The Not So Ugly
While we’ve toured through the good (sustainable) uses of herring to the bad (unsustainable) uses of herring, now popular culture dictates that we tour through the ugly uses of herring. Although we’re all suckers for Clint Eastwood movie titles, however, “the ugly” is a poor description for the herring fishery we’d like to explore: the spawn on kelp or “pound” fishery. On the contrary, pound fisheries have potential to marry the sustainability of the traditional harvest with the economic gain that accompanies the sac roe industry. Not so ugly after all!
Eggs coat a blade of Macrocystis. While wild eggs on kelp are beautiful, one challenge of pound fisheries is getting a more consistent product. ©Bethany Goodrich
What is a pound fishery?
A pound fishery harvests herring roe deposited on kelp blades, more frequently referred to as spawn on kelp or SOK. Commercially, SOK is harvested on Macrocystis kelp, although hair kelp is frequently harvested by traditional users as well. Pound fisheries come in two flavors: closed pounds and open pounds.
Closed pounds give this fishery its name. A “pound” is a pen made of nets that surrounds stalks of kelp, usually suspended from the water’s surface. With a closed pound, herring are transported into one of these pens before spawning, held for several days during the spawn, and released upon completion. Closed pounds are carefully regulated by Fish and Game, who specify everything from the maximum size of the pens (800 square feet), the number of pens that can be combined (no more than 2), the number of kelp blades per pound (allocated based on herring populations), to the maximum number of days herring may be kept in a pound (6) and the time of day the herring must be released by (midnight). Closed pounds produce kelp blades thickly coated with eggs.
Kelp blades coated in eggs hang in a closed pound. ©Juneau Empire
An open pound is a bit of an oxymoron - in this case the pound, or pen, does not exist. Open pounds consist of Macrocystis blades attached to platforms that are anchored where herring are predicted to spawn. Much like setting trees for the traditional harvest, collecting SOK using an open pound requires intimate knowledge of where the herring will or are spawning and a fair amount of luck to acquire a consistent product. Since the herring are not confined, open pound SOK produces a much thinner layer of eggs over the kelp blades.
Why are they so sustainable?
Pound fisheries are sustainable in much the same way that the traditional harvest is sustainable: the fishery does not actually harvest fish at all! As we have discussed, herring survivability from eggs to juveniles is incredibly variable. It is much more important to herring populations to leave more fish in the water than it is to leave more eggs in the water. As a result, pound fisheries have a much less detrimental effect on depressed herring stocks than seining does.
In another parallel to the traditional harvest, pound fisheries can create some additional habitat for eggs to develop in. All nets and gear must be left in the water for four weeks after the harvest occurs to let the the non-harvested eggs develop normally. Unfortunately, that time delay leads some people to leave their gear in the water all year, which is both illegal and a major source of contention in communities with limited mooring space.
Herring eggs on a net start to develop eyes. With luck, at least a few of these eggs will grow up to be adults. ©Captain Quinn
Open pound fisheries have one more sustainable advantage that their closed counterparts do not share: fish are left entirely to their own devices with open pounds. This, again, mimics the traditional fishery. Closed pounds, unfortunately, are not quite this low-impact. Schools of fish are seined or herded into rigid net cages (tow pounds), towed slowly alongside the boat to the standing net structure, and released. When this is done slowly and carefully stress on the fish is minimal, but there is a real risk of some fish trauma and mortality during transport. For that reason, while both closed and open pound fisheries are preferable to the sac-roe harvest, open pounds are the most environmentally friendly option.
What does the future hold?
Currently, pound fisheries only exist in four areas: Tenakee Inlet, Craig/Klawock, Hoonah Sound, and Ernst Sound. Due to low numbers of herring, only the Craig/Klawock pound fishery was opened this year. “If this fishery is so sustainable and non-disruptive to the fish,” you may ask, “why are so many of the pound fisheries closed this year?” While the number of eggs in the water is not the primary control of herring populations when talking about small numbers of eggs, the majority of the returning herring must still be allowed to spawn normally and their eggs left to develop. As with all fisheries, pound fisheries need a certain amount of product to be economic. If that product would be an unacceptably high percentage of the eggs laid that year or a there will not be a high enough concentration of fish, the fishery is closed.
