Letter of Concern about Proposed Development in the Transboundary Watersheds
In Southeast, salmon are the lifeblood of our economy. Salmon fishing (including commercial, sport, and subsistence fishing) supports over 7,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska alone and generates nearly $1 billion a year for our regional economy. Keeping our waters clear of mine tailing contaminates and acid-mine drainage is vital for our economy and our livelihoods.
What can do we do stop BC mines from contaminating Southeast Alaska waters? We have to raise our individual and collective voices. We must call our representatives and elected officials and ask them to use all means necessary to protect wild salmon runs from BC mining development. We must act locally. On October 14, the Sitka City Assembly voted 5-0 to protect Southeast salmon streams from transboundary mines in BC. Bravo City Assembly members! To see the full resolution, click here: RES 2014-16 Transboundary Mines
With every day that passes, BC mine projects inch closer to completion. Take action today to protect Alaska salmon.
Southeast Alaska’s waterways are its highways. Boats and barges are its trains and semi-trucks. For thousands of years, people in this area have lived off the abundant plants, animals and salmon stocks which the coastal temperate rainforest rainforest, today part of the Tongass National Forest, provides. Before the Russians occupied this chain of islands off the coast of British Columbia, Tlingit and Haida native peoples traversed its waters in the belly of canoes carved from Sitka spruce and red cedar trees. They paddled canoes to fishing camps in the summer and hunted for seal and sea otter. The Haida, in particular, were revered for their canoe craftsmanship, trading the vessels to tribes throughout modern day Alaska and Canada. When Alaska natives stopped relying on the canoes for daily use at the turn of the century, many of the original carvers passed away and took with them their time-tested technique of building and maintaining the dug-outs. Today, There are only a few of the original old-style dug-out canoes. Many are maintained by the tribes, while others are on display in museums. Yet even without those original teachers, a new generation of Haida and Tlingit canoe-carvers is emerging in Southeast Alaska, pulling together the clues of a lost art left by their ancestors.
One of those carvers is Stormy Hamar. Though he apprenticed with a totem carver as a young man, his knowledge of canoe carving comes mostly from his own research. He compiled photographs of old dug-outs, and spent hours in libraries and museums like the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa studying the crafts. I visited him on a typically windy, rainy day in his home town of Kasaan (pop. 53) on Prince of Wales Island. After braving fifty miles of logging roads through the national forest that surrounds the village, we were warmly met by a carload of Stormy’s family and his two apprentices, Eric and Harley. We followed to a beautiful new carving shed sitting on the edge of the bay. During the day, it’s open as a demonstration shed to the cruise ship passengers who stop for day trips in the town. The building was actually funded and is now owned by the Organized Village of Kasaan as part of a larger initiative amongst Southeast Alaskan tribes to provide alternatives to positions in construction and logging, and diversify the local economy.
Entering the shed, we were hit with the sweet familiar smell of red cedar. Paddles hung in the corner and woodchips covered the floor. Stormy brought us towards the back of the room to a ten foot canoe. One of the apprentices, Eric, who is Stormy’s son, had engraved the rim with a pattern influenced by both Haida formline art and cartoon animation. Stormy explained that the character in the engraving represented the movement through time; at the stern, the past, in the middle, the present and in the front, the future.
For Stormy, questions about the relevance of traditional carving methods to boat-building today are inescapable. His work tip-toes a border between the traditional and the modern, and his challenge is to balance the two. “We want to be who we are,” says Stormy, in other words, living in the modern world, while also revisiting and learning from the Haida canoe-carvers of the past. For instance, is using an electric chainsaw (instead of an adz or axe) to carve out the center a dug-out traditional? To this question, Stormy asks, what is traditional? “It’s been a long standing tradition of our people to use the latest and greatest available tools. And in that way, it is traditional. When somebody would come up with the latest and greatest, (the Haida) obviously would have used it because it would have improved their lives.” In other ways, however, integrating modern technologies contributed to the collective forgetting of time-tested methods and common knowledge (like, for instance, that adzing the wood compressed it, making it water resistant). With his apprentices in tow, Stormy aims not just to build the canoe, but to try and understand why they were built in a specific way for centuries. “There was a good reason to build the canoes that way,” Stormy said, “And I would assume that some of these things have to do with speed, efficiency, pay-load, what the canoe can carry, the ease of manufacture…” Some of these features of the Haida canoe were held in common by canoes carved throughout the north, up to Yakutat Bay and into parts of British Columbia; clues that the design must have been worth replicating.
