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 [email protected] 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.
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.
Teaming up with SEARHC for Suicide Prevention and Mental Health
After speaking with the board of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (or SEARHC), Doug Chilton was able to secure funding for the One Canoe Society to travel and give paddling workshops throughout Southeast Alaska. He suggested that the canoe society team up with SEARHC’s “One is Too Many” suicide prevention program. The journey, he said, aligns with the goals outlined in Behavioral Health programs at SEARHC: specifically, their initiatives to create spaces for building community.
“You feel like you have an extended family and those people care.”
Can the canoe journeys combat suicide? Early on, Chilton was able to see the connection between the canoe journeys and suicide prevention. “Honestly, if you think about the situation of people who commit suicide or attempt suicide,” he told me, “they’ve hit an all time low and they feel that they have nowhere to turn, nowhere to go. With (the canoe journeys), not only does it give you an activity to do or participate or coordinate, but you feel like it’s family. You feel like you have an extended family and those people care.” For people who lack those connections or a feeling of support, being a member of a canoe team may fill that void. For others still, the journey’s were about sobriety. For many, it has. Others that I spoke to in Hydaburg and throughout Southeast agreed that the sense of community they felt with their canoe team was indescribably powerful. “I think it probably changed everyone’s life that went on the trip,” said Stormy, “… I saw people that I’d known for a long time just completely in a different mindset and different behavior pattern while they were on that journey.” Reconnecting with the traditional practice, song and dance involved in the canoe journeys, also offers its own kind of healing. In the early 1900s, the loss of canoe culture coincided with aggressive policies that prohibited Alaska natives from learning about their language and traditions. “Canoe culture has been dormant,” Ken Hoyt explained to me, “It has never died. It was not forgotten.” For many, reliving this culture and connecting with the past is the most important aspect of the journey.
Fred Olsen, the chairman of the board at SEARHC, joined the Hamars in their paddle from Coffman Cove to Wrangell. When I spoke to him, he told me that he was overwhelmed by his experience. “It was incredible,” he said, “Sometimes I would just be paddling along and these kinds of things would just hit me… I wonder if this is what it was like for them.” Fred was instrumental in SEARHC’s decision to fund Chilton’s paddle workshops. For him, the journeys are first and foremost, a way to reconnect with traditional Tlingit and Haida practices and lifestyle. He can clearly see the connection between loss of culture and suicide rates. To him, a canoe journey is suicide prevention because it bridges a gap where pride in tradition and culture has been torn away.
“There is no better suicide prevention then pride in yourself,” he told me.
Fred argued that the activity of paddling the canoe is a form of behavioral health. The reason, though, isn’t just because it is physical exercise. “When we go out to get sockeye, or seaweed or collect berries, you have to go out and do this,” he explained, “These are all verbs, they are activities. And so just going to get this stuff makes you healthier. It is behavioral health.” When people stop regularly practicing these activities, as the result of modernization, they lose the “behavioral health” that naturally comes with them. Canoe travel, which was an integral part of living with the land in this region for centuries, is no different. It is a journey that was robbed when people converted to using skiffs and motorboats as a primary form of transportation. While for many it was a practical step in the process of assimilation, to Fred, by choosing that, people lost something vital to their deeper sense of health and existence.
“When we go out to get sockeye, or seaweed or collect berries, you have to go out and do this,” he explained, “These are all verbs, they are activities. And so just going to get this stuff makes you healthier. It is behavioral health.”
Elders and Children
In many ways, the revitalization of canoe culture is motivated by the love for elders and children in Tlingit and Haida communities. Ken Hoyt. from Wrangell, told me that some of the elders in his family would have been old enough to see canoes tied up on the docks. For him, one of the most rewarding aspects of building and paddling a canoe is sharing the experience with those uncles and aunts. “(I love) seeing the look at the face of the elders, like my great aunt, my grandma, anyone who is over 65, seeing them be impressed,” he told me, “…That’s pretty cool to contribute something and in a way, give back to them, everything they’ve given to use.” Among many things, for Ken, the canoe-journey is a way prove to the elders that traditions are not lost and will continue.