The real hope for the future is that sac roe seiners in Sitka Sound are allowed to trade their permits for pound permits. That was the subject of a proposal to the State Board of Fisheries this year that generated quite a bit of interest within the Board. Unfortunately, that possibility is at least three years away. Any new fishery must first go through the Commercial Fisheries Entries Commission, then can seek approval from the Board of Fisheries. That means the proposal will not be reconsidered until 2018 at the earliest.
What does the future hold? Hopefully a lot more of this!
Is this something we would be excited about? Absolutely! Fishing is Sitka’s most important industry and, when well managed, is likely our most sustainable industry after tourism. Switching sac roe permits for open pound SOK permits recognizes this economic reality, while switching a less sustainable use of herring for a more sustainable one. What’s not to like?
Let’s cheer the pound fisheries on and get ready for the 2018 Board of Fisheries!
Herring milt fills bays in Sitka Sound. As the water turns white, traditional harvesters set their branches.
If the hundreds of circling eagles, dozens of bubble-netting whales, and armadas of fishing boats didn’t already make this obvious, the most important and controversial marine resource in Southeast Alaska has returned - the herring. Huzzah! Across Sitka Sound, seiners play out their nets, traditional harvesters lay their branches, and kids jig for small fish in the harbors.
Why all this hullabaloo over only one type of fish? We could go on (and have) about herring’s importance to the marine ecosystem. Their importance cannot be overstated. But herring aren’t just important for growing salmon - humans rely on them as well!
You could argue that the health of the marine ecosystem easily trumps any economic benefits we may get from herring harvesting. That argument has been made, and compellingly so. But let’s engage in some productive narcissism for the moment. Let’s only consider the ways that we humans use herring. Even considering our own wants first and foremost, it still behooves us to think about the sustainability of our herring-related harvest.
As it turns out, our harvest of herring and herring eggs spans quite a large swath of the sustainability spectrum, from the good to the bad to the (not so) ugly.
Good news first! The traditional herring egg harvest.
While Sitka boasts gorgeous mountain ranges and beautiful natural harbors, it was the herring that made this a desirable place to live thousands of years ago. Herring eggs were one of the first fresh sources of spring protein and were widely traded across Alaska. That trade didn’t stop with the colonial period; even today, Sitka Sound herring eggs can be found as far north as Barrow! Herring eggs continue to be an important special food item and appear at most potlatches and community events.
What exactly is the traditional harvest?
Herring lay their eggs in the shallows just below the low-tide line. The sticky eggs attach to the seafloor, to kelp, and to strategically placed hemlock branches. For thousands of years, Tlingit people from all over Southeast Alaska attached young hemlock branches or trees to anchors just before the herring started spawning. Hemlock is used because it doesn’t impart flavor to the eggs, and it’s also an incredibly efficient surface to collect eggs on. A fully loaded tree can easily hold up to 1,000 pounds of eggs! After 2-4 days underwater, branches are retrieved and the eggs are pulled off. Eggs are eaten fresh or frozen for future use.
The traditional harvest also includes some spawn on kelp (SOK), although roe on branches makes up more than 90% of the typical traditional harvest. Herring eggs will settle on whatever is available, including hair kelp and Macrocystis kelp. SOK is gathered either from boats or from the shorelines with long rakes. Macrocystis SOK is also a commercial product harvested in “pound fisheries,” but that's a future story.
What makes the traditional harvest so sustainable?
First, it’s very small. Tlingit traditional harvesters commonly advocate taking only as much as they need, but true sustainability comes from taking only as much as the ecosystem can support. Happily, the Amount Necessary for Subsistence, the State’s assessment of how many pounds of herring eggs are necessary to satisfy traditional demand throughout Alaska, is well below the carrying capacity of Sitka Sound.
Second, the traditional harvest leaves the herring themselves completely unmolested. The survival rate of herring from eggs to adults has been calculated to range between 1 and 6500 per 1,000,000 eggs, a massively variable amount! Ideally, the more eggs in the water, the more herring in the water, but that enormous variability in survival rates means that egg deposition is not the primary control on herring populations. Fewer herring taken from the water, however, means much more to the population. As a bonus, branches that are lost or otherwise not worth recovering (too little spawn, too much debris) provide excellent habitat for those eggs to develop, but that perk is well overshadowed by the benefits of giving adult herring the chance to spawn another year.