Stormy’s carving projects are educational, both for himself, for his two apprentices, and youth from Kasaan who are curious about carving. His initiative is as much about relearning the carving tradition as it is about creating a community space and a source of identity for the town. “If we establish a canoe-building program here then our kids will have that bond to canoe-building,” Stormy says,“Then they can kind of identify themselves in their own mind or to others as canoe-builders and canoe-users from Kasaan.” The carving shed is part of a larger initiative by the Alaska native community to reclaim the native lifestyle and knowledge-base, much of which was threatened by U.S. policy in the 19th and 20th centuries, which prohibited people from practicing their language and culture. The dug-out project addresses the concern that native knowledge and identity be passed on to the next generation, while also providing economic opportunities for the town.
Harley Bell-Holter and Eric Hamar, Stormy’s apprentices, both envision turning carving and woodwork into careers. Eric will soon be heading off to wooden boat building school in Washington, though he plans to end up back in Kasaan. “I want to continue the woodworking tradition around here and give the youth a connection to the water.” With few employment options outside of the tribe and, of course, logging, Eric says that he would love to return to Kasaan and create a small business building wooden boats. Harley is from the village of Hydaburg, just a few hours away on prince of Wales Island. “I was raised with culture. Culture has always been my life,” he told me. He is set on returning to his hometown to become a community leader and master carver.
When the grant for the carving shed and apprenticeship run out in two years,nobody knows what will happen to the dug-out project in Kasaan. Another challenge is finding old-growth trees large enough for a canoe, meaning more than three and a half feet in diameter. “We haven’t had much success finding good trees,” Stormy told me, “There’s been so much logging on this island that the good trees were taken out a long time ago.” But this hasn’t stopped Stormy, nor other carvers from pursuing this craft in Southeast Alaska. Eric told me that he is motivated and inspired when he hears about other canoe-building teams. “We have a unified goal,” he said. Despite the obvious economic obstacles for a craft some would consider obsolete, canoe-building throughout Southeast and the pacific northwest, along with a canoe journey movement, is on the rise. Like in Kasaan, it is the the inspiration of a carver like Stormy, not a grant, which makes these dug-out project in Kasaan a reality. It is a spirit which declares that honoring the genius of the Haida canoe-carvers of the past is a worthwhile investment.
This year’s primary election was one for the record books. Financial record books, that is. Over the last few months, Alaskans witnessed the most expensive primary campaign in state history. Where is all this money coming from? Corporations. And not just any corporations – some of the richest corporations on earth.
In order to secure their billion dollar tax break, oil companies contributed nearly $15 million to the Vote No (on Ballot Measure 1) campaign. According to campaign finance reports published by the state of Alaska, the top six contributors to the Vote No campaign were BP Exploration Alaska Inc. ($3,625,408), ExxonMobil ($3,606,132), ConocoPhillips Alaska ($2,541,584), ConocoPhillips ($1,471,077), Repsol ($729,432), and Chevron ($300,000). Less than 25 individual Alaskans contributed to the campaign. The Vote Yes campaign, on the other hand, received financial contributions from over 1,000 individual Alaskans.
The troubling statistics continue. Stockpiled with big oil money, the Vote No campaign spent $170 per vote. The Vote Yes campaign, which relied primarily on contributions from individual Alaskan donors, spent $8.
This is an example of corporations asserting undue influence in the political process. In a country that calls itself a democracy, corporations should never be allowed to pay their way into the political system. In Alaska, however, they are.
How do we stop corporations from dominating Alaska politics? We stand up to them. We use our individual and collective voices. We form coalitions and citizen movements that demand corporations to serve the public good, not the Gods of Profit.
Leading up to the primary election, the Sitka Conservation Society mobilized Alaskans across the state to take action on Ballot Measure 1. We made phone calls, knocked on doors, distributed lawn signs, and had meaningful conversations with community members about what’s at stake when corporations dominate our political system. Many Sitkans voiced their concerns about SB 21 via radio waves and newsprint. A giant thank you to Steve Paustian, Mary Beth Nelson, Cindy Litman, Libby Stortz, and Anthony Guevin for submitting Letters to the Editor about the importance of repealing the oil tax giveaway.