On the other side, Doug Chilton from the One People Canoe Society, said that the youth were the primary motivation for his work. He sees the canoe journey as a way to connect youth with different aspects of the culture, like song, dance, carving and language. He told me about his experience hearing a young girl speak her native language during one of the first gatherings he witnessed in Washington. Listen to him tell that story here.
“Right in the middle of the stage they have this microphone and we are waiting for the next group to go on. And I am sitting there talking to my son and then this little girl, she must have been 5 or 6, this little girl went walking out onto the stage and I thought, uh-oh, somebody’s little girl is getting away. And I thought somebody for sure was going to grab her. She started getting close to the front of the stage where the microphone was… I got worried and got up because I thought she was going to move up in that direction. Well, she walked right to the microphone, she reached up and grabbed the microphone, and she introduced her canoe family in their indigenous language and then led them out leading the song. So, I’m telling you, I was so impressed by that little girl. I don’t know who she was, I don’t know what group it was, I just remember looking at my son and thinking, this is exactly what we need back in southeast.”
Fred Olsen from Kasaan agreed that the benefit to young children and adolescents is indescribable. He was moved to tears by the idea that children in Hydaburg and Kasaan were “going to grow up thinking that we’ve always had canoes or we’ve always had totem raising.” When for so long cultural practices were lost, adults today are thrilled by the idea of raising their children in an environment rich with tradition.
Building Connections to Nature and Place
There is also something deeply healing about connecting with the sheer width and depth of Southeast Alaska. Surrounded by the Tongass national forest, the landscape can feel as vast as the wild lands and waters that surround us, or as cramped as a few miles of road that pass through small towns. While people living in small communities like Kasaan and Hydaburg, go out in motor boats all the time, Stormy Hamar told me, “It’s different in a canoe.” On one journey to celebration, Doug Chilton told me, a canoe team was passed by a whole pod of killer whales. “The feeling was indescribable,” he told me. Timothy Willis Jr., who paddled with the team from Coffman Cove, spoke about how his perspective shifted moving slowly and that closely to the water. “Just getting a feeling of the size of the water,” he said, “The straight looked like it was just over the way, but it was just actually 4 or 5 miles across. Actually getting out there and getting to experience it was kind of impressive to think of someone paddling all the way down to Washington.” Timothy had gained a respect for sheer size of landscape as well as for the traditional Haida lifestyle.
There is a difference between knowing something (for him, that the straight was four miles across) and experiencing that space. There is a difference between knowing that you live in a wild and abundant place, and having the ability to go out an experience it. Sometimes, it is the difference between feeling whole and feeling like taking your life.. Doug Chilton told me that he could barely find the vocabulary to describe the feeling of expansiveness and connection that he often experienced while paddling. “It’s such a huge thing when you’re there,” he confessed, “It’s hard to put into words what the experience feels like. So all you can do is try and convince people to come try it and experience it for themselves.” With help from an extended network of friends and fellow-paddlers, he is helping people to experience the waters and landscape of Southeast Alaska. The canoe-journeys are one more way that people are seeing the connection between community health, cultural health, and a relationship with the natural landscape. All this work can be summed up simply. Connecting with our past and our present, ourselves and our homes in the Tongass National Forest, inspires us to live healthier, fuller lives.
Doug Chilton and The One People Canoe Society
A decade ago, when his canoe team was invited to race at the Quinault Indian Reservation in Washington state, Doug Chilton was thrilled. The team had trained for weeks and raised enough money to cover travel expenses from their home in Juneau. But when they drove into Quinault, ready to cream the competition, they were surprised to find that they were a day early. When they woke the next morning, they were not greeted by vans full of trophy-hungry canoe teams, like they had expected. Instead, that morning they arose to find the bay filled with canoes which had been paddled from reservations across Washington and Canada. Some had come hundreds of miles.
“What we didn’t know at the time is that it wasn’t about racing for them,” Chilton explained to me, “it was about the journey.”
