The island of Admiralty remains to this day a place preserved almost entirely as Wilderness. Home to the highest density of brown bears in North America, a population of a few hundred residents, and prolific stands of old-growth that never saw the saw, this country, by anyone’s definition, the federal government’s included, is Wild. But the briefest of glances at Admiralty’s history makes immediately evident that this future was never assured; the preserved state of this landscape never necessarily its inevitable fate. To quite the contrary, nature on Admiralty has known many threats, its trees for decades the particular envy of loggers throughout Southeast. But despite the long history of people seeking to degrade Admiralty, there exists an equally long history and tradition of people working to defend it. This past week, I had the privilege of meeting the four individuals adding yet another chapter to this story of wilderness stewardship on Admiralty Island.
The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) project taking place on Admiralty is engaging four youth from around the country in community and conservation work. Sponsored by the Forest Service and supported by the Sitka Conservation Society, this corps has been tasked with initiatives that address the health of Admiralty’s Kootznoowoo wilderness, its community of Angoon, and, hopefully, each YCC’s commitment to conservation, by bringing them into contact and communion with the land. Such connection, SCS has always believed, lies at the essence of environmental ethic and action. Or in other words, the land itself is oftentimes its own most effective advocate, the best thing we can do being simply to bring people out to it. By employing youth to work with our public lands, the YCC program is thus very much aligned with the model of conservation advocacy that SCS has always practiced. And by helping the Forest Service host this corps branch, we have been able to foster these person-place connections with an incredibly important segment of society: the rising generation of potential environmental stewards.
When I arrived in Angoon, the YCCs had just completed construction of a community greenhouse, and were soon to set off for three weeks in the Kootznoowoo Wilderness. There they would be participating in shelter and trail maintenance, non-native plant control, and general restoration and monitoring – projects to which the Forest Service had put the Civilian Conservation Corps over eighty years ago, as part of the New Deal.
Sitting at the doorstep of Kootznoowoo – having just witnessed a whale pass by, listening to the roaring of a sea lion, and sated by the salmonberries we had picked on our hike – I had the chance to talk to the YCCs about their thoughts on the Wilderness, this tradition of stewardship, and the Southeast Alaskan environment in which they were immersed.
Below is some of what each of them had to say:
How much did you know about Wilderness before this program?
Jaxon Collins: Not a lot.
Breeze Anderson: I didn’t know anything.
Elizabeth Crawford: Not really anything.
Travis Maranto: Not very much.
And what do you know and think now?
Jaxon: I know that there are people who have been trying hard their whole lives to keep wilderness intact, and I think other people should try and respect that.
Breeze: I think that to work with nature, in particular these Wilderness areas, is a necessity, and that it needs to be done before we ruin it.
Elizabeth: This landscape already feels as if its home to me.
Travis: I’ve always had a love and respect for nature, but I never truly understood Wilderness as being so free and untrammeled. Just being in this space you immediately sense something special about it.
Why are you excited about the wilderness stewardship work ahead?
Jaxon: It’s just amazing to be one of the first youth groups out here in a while doing this. Maybe it can inspire others who have an interest to take action too.
Breeze: This work gives me hope. Hope that these efforts to conserve can keep going, since they’ve already been going on for so long.
Elizabeth: I just feel very fortunate to have been picked to come here. You need trees to breathe and well, to really do everything. And now here I am standing in their beauty and I get to help protect them. That makes me excited.
Travis: I have such a deep respect and love for wild places, and I don’t think there’s enough of them. In the modern age, humans have been destroying them rapidly. When you think about the millions of years Earth has been here, we’ve only been here a very short period of time, and we’ve already done a great deal to screw it up. I’m here because I want to do a something to fix that, and convince others to do so too.
If there’s one thing you would say to people to convince people that these places are worthy of protection, what would it be?
Jaxon: When you’re out here, you get to forget about all of the worries of life and just be yourself. It’s incredibly freeing.