Our efforts paid off. While the repeal failed statewide (52.5 percent of Alaskan voters voted No), Sitkans voted 3:1 in favor of the repeal. On Election day, some 1,315 Sitkans checked the “yes” box, compared to only 448 people who checked “no.” Every single precinct in the district voted in favor of the repeal.
What do these results reveal? They show us that we Alaskans are deeply divided on how we should manage our natural resources. They show us that thousands of Alaskans (90,150 to be exact) are willing to vote for oil company tax breaks, leaving less money for the state to fund public schools, hospitals, and necessary public services. But they also show us that thousands of Alaskans (nearly 82,000 voters) are deeply concerned about the excess role corporations play in the management of our natural resources.
The oil in our state ground belongs to the people of Alaska. We, the people of Alaska, must continue to mobilize against corporate oil giants that take our oil without investing in our state. Join us in our campaign to fight corporate influence and keep our natural resources in public hands.
To get involved or receive more information, email [email protected] or call 907-747-7509.
Early last month, when the tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia breached releasing 10 million cubic meters of contaminated water into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, southeast Alaskans woke up to the possibility that other BC mines could pose the same threats to southeast Alaskan fisheries.
Tailings dams are built to hold the waste rock that is extracted from ore during mining. These toxic tailings are often stored under-water and the dams are built to keep the waste from spreading to the surrounding environment. Because the waste rock can be so harmful, tailings dams need to be maintained forever.
The tailings dam at Mount Polley Mine was only 14 years old.
As more new mines are built along the BC and Alaska border, Alaskans now know the risks mining accidents pose to the people and ecosystems sitting downstream. And they can do nothing to protect themselves.
The Transboundary Mine Issue
Mining has been a part of the British Columbia economy for more than 9,000 years, since First Nation peoples first started trading obsidian. When Europeans arrived in the 19th century, mining took on a more prominent role and there are no signs of activities slowing down.
BC premier Christy Clark promised to bring eight mines in four years to the province when she was elected in 2011. With the recent completion of the Northwest Transmission power line up the western border of BC, it looks like she can make good on her promise.
The first mine to make use of the new power line is the Red Chris Project, which is set to begin operations by the end of the year. The Red Chris Project tailings dam is located near the Iskut River which is one of the main tributaries of the Stikine River – the largest river by volume in the Tongass National Forest and one of the largest producers of salmon.
The tailings dam at Red Chris is set to be 330 feet high and needs to hold 183 million tons of toxic tailings. The mine will process 30,000 tons of ore per day for 28 years, according to owners, Imperial Metals Corporation. The Imperial Metals Corporation is the same mining company that built the Mount Polley Mine.
All of the proposed mines will process tens of thousands of tons of ore per day with the largest mine, Kerr Sulphuretts Mitchell (KSM), set to process 120,000 tons of ore per day for 52 years. Most of the proposed mines will be in operation for less than 25 years.
And, the Red Chris isn't the only mine threatening southeast Alaskan watersheds. The major salmon-producing watersheds in danger from the new mines are the Stikine, Unuk and the Taku. Commercial and sport fishing are a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska and salmon is also important for tourism and subsistence in the Tongass. Should a tailings dam breach or another mining accident occur, these watersheds and southeast Alaskans that depend on them will bear the brunt of the risk.
Alaskan senators, fishermen, conservationists and natives alike recognize the risks these new transboundary mines pose for southeast Alaska and the livelihood of the Tongass National Forest. But, because Canada is the sovereign country, southeast Alaskans have no way to protect themselves from the dangers upstream.
The Boundary Waters Treaty places responsibility for any pollution in Alaskan waters from the mines on Canada, but little is required for pre-emptive action to prevent the pollution from ever occurring.
And it's not just a major catastrophe like what happened at Mount Polley that Alaskans should worry about. Dust from the mines could smother salmon eggs. Leaking chemicals could kill salmon foods sources. Increased copper in the water is believed to impair fish hearing and make them less able to avoid predators. All of these side effects affect the survivability of the salmon before a major accident happens.