Over the course of the week in Quinault, Chilton was moved by the way the canoe journeys were building community and reconnecting the native community in Quinault with the paddling culture that their ancestors had flourished with for thousands of years. Chilton was overwhelmed and inspired. He came back to Southeast Alaska with a refreshed goal: he wanted to build a canoe-community in his home waters and reconnect the native community in Southeast with the paddling traditions of their Tlingit and Haida forefathers and mothers. More importantly, he hoped to build a movement that would bring together native tribe-members of Southeast Alaska in ways he had witnessed in Washington.
Flash forward. Doug managed to empower a team of people to paddle from Hoonah to Juneau for Celebration, a biennial festival celebrating Haida, Tlingit and Tshimian traditions and culture. While it was hard to garner support prior to the the trip, Chilton told me that the team received an outpouring of enthusiasm once they reached Juneau. People were intrigued. Many doubted that the journey would ever come together. Once they witnessed Doug and his team successfully overcome the obstacles, they began to believe others could do it too. “Over the years, it’s been growing a little bit more and a little bit more, and sometimes it didn’t feel like it was growing at all. But we were staying busy,” Doug told me.
Since the first paddle to celebration, canoe journeys throughout the state have been taking off. Eleven canoes asked permission to land in Juneau at Sandy Beach for Celebration this year: the most canoes since Doug started paddling a decade ago. Doug and his team started reaching out to others to get them excited about the canoes. In 2005, they started the process of creating a nonprofit, calling themselves the One People Canoe Society. As the One People Canoe Society, the group started giving paddling workshops throughout Southeast. During the workshops, participants carved paddles from yellow cedar carving blinds and also learned the basics of paddling as a canoe team. “During the workshops, we’re putting together the group that’s going to paddle the canoe,” Doug explained to me, “and the idea is to get them started paddling together as a unit… Now during the paddle workshop we are trying to build the excitement and keep the excitement level high.” And it’s working.
Wooch.een: We Work Together
Doug Chilton and the One People Canoe Society was the spark that ignited a wildfire of enthusiasm for the canoe movement in Southeast Alaska. Now, there a number of new leaders, like Stormy Hamar and his Kasaan canoe team, running with the banner. After connecting with Doug, Stormy decided to organize a canoe journey to the re- dedication of Chief Shakes House in Wrangell in 2013. His first challenge, however, was to find a way to fill the 38 foot fiberglass canoe with people from the community, the first of whom were members of his family. The Hamars told me that it was initially difficult to get other folks in town to take the plunge and sign up for the journey. Many were concerned about safety and organization. The Hamars and their friends handed out fliers, stopped people on the street, and used a variety of other tactics to recruit volunteers. Finally, they were able to reel in fifteen people of all different ages and backgrounds, some with Haida heritage and some without. After carving their own paddles from yellow cedar, practicing paddling as a team for a a few hours, and pulling together last minute details, the day finally came to cast off. Many on the team were unsure if they would ever make it to Wrangell “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Stormy’s daughter Stephanie told me, “We half expected to go down in the bay.”
Much to their surprise, the team was able to paddle 34 miles the first day and were able to camp for a few nights on an island. Tim Paul Willis Junior was a pace-setter up at the front with his girlfriend Stephanie. He explained to me that his team mates far exceeded his expectations, not just with their paddling speed but with their enthusiasm. “I was surprised that a couple people ever made the journey, “ he told me, “It was kind of impressive to see the different personalities of people come out through their actions.” Stormy, who skippered the boat, agreed that people on the team were able to show a different side to themselves. By the end, he told me, the group had become a significantly more cohesive community though in many ways, paddling in a canoe forced them to become more unified.
“In the canoe, people have to learn how to work together,” he told me, “There’s all this kind of simple stuff that you don’t really think about. Everybody has to learn how to paddle in the same direction. When you’re turning the boat, even when you’re docking the boat. We even had to learn how to get in the boat.”
This sense of re-connection extends far beyond the rim of the canoe. In his spare time, Ken Hoyt is a part of a team that is building a strip-bark canoe in Wrangell. He told me that everyone, not just the paddlers, involved in organizing the canoe journey has a stake in it and wants to see the team succeed. “The journeys aren’t simply just paddling,” he told me, “There’s a huge amount of logistics involved, a lot of people involved. You know every canoe might take fifty or a hundred people to get everything together, to get every last logistic taken care of, every bag packed and every little check list checked off.” Equally, the inspiration and sense of achievement, Ken told me, extends across the community; from the team on the water to the crowds of people singing traditional songs, dancing and cheering as the canoes come on shore to their final destination.