Breeze: There’s a saying I like which goes: “we think we own the land, when really the land has no owner.” Being out here, in this stunning landscape, I get reminded of that fact. I mean, this place has been here for ages, and to help it stay the way it is rather than destroying it, that’s a powerful thing to be a part of.
Elizabeth: We always say in my family that we only have one Earth. In society we’re always searching for the newer, cooler thing. But why ruin what we already have, what we’ve relied on for all our lives? We need to appreciate and protect our Earth, because it gives us so much we don’t even realize.
Travis: Nature gives so much to us – wood, salmon, sustenance, fresh air – and we’ve been taking these things from nature for thousands of years in a manner that didn’t also destroy it. But now in modern times we’ve just been trashing the ecosystem. And I can participate in that destruction, or I can jump in and help.
Hailing from as nearby as Tenakee Springs, Alaska or as faraway as Mobile, Alabama, these four YCC members represent a diversity of background and experience. But it was clear from our conversations that a commonality of spirit exists amongst them when it comes to caring for and conserving the land. Which comes as good news, because as Matthew Fred Sr., the Tlingit elder of Angoon, bluntly put it, when it comes to conservation, “there are no guarantees. You have to fight for what you want.” Just as we owe Kootznoowoo’s current state to our predecessors who fought to preserve it, generations to come will inherit the landscape that our actions in the present have left to them.
And although wilderness exists in the minds of many an inviolable place, the truth is that these landscapes are not immune to assault. Just this year, an airport has been proposed within the boundaries of Kootznoowoo, and as of a few days ago, Admiralty’s Green's Creek Mine expansion project broke ground, threatening to leach more contaminants into the nearby Wilderness environment as waste product. All of which just serves as a reminder that wilderness work is the responsibility of each successive generation, or at least each generation that continues to find some value, apart from the economic, in these areas. It is unfortunate, but a reality, that lands with many threats require many defenders. Whether you’re examining the specific story of Admiralty, the history of Alaska, or America’s past more broadly, one fact will remain true throughout: the tree one person alone could fell it has taken many people to defend.
On the surface, I admit, this seems a depressing reality. But I wonder if, in some ways, this is actually the condition from which conservation also derives its strength, as it makes conservation, in my mind at least, inherently an act of community – something that requires conversation with the past, cooperative action in the present, and a commitment to fostering stewardship in the caretakers of the future. What I saw during my visit to Angoon was the YCC program doing just that: educating youth about the history of our public lands; engaging them in present preservation efforts; and empowering them to be future conservationists. And thus, while the future of public lands should not be taken for granted, never assumed as assured, of one thing it seems we can be certain: if the YCC is any indication, there remain those out there willing and eager to take on the cause of continued stewardship and service.
The YCC crew, from left to right: Travis, Jaxon, Breeze, and Elizabeth
Be sure to stay updated on the YCC throughout the remainder of the month by way of the SCS Facebook page. Have specific questions about the YCC? Feel free to email to their crew leader, SCS’s own Mike Belitz (email@example.com). And for more on wilderness stewardship at SCS, keep checking our website, or call (907-747-7509) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to get involved. We’d love to hear from you!
On the morning of June 17th at 5:30 AM I hopped into Scott’s truck. It was early but I wasn’t tired; neither were Luke A’Bear or Alana Chronister. We were all too excited anticipating our adventure into the Alaskan Wilderness. The journey began on Scott’s boat, traveling about three hours to get to our first site, Waterfall Cove. On the way I was already surprised by all the animals we had seen: bald eagles, sea otters, cormorants, and seagulls to name a few.
Once we got to Waterfall Cove we had only walked just past the shoreline when Luke spotted two distant brown dots and with the binoculars we confirmed it was indeed two grizzly bears. West Chichagof felt like a wildlife mecca and embodied everything people talk about when they talk about Alaska. We continued on to the creek where we located two stream temperature loggers and two air temperature loggers. The stream loggers are anchored to fallen logs and the air temperature loggers are nailed to trees by the bank. When Scott reviewed the data on the tablet, the graph formed a U shape representing higher temperatures during summer and lower temperatures during the winter.