Preserving the last frontier
The Tongass National Forest is the largest in tact temperate rainforest in the world. The forest is home to about 70,000 people that all depend on the healthy and sustainable fisheries found here. Salmon is a part of the Alaskan way of life. From commercial and sport fishing to subsistence, the five species of Pacific salmon are a lifeline for the culture and people.
As the FDA continues to test the limits of genetically modifying fish and more and more farmed fish make it on to American plates, we should be fighting harder to protect what wild and sustainable fisheries this country has left. Fish that can grow bigger and fatter faster pose unforeseen threats to American health and only fulfill the wasteful desires to always have excess. Fresh, wild fish should not be the delicacy, but the norm.
And finally… Alaska is America's last frontier. We are a nation of explorers, of entrepreneurs and innovation. Part of that identity comes from the wilderness within our borders, the adventure that can be had in our own backyard. But that wilderness is quickly disappearing and these mines might destroy the little that Alaska has left. America needs wildness and should fight hard to protect it.
Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Directorat SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.
Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.
My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with anarea of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.
From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I've been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we've reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.
From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake.Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven't tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.
Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.
On the 28thof August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.
As published in the Sitka Daily Sentinel on Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Scientists are searching for a method to eradicate the invasive tunicate species that has kept Whiting Harbor closed since 2010. This invasive sea squirt has been found all over the world and can have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems if not controlled. But killing the invasive, is not so easy.
"Sometimes people have this notion that you can just kill anything," Ian Davidson, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, said in a recent interview. "There is not a standard template you can just follow and do."
Whiting Harbor is the cove between the Northwest end of the airport runway and the causeway linking the islands of the Fort Rouseau State Historical Park. If not for the tunicate contamination, Whiting Harbor would be the preferred access to the state park, which is accessible only by boat.
This September, Davidson and other scientists from the Smithsonian will be testing a possible treatment method for the invasive tunicate to see if they might be able to remove the species from Whiting altogether.
Didemnum vexillum, or D vex, is a fast-growing sea squirt sometimes called marine vomit. It has been found all over the world and has greatly impacted ecosystems off the coasts of New Zealand and Wales and has been particularly harmful to scallop populations near Massachusetts. Scientists believe D vex originated in Japan.
"It establishes well over surfaces," Tammy Davis, invasive species program director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said. "It's a really fast grower."
Fortunately for Sitka and the rest of Southeast Alaska, despite the fast-growing characteristics of D vex, surveyors have not found evidence of the tunicate spreading anywhere else in Alaska.
D vex often attaches to boats and fishing lines and is spread to other areas, so Davis said Whiting Harbor has been closed to all human activity since the discovery of the tunicate to limit the spread of the organism. As for what brought it to Sitka, no one knows.
"We can't say what the vector was," Davis said.
Scientists can't say just how long it's been here either.
Marnie Chapman, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast, was on the bioblitz expedition that discovered the tunicate in 2010.
"It's hard to identify on first look," Chapman said. If the scientists hadn't realized what they had found, "that would have been a nightmare scenario," she said.
Containing and ultimately eradicating the species is important because "invasive species compromise our sense of place," she said. "They take what is special and unique about a particular area and they make it less special."
But while the tunicate has remained contained in Whiting Harbor, scientists still don't know how to get rid of it. Davidson explained part of the research this fall will be testing the effects of increased salt content in the water of the harbor. A higher salinity of the water may help kill the tunicate, he said, but the scientists need to figure out if they can control the salt content in the harbor long enough to be effective.
Davidson's team of scientists will return early next year or in the spring for full on experiments in eradication, he said. This first trip is just testing the methods.
"I want to emphasize that this is not an eradication attempt, but rather a trial to determine how one might go about an eradication effort," Linda McCann of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said. "We face several challenges with the work," she said including managing the delivery of the treatment and not harming the substrates the tunicate is attached to.
Davidson said that mobile creatures in the harbor will disperse if the salt content gets too high for them during the testing. He said the scientists were not worried about other invertebrates that may not be able to escape, because they were positive the harbor would repopulate because of Sitka's healthy intertidal zones.
Getting rid of the D vex tunicate in Whiting Harbor is another important step in the management process. Davidson said Alaska has less of an invasive problem than many other coastline states, particularly California.
"Alaska has a stronger reason to protect its territory," Davidson said. "You can get back to a pristine condition."