Listen to what Ken Hoyt says about how the different communities support the canoes here.
“People support the canoers in a big way,” he said, “They pray for the canoers, when we roll up to any community or leave any community they roll out the red carpet, or they’ll host a potluck and the dance groups show up. It’s powerful for the villages and the towns and the cities. Everyone celebrates the canoes in their own way. Like when we go to Juneau, they do that by having thousands of people on the beach. And when we go to Angoon, they do that by having a traditional foods potluck or a dance group. Kake woke up early in the morning to see us off. A lot of people were out on the dock with us. Just trying to help us out, whether it was picking up the canoes and helping us get them in the water, or if people forgot stuff at the house or they brought little last minute gifts for the trip.”
If wilderness, as its definition attests, is supposed to stand “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape,” then the Kootznoowoo Wilderness of Admiralty Island is serving its purpose well. To camp on the island with the highest density of brown bears on the continent and kayak through waters in which humpbacks are breaching and gray whales flapping their flippers, it’s hard not to feel humbled as a human, and concede that there are areas of this earth where man does not, and should not, hold sway. The migration of salmon swimming upstream; the beautiful, yet haunting, call of a loon; the sight of an undisturbed doe resting on the beach – upon witnessing all these simple joys not manufactured by humans, how can one not agree that there are places on our planet where the rest of nature should dominate?
SCS coworkers Mike Belitz, Bethany Goodrich, Sarah Stockdale, and myself spent the last week of August checking up on the Kootznoowoo Wilderness Area of West Admiralty Island. Kayaking the coastline of Hood, Chaik, and Whitewater Bays, the majority of our time was spent surveying for invasive plants and monitoring visitor use patterns, ensuring that the “untrammeled” character of this land was being well preserved. Wilderness, like all public land, is a shared space. But it’s also, for many, a symbolic and sacred place. A big part of our task was thus making sure that, 50 years out from the passage of the Wilderness Act, and 34 years out from the 1980 designation of this particular wilderness area, the sanctity of Kootznoowoo was still intact.
Not all people would agree with the above assertion though. In his (in)famous article,“The Trouble with Wilderness,”published over twenty years ago, the renowned environmental historian William Cronon critiqued this tendency of people to view nature as sublime, considering it a perspective of the overly romantic. Quoting Muir on Yosemite and Thoreau on Mount Katahdin and Wordsworth describing the Simplon Pass, Cronon writes that “all three men are participating in the same cultural tradition and contributing to the same myth – the mountain as cathedral.” He argues that by using such religious rhetoric to describe these spaces, we’ve abstracted wilderness, transformed it into a concept merely fit to serve our cultural and emotional needs. Thus, to him, seeing God or something spiritual in nature is a problematic aspect of how humans have historically and continue contemporarily to conceive of the outdoors.
But I disagree. To me, using such spiritual speech isn’t a romanticization or abstraction of the wilderness as much as it is an expression of the awe, reverence, and humility that these men, among many others, have felt in nature. Shelton Johnson, a park ranger featured in Ken Burns’ National Park series, may have communicated it best when he said: “When I think of a grove of giant sequoias, I think of a cathedral, or a church, or a place where you’re not necessarily worshipping the name of something, but the presence of something else. There’s no need for someone to remind you that there’s something in this world that is larger than you are, because you can see it.” In other words, the outdoors is space in which we as humans cannot be deceived into thinking we are infallible, and almighty, and always at the top of the totem pole. It’s a space where we are forced, with what’s before our eyes, to see our vulnerability, and co-dependence, and reliance on existences and processes bigger and beyond us, be those scientific, spiritual, or both.