After the data has been collected, the loggers are returned to their spots to collect data for another year. Alana and I then took mixing transects of the stream meaning we took the temperature of the water in ten spots across the stream. This gives the team an idea of the variability of the stream temperature. All of this data is important because a baseline needs to be established for the temperature of rivers and creeks that support salmon life. As climate change warms the planet, and thus the temperatures of creeks where salmon runs are present, salmon populations will suffer if the creeks become too warm. Because of this data, scientists in ten, twenty, or fifty years in the future will be able to study salmon populations in correlation with climate change and stream temperature changes. For example, if in the future salmon populations are dwindling and stream temperatures are much higher than in the past, scientists will have a variable to study further.
Alana Chronister and I taking stream temperature transects.
The next site was Ford Arm, another beautiful stream and forest in this wilderness wonderland. At this site the temperature loggers had to be moved upstream to avoid tidal influences. Last year the loggers could not be moved farther upstream because it was late in the season and the bears were gorging on the plentiful salmon swimming through the creek.
The next day’s site was Black Bay, a site that must be kayaked to due to the steep bank. Scott and I paddled to the site to gather data while Luke and Alana explored the estuary and its resident bears. On Friday we visited a site called Goulding River and hiked to a close by waterfall afterward. Saturday was our last day and was spent first watching a pregnant doe swim across the channel then hobble to shore and visiting a place called the Potato Patch before going to the site. Despite its unglamorous name, the Potato Patch is one of the most stunning places I have been to.
Waterproofing air temperature loggers.
The bright sun warmed us all up as we eagerly shed warm layers and put on our sunglasses. We climbed off the boat onto a white sand beach surrounded by the nearby mountains. The beach led to a driftwood logjam and behind that a bluff covered in grasses and wildflowers. Is was so tempting to just forget about everything else and stay there forever. However, we had to go to visit one more site called Leo’s before heading back to Sitka. At this site, the stream ran just a short distance before ending in a large lake. We gathered data as usual but having just been to the beautiful Potato Patch and this being our last site, I was thinking about the importance of the work SCS is doing. Salmon is vital not only for many plants and animals living in Alaska but also for the people. Just in the town of Sitka alone, the salmon industry employs a significant amount of people. This means salmon population and health must be preserved to keep not only nature in balance, but in order to create a sustainable and lasting fishing industry that will allow the people of Sitka and Alaska to continue benefitting from the land for many years to come.
Special thanks to Knox College and Sitka Conservation Society for giving the amazing opportunity to be the Wild Salmon Conservation and Restoration Intern, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the summer holds!
The Potato Patch
The public comment period for the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) proposed road through to Katlian Bay closed on Friday, April 3. The Sitka Conservation Society submitted comments as we feel the State should not be spending upwards of $16 million on a project of limited benefit, especially considering Alaska is facing a $4 billion budget deficit.
View looking east across Katlian Bay. Photo © kayak_guru
The Katlian Bay Road Project was originally developed under the Road to Resources Program under former Governor Parnell. However, the resources the road was meant to access, namely a rock pit on Shee Atika land, were not accessible within the project’s budget. Now, the road is still scheduled to be completed, but under the umbrella of providing recreational and subsistence opportunities for the Sitka community.
Listed below are several concerns and issues that SCS has with the proposed road. For a more in-depth discussion of our concerns, click here for a full copy of our comments.
- The DOT currently does not know what the annual cost of maintaining the road will be. SCS feels that this should have been one of DOT’s first considerations, as the road travels through steep terrain the likelihood of washouts and landslides is high. Therefore, the annual upkeep of the road could be significant, potentially leading to a closure of the road.