It is! We’re lucky to have such a connection to past populations here. We’re luckier still to live in a place that allows us to live with (rather than off) the land and sea. With as much as 95% of our food coming from elsewhere, it’s refreshing to see such a sustainable, culturally-rich use of a local resource.
May the traditional harvest of herring eggs inspire us to gather more local foods in just as sustainable a manner.
Funded by a $100,000 Alaska Department of Labor grant, the Energize! Sitka program is a partnership between the Southeast Alaska Career Center and the Sitka Conservation Society. Our aim is to make Sitka more energy efficient. This program provides residents with extensive professional training and certifications for “green” jobs in the areas of construction, carpentry, and weatherization techniques. It also provides community-wide outreach for home weatherization, energy efficiency, and other state programs.
Access to fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins in Alaska can be a daily challenge.Alaska imports ninety five percent of its food. This means that families pay high prices for processed and typically unhealthy foods, communities are vulnerable to delays and complications with importing from far away places and the state of Alaska unnecessarily exports money out of a region that is thirsty for economic stimulation.
This doesn’t need to be the case and a growing force of communities and entrepreneurs are working to challenge the status quo and localize our food systems. While greenhouses and garden initiatives are important elements, revitalizing our food system doesn’t end with cultivation. In Alaska, we are surrounded by wild food sources as diverse and vibrant as the cultures and communities that call this state home….
Learn about a growing community of Alaskan residents, communities and organizations who are dedicated to invigorating Alaska’s Food System with wild foods. This video also showcases the Kasaan Wild Foods Community Harvest. The Sitka Conservation Society, as part of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, partnered with Southeast Conference, the Cooperative Extension and the Organized Village of Kasaan to facilitate this awesome community project. Also, keep your eyes open for shots from the Sitka Kitch Community Canning classes that happened this summer!
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.
Part of my work here at SCS is my role as a community catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP). The SSP focuses on the triple bottom line approach to solving many of the challenges rural communities face in SE Alaska. In keeping with two of the SSP's key directives, focus on local food and economic development, Sitka Kitch was developed. Sitka Kitch is the community project that was born out of the Sitka Health Summit being led by Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and a devoted committee of local volunteers. The goal is to tap into local food resources, provide education and foster the development of new jobs and industries. This will fill a missing niche in Sitka and the region, training students to fill existing jobs in industries related to our region's tourism and food based industry.
Sitka Kitch will also provide emergency preparedness and home economic based classes to increase food security at the household level. Programming and outreach will encourage community wide collaboration to address food-based issues while simultaneously improving economic development. The long term project goal is the development of a sustainable food system for Sitka through empowerment and education. Expected outcomes include an increase in local food production, small business development, and improved household-level food security and local food consumption.
This will ideally be achieved through the establishment of a shared-use commercial kitchen. Sitka Kitch does not have a permanent facility yet but is currently partnering with the First Presbyterian Church to provide limited access. The Sitka Kitch Committee prepared a proposal to the Church's national organization and received a $13,000 grant to upgrade the facility for commercial use and we hope to start working with small businesses in the fall. "Sitka Kitch" also offered three classes in July (exceeding one of our goals for the 2014 health summit!). We were able to bring in Sarah Lewis from the UAS Cooperative Extension office to run the classes. Class themes revolved around the primary objectives of Sitka Kitch - cottage food industry development and maximizing household level food security through preservation of food. We had the added bonus of welcoming Amy Gulick to class (Salmon in the Trees) who was on hand to photograph people interacting with salmon! The courses were held at our partner facility, the FIrst Presbyterian Church of Sitka and at Sitka High School.
Overall class metrics: Total student hours: 136 Total students/participants among classes: 34 Individual participants: 25 ( a few students took multiple classes)
Cottage Food Industry: 8 in attendance, 7 female, 1 male. Class focus was on cottage food industry (rules and guidelines for what you can sell, how it must be prepared) Kitch goal: educate locals on small, local food based business to encourage product development for farmers market and other 'booth' vending type events. Class cost was $20 per participant, 3 hours
Canning the harvest: 17 in attendance, 13 female, 4 male. Class focused on handling and processing of meat, fish and vegetables for canning preservation. Kitch goal: educate community members about proper canning techniques and how to maximize preservation of subsistence and other harvests, as well as store bought or bulk purchased produce. This was partly in response to the community food assessment information that found 90% of food preservation methods in Sitka was reported as freezing. Class cost was $20 per participant, 5 hours
Jams and Jellies: 9 in attendance, all female Class focused on multiple recipes for preparing jams, jellies, catsups. Kitch goal: a fun twist on conventional canning, creativeways to produce and preserve local berries and food products Class cost was $20 per participant, 3 hours
The Sitka Conservation Society is working with a team of stakeholders to advise the US Forest Service and amend the Forest Plan for our beloved Tongass National Forest. To ground our vision and better understand what timber on the Tongass looks like today, we left our insulated home of Sitka to visit Prince of Wales Island. Under the mentorship of Michael Kampnich, a field representative for the Nature Conservancy in Alaska, we were greeted by 4 millers who shared a great variety of wisdom and insight. Last week, we revisited these mills, by sharing their stories and revealing how their insight is helping inform our vision as a Conservation Society.