So, despite Cronon’s objections to it, I think there is something apt regarding the religious language often used to describe wilderness. Man’s place in and relation to nature, and wilderness in particular, has always been difficult to define. A hotly contested question, my definition will have no more claim to conclusiveness than any other. But it’s always made sense to me to think of wilderness as a religion with many churches, a religion with many places and manners of worship. Like any church or synagogue or mosque, it’s a space deserving of respect, where there are some rules as to what you can and cannot do, and some strictly defined parameters. But within those, there is also the freedom to make meaning and find inspiration as you wish. It’s a place where people can go for different purposes and pursuits, but, regardless, it should be treated with the deference and due regard you would accord your own or someone else’s place of worship.
As we face growing environmental challenges and crises in the 21st century, having such humility and respect for the temple of wilderness, for these places untrammeled by man, for these spaces in which we do not dominate, will, I think, only serve us well.
Thank you to everyone who has kept up with SCS’s wilderness program this summer and read along with the blog posts. Your support has meant a lot.
The Tongass National Forest is entering a new era with a focus on young growth management and a more robust and cohesive approach to balancing the social, economic and ecological needs of the region for current and future generations.
The task is daunting. However, the Forest Service is not alone. Developing and strengthening partnerships helps leverage funding, build capacity, and better integrates local knowledge and community priorities into management and project design. Navigating through the complex steps necessary to realize partner-rich projects on the ground is also daunting and complicated. However, success stories sprouting up across the region are a powerful reminder that it can be well worth the effort. The work carried out in the Kennel Creek watershed is one such story and elements of this project can serve as a valuable template for future work on the Tongass.
The Hoonah Community Forest Project
Located on North Chichagof Island with a population of around 780, Hoonah is a remote community with over 60% Alaska Native population. Like other rural communities in the Southeast, a contentious history of resource extraction on public and private lands continues to influence community dynamics. After the pulp industry ended, career prospects in the timber industry evaporated and many families were left jobless, with high energy prices and other burdensome expenses associated with living in an isolated rural community. Much of the surrounding landscape on which residents depend on for subsistence, recreation and cultural vitality has been affected by timber activity and needs to be restored. The challenge of balancing natural resource based economies with ecological resilience and cultural well-being remains an unsolved puzzle. However, the fervor of community members and their dedication to the prosperity of their community and the landscape in which they are embedded is firm.
Brought together by a common interest in improving productive fish and wildlife habitat while supporting local economies, a diversity of community members gathered to map out a vision for their forests and streams in 2005. During the Hoonah Community Forest Project, traditional land users, local mill operators, hunters, fishermen and naturalists partnered with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to develop this vision. Kennel Creek was recognized as a top priority watershed for habitat restoration. Members voiced concerns about the ecological impacts of past timber extraction and sought treatments that could restore deer habitat and improve overall watershed health. Importantly, the group wanted to achieve these goals while also developing local capacity for land management. Turning this collective vision into a reality would require a level of cooperation and partnership new to the Tongass.
Turning a Collective Vision into Action
In the aftermath of the the timber-boom era, Congress introduced ‘Title II’ funding to the region and established community led Resource Advisory Committees (RAC) to disburse funds to rural towns that had relied on receipts from timber sales for public services. The intention of these funds is to “protect, restore, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat; improve the maintenance of existing Forest Service infrastructure; protect and enhance ecosystems on the national forests; and restore and improve land health and water quality”. The Lynn Canal/Icy Straits RAC includes Hoonah Ranger District. The committee welcomed the Kennel Creek project proposal whose outlined goals were to restore wildlife habitat in previously logged areas while developing local capacity for land management activities in the process.
In 2011, Forrest Cole approved the RAC’s recommendation to fund the project at $235,000. Agency specialists would outline the prescriptions to be carried out, answer questions about the work and ensured restoration efforts emulate the best available science and expertise of the region. All that was needed was a local team who were dedicated to carrying out the work on the ground. The Hoonah Indian Association (HIA) natural resources work crew was born.
The work crew pruned dense second growth stands, pulling down dead branches to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and grow understory vegetation for wildlife. Where thick impenetrable layers of woody slash blanketed the forest, the crew cut trails to improve the permeability of these stands for wildlife. The project was completed in 2013 and received a gold star of approval from Chris Budke, USFS Forestry Technician who provided contract oversight and general support to the crew. But how does one actually evaluate project success and measure the benefits of a project whose goals included building local capacity for resource management? Start by asking the people involved.