The DOT is unsure who will design, construct and maintain any of the proposed recreation infrastructure. The Forest Service’s recreation budget has been slashed over recent years and Sitka Trail Works is already stretched thin and has a massive backlog of work along the existing trail system.
An increase in the number of people hunting and fishing in the Katlian Valley will likely see new bag/catch limits introduced. We would like to see an analysis of how increased access may affect these subsistence opportunities. We fear that increased access will lead to greater take and will actually result in decreased opportunities for subsistence and sport hunting and fishing.
The Katlian Valley was heavily logged in the 1960s and as the proposed road will further increase pressure on the watershed, SCS asks the DOT to invest mitigation funds into restoration projects. This should include: forest habitat improvement, removing blockages to fish passage and in-stream fish habitat restoration.
We are currently in a very different economic climate to when the road project was first announced. Our state parks are threatened with closure and our schools are having to cut programs and staff. Unfortunately, the funding for this road likely cannot be re-appropriated to help fund these core areas as the money is in bond form. As the money for the project is coming from GO bonds it means the State will go into further debt in order to construct it.
Can we really afford to do this, especially considering Alaska’s current dire financial situation? Combine this with the substantial annual (and currently unknown) maintenance cost and it is obvious this road is a luxury we simply cannot afford.
Review of the Forest Service's latest timber sale
Clearcuts spread over a hilly landscape on POW. The proposed Mitkof Island timber project contains more large old clearcuts in an area already heavily logged;
much like this area.
Yesterday, the Forest Service released the Decision Notice for the proposed Mitkof Island timber sale. This Decision Notice outlines the exact details of the project showing the how, the where and the amount of timber to be harvested. Unsurprisingly the Forest Service has chosen the alternative that contains the most volume of timber. The sale was first proposed in February 2013 and was initially billed as the ‘Mitkof Island Small Sales Project’, designed to meet the needs of the local community and small mills. It has since morphed into a textbook large-scale Forest Service timber sale that only goes to further liquidate our limited stock of old-growth forest in one swift cut. The sale does, however, contain progressive elements and demonstrate a more responsible use of old-growth timber in some aspects.
What is proposed?
The alternative selected by the Forest Service will see 28.5 million board feet (MMBF) of timber harvested from 4,177 acres. The timber will come from both old and second growth, with 800 acres of old-growth harvest and 750 acres of young-growth commercial thinning, amounting to 50% removal. Also, included is 1,500 acres of old growth with 95 or 98% retention, this is designed to supplement the microsale program (details below), which is also included, but with live green trees. The selected alternative also includes an additional one-time helicopter harvest that amounts to 13.4 MMBF of old-growth harvest, retaining 66% of the standing trees.
What we like
The project contains a new design component that seeks to compliment and expand upon the microsale program first applied on Prince of Wales (POW) Island. This program offers operators the chance to go out and prospect for dead or downed trees close to the existing road systems. These trees are still very valuable and if suitable ones can be found the Forest Service will draft up a contract and offer them for sale. However, whilst including the original the Mitkof project also includes an evolution of the microsale program to now include green trees whereby almost 1,500 acres will be approved for multiple harvest entries for microsales with either 95 or 98% basal area (aka tree) retention. The allowable harvest per sale would range from an individual green tree through to small openings not exceeding 1.5 acres. This means a unit is open to repeated small harvests until such a time 2 or 5% of the stands original tree area has been removed. It offers flexibility to the mills so they can extract what timber they want and, whilst the unit is open, when they want.
A standing dead spruce is felled to create music wood as part of the microsale program
on POW. This type of low impact harvest and value-added product is the future of the old-
growth timber industry in Southeast Alaska.