We can not pretend that after having a handful of discussions with millers on POW that we know everything about logging in the Southeast. For one, we were not able to connect with Viking, the larger engineered mill that consumes the highest volume of old-growth timber, performs minimal on-site processing and whose business model currently relies on exporting a high percentage of raw or minimally processed wood. Viking also supports infrastructure on the island that enables smaller mills to stay in business. Our positions are adapting and changing and influenced by our relationships with these millers, our members, and our ideals. As we move forward, we can maximize our common ground and seek changes to timber management that give a strong foundation to this ground.
Our take-home messages were many. A handful of key themes were identified and require follow up. Defining a sustainable and responsible timber industry on the Tongass is grounded in careful forest management. The ecological integrity of our forest and its great variety of resources feed our residents and support strong industries in salmon, timber, recreation and tourism.
The great variety of multiple uses of our rainforest resources must always be balanced with, not foreshadowed by timber and unrealistic target board-foot goals.
The Forest Service needs to shift away from unsustainable timber volume targets, as ultimately this management system has failed to meet the needs of Southeast Alaskans. Instead, The focus needs to move towards what the landscape, and communities that depend on it, can sustain over the long-term.
We want timber resources used responsibly and for the highest value possible. Wood that could be turned into a mandolin or rot-resistant decking, should be recognized for its highest value use and manufactured as such. We want to support local job creation not just in the short term, but careers that can be passed to future generations within and across families. We want to empower Alaskan residents to source their wood products locally to support the vibrant and healthy local mill industry so that it can continue to grow and support rural Alaskan communities in the long term. We support the development of a timber sale structure that maximizes regional benefits and retains healthy old-growth characteristics and functions even in logged stands through selective harvests. Collectively, we must push forward timber sale structures and contracts that prioritize keeping the most money, the greatest amount of jobs and the largest amount of wood in the region that needs it, Southeast Alaska. The micro sale program, which allows the selective harvest of dead and fallen old-growth wood in proximity to specific roads, is an example of small-scale and valuable timber program that we intend to support. The success of this program depends on keeping a selection of existing roads open. We want to seek policy action and management change that will grow a healthy and sustainable, well managed timber industry on the Tongass long into the future.
Good Faith Lumber, far surpassed our expectations as far as size and workload. Good Faith is owned by three Thorne Bay residents with a combined experience in the wood industry of over 92 years! We walked around the facility and watched big beautiful slabs of old-growth lumber being planned and finished into gorgeous table tops. The employees were all busy at work water blasting gravel from the raw wood, operating heavy machinery and soaking in the opportune hot Southeast Sun. We met with Hans on his break.
"It's busy especially this time of year, it gets busy. Lots of orders coming in. People wanting to build cabins or homes you know."
We asked Hans about his history and relationship with Alaskan timber. He stressed his dedication to in-region manufacturing as opposed to wholesale export of raw lumber and job opportunities to markets outside of Alaska.
"We all have the same mindset for the future. None of us want to get rich and leave. We want to see this thing working. We want to see the wood stay here. Frankly, I'd like to not see any export at all. I'd like it all manufactured right here on the island rather than send it to Japan or wherever else but right now it's a necessary evil."
We agreed with Hans. Our valuable timber should be carefully and responsibly managed. The lumber should be used in a way that maximizes benefits to the region and our local rural communities. Rather than mass export raw products to Asian markets or companies in the lower 48, this wood can, and should be used to create jobs and valuable products right here in Southeast Alaska where jobs, and a stable economy are so desperately needed. How can we better incentivize in-region manufacturing