Measuring Success On the Ground: Speaking with the Crew
Bob Leuband is the crewleader of HIA’s natural resources crew. When asked about the benefits of this program he explained,
“Keeping the knowledge local. Not losing that knowledge… If somebody comes in from the outside and does the work around here and then leaves. Well then what they learned, goes away with them. So, if we can keep this local, and always have it local, the knowledge will not be lost and the same person might be here for 30 or 40 years. So, that knowledge will be here for [at least] that length of time.”
The sharing of knowledge is reciprocal. The crew learns from the USFS and the USFS learns from the community crew.
Art Burbank is the district ranger of Hoonah,
“We are very fortunate in Hoonah to have the Hoonah Indian Association to work with. They provide logistical support for us. They provide hands on the ground. They provide an intense knowledge base, which we have some of but, they have a different perspective… The Forest Service is for sure, a relative newcomer to the Tongass. The Tlinglit people have been here for a long time and they have an understanding of the forest that we are doing our best to understand and integrate into management. Honestly they look at it from a different perspective. When we might look at it from a commercial perspective, they look at it from a personal perspective…they are much more tied to the land and the sustainability of themselves and their family from the land.”
While the USFS seeks to better engage with native interests and integrate community priorities and knowledge into project design, the thinning crew integrates the best available science into an existing place-based knowledge that spans generations and centuries.
John Hillman is the Natural Resource Director of HIA. John helped build HIA’s Natural Resource program and continues to enjoy watching the work crew learn and grow into a powerful team of land stewards,
“I think just in the short time they work there, they see the importance of coming in here. When they first came to this particular site, they were like, ‘Why are we doing this, pruning these trees up a third of the tree height?’ At that time, these forests didn’t have this green vegetation, it was just like a desert in here. In just this short period of time, once they actually see hands on improvements to forest health, they are starting to take pride in what they are doing. They want to be the people working on their lands here and they want to stay here for years to come. A lot of my crew is young.”
Hillman reflected on the pride of returning land stewardship and a feeling of ownership to the community. He also emphasized the significance of the program for providing jobs to a community that needs them. “I want to see it continue because the crew, they could retire without even moving from Hoonah doing this type of work.”
The crew has secured thinning, wildlife treatment and pruning contracts with the USFS, Huna Totem and SEALASKA. The application of their experience and knowledge is thus truly integrated across public and private lands and scaled at the landscape level. Currently, the crew is applying for an NRCS grant so they can continue to grow, potentially expand with a second crew and advance their toolkit to include salmon habitat restoration and enhancement activity, road maintenance and projects to enhance the cultivation of non-timber resources, like berries, for a growing cottage industry. The crew is also improving their capacity for monitoring and the adaptive management of their work. With a second crew, the group could grow to an employment base of 20 people. This is significant to a community of less than 800 residents especially because a healthy demand for work is promising job security and room for future growth and expansion.
The Future: Community Based Natural Resource Stewardship on the Tongass
Moving forward, what does the case of Kennel Creek mean for the Tongass? Accomplishing the transition to a holistic forest approach that includes young growth management will require continued silvicultural and wildlife treatments combined with the restoration of previously damaged watersheds. Kennel Creek serves as a template for accomplishing these goals by leveraging the funds and partnerships necessary for effective, locally-rooted, landscape level stewardship. Encouraging and stimulating local natural resource management ensures that work carried out on public lands more clearly reflects community priorities. By supporting local work crews, the USFS and its partners also keep the knowledge and nuances of natural resource management local. In this way, natural resource managers can continually learn from projects, iteratively evaluate techniques and adaptively manage our public lands. As the Tongass enters the first generation of actively managing young growth forest stands on a large scale, strengthening the capacity for adaptive management will prove more and more critical. .
By encouraging community-based resource management we also support local stewardship of public lands and stimulate job formation in rural communities that need sustainable natural-resource based economies. The Tongass Transition seeks to better align forest management with community priorities while striking a balance between local economies, ecological integrity and cultural well-being. Stories like Kennel Creek are empowering examples of how the USFS can work with communities, local tribes, and village and regional corporations to turn these common goals into a reality.
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.