What we don’t like
Yet also included in the sale is almost 800 acres of clearcut and very low-retention old-growth harvest, amounting to over 10MMBF. Mitkof Island has already experienced decades of industrial scale logging and yet large areas are slated for clearcut logging. In the sale Environmental Assessment the Forest Service admits, “The total volume slated for ground-based harvest systems may well exceed the capacity of current small sales purchasers.” Therefore, by continuing to offer these large sales, that only one or two mills in the region can process, the USFS is essentially bias towards the needs of these large export based operators. In reality they should be developing policy and incentives to keep profits in Southeast Alaska and not liquidate large tracts of our old-growth assets in a few short years.
Scenes like this industrial scale clearcut on POW need to become a thing of the past, the
negative ecological impacts last for hundred of years. Plus very few mills can process units
of this scale. Those that can export most of the trees un-processed out of region, meaning
Alaskans are missing out on the profits from these ancient and unrenewable trees.
In addition to the clearcuts, the newly announced Decision Notice includes 2,000 acres of un-even aged harvest, where 66% of the trees are left standing. Again, the volume and cost of extracting this timber, via helicopter, only “seeks to meet the need of larger operators within the region.” It seems un-fair to be offering such large volumes of timber that small mills cannot bid on. Furthermore, whilst the selective harvest of this portion is certainly better than clearcuts, the 66% retention has no credible scientific backing as to its effectiveness at retaining old-growth forest function. We hope the Forest Service monitors these stands to assess how successful, or not, they really are.
The Mitkof Island timber sale seems to reflect the current split personality of the Forest Service. On the one hand there is big talk of the need to transit to a young-growth based timber industry. Whilst ensuring wise use of our old-growth forests, promoting the development of a diverse value-added in-situ timber processing economy; not exporting these potential profits elsewhere. Yet it continues to promote and support practices of the past that only temporarily prop-up Southeast Alaska’s timber economy and do not provide it with sure foundations for the future. A federal land-management agency is essentially responsible for the economic development of the Tongass. By definition this is neither its focus nor its authority, but by circumstance it is a major cog in the future and development of the region’s economy. With the appointment of a new Forest Supervisor on the Tongass, Earl Stewart, just announced we can only hope this pandering to the needs of the regions quick cut and export based operators becomes a thing of the past sooner rather than later. Otherwise, there will be no more suitable timber left to support our value-added, small-scale mills that provide more stable, well paid and long-term jobs per board foot of timber cut than traditional large clearcut operations.
Find out more detailed information on the project here: http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=29099
Do you care about the future of the Tongass National Forest? Do you want to learn more about tiny houses? Or ocean acidification?
Join the staff and board of the Sitka Conservation Society for an evening filled with great food, conversation, and idea sharing. The We Love the Tongass Gathering will take place on Sunday, February 15 from 4-6 pm at Swan Lake Senior Center (402 Lake Street). Staff and board of the Sitka Conservation Society will discuss tiny homes, local wood, climate change, 4-H programming, and Tongass timber sales. Bring your ideas about how to promote sustainable communities in Southeast Alaska. Let your voice be heard!
This annual meeting is free and open to the public. For more information call SCS at 747-7509 or email@example.com
As you may know towards the end of 2014 the federal government passed the Sealaska Lands Bill, a small measure attached to the much larger National Defense Authorization Act. This legislation transfered public ownership of nearly 70,000 acres of the Tongass from the Forest Service to the private Sealaska Corporation. The land selection finalizes the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the 1971 legislation that transferred ownership to the Regional Native Corporations.
In order to inform the Sitka Community SCS wanted to share the locations and sizes of the various land claims across the Tongass. Some of the larger areas that have been signed over include portions of Kosciusko Island and Tuxekan Island, plus on Prince of Wales sections of Polk, Mckenzie and Keete Inlets. Closer to home there are parcels of land near Sitka at Kalinin Bay, Lake Eva, Fick Cove, and North Arm.
Maps showing the location and size of the various areas that were transferred to the Sealaska Corporation can be accessed on a Forest Service website here: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r10/home/?cid=STELPRD3824925
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.
In this episode of “Living with the Land,” SCS’s Tracy Gagnon takes her recording equipment into the Wilderness! When she isn’t paddling 18 miles straight or desperately trying to keep the mic dry, she speaks with visiting artist Ray Geier, and SCS Staff members Paul Killian and Edie Leghorn about their own relationship with wilderness. Listen to this weeks episode to hear more!
Living with the Land is a 12 part radio series exploring stories of place in Sitka. It is produced by the Sitka Conservation Society in collaboration with Raven Radio. You can also hear the episodes every Sunday at 10:27am on KCAW, just before Living Planet.
Visiting Forest Service Wildlife Technician, Gwen Baluss carefully loosens the tie of a little sac and slowly reaches in. Delicately grasping the fragile creature within, she reveals the dark eyed junco to a resounding “AWE” echoing across the classroom as students pile on top of one another to get a closer look.
For the third year in a row, Baluss has returned to Sitka to continue studying and teaching the community about bird ecology. While juncos and other songbirds may frequent our feeders and whistle familiar songs during our afternoon strolls, there is still ample mystery to these birds. Scientists and land managers know relatively little about their range, distribution and migration ecology for one. Secondly, very few of us have been lucky enough to encounter our skittish feathered friends up close. As one of the participants ruefully commented, “The closest I’ve ever been to one of these birds has been sweeping away the unfortunate remains the cat dragged in.” “Don’t worry,” she facetiously reassured the bird banding team, “This will be my last cat.”
Last week, Blatchley middle school students, Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary classes, Sitka High students and the Sitka Conservation Society’s (SCS) 4-H program experienced a more pleasant close encounter with our beloved song birds. In the frosted garden behind Blatchley Middle school, Baluss and Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Director with the Sitka Conservation Society carefully and delicately untangle tiny trapped birds from the mist nets. Baluss bands their legs and the team begin taking measurements. Gwen’s enthusiasm for these often overlooked natural wonders peaks as she explains to wide-eyed students how the sheen of a junco’s eyes changes with age from gray to red, how males boast darker plumage atop their heads and how a surprising diversity between individual juncos exists if you just take the time to look carefully. Captivated students edge closer as she starts blowing tenderly on the bird’s belly to reveal yellow fat deposits visible beneath their paper-thin skin. The classroom is fully engaged.
Southeast Alaska offers diverse opportunities for scientific inquiry and exploration just a few yards from the school door. With the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest as our backyard, children here grow up immersed in this outstanding landscape. Experiences like Gwen’s visit, encourage our youth to approach exploring the environment from an academic or potentially career-driven perspective. Students continue to steward this project throughout the year. In the past, a Sitka High School student Naquioa Bautista, working with the Science Mentor Program coordinated by SCS, based her science fair project on studying the banded bird’s movement. From Naquoia’s study, we learned that Sitka’s winter juncos do not stray very far from their banding sites. On the back wall of Ms. Dick’s 6th grade science classroom, a modern twist on the infamous ‘wanted poster’ is displayed, showing each tagged bird and their band color combination. Students, families and all of Sitka’s residents are encouraged to keep a lookout for tagged birds on their feeders or fluttering about on the trails (please report sightings here).
This week, a few lucky students were given a particularly memorable experience. After a bit of fumbling, the student’s tiny hands encapsulated the virtually weightless fragile feathered mess, their tiny heartbeat pumping against the student’s palm. After taking a knee, the top hand would slowly lift and in an instant burst of energy, the birds would return to the trees of our backyards leaving only tiny soft floating feathers in the air and grins of admiration across each onlooker’s face.
This project is supported by the University of Alaska Southeast’s Natural History Seminar Series, the Sitka Charitable Trust, the Sitka Conservation Society and UAS Biology professor Kitty LaBounty. Gwen Baluss is a biologist with the US Forest Service in the Juneau Ranger District and a member of Juneau’s Audobon Society. Please report any banded bird sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org or report to the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network (SALMoN) . To learn more about Sitka’s 4-H program including how to enroll visit our 4-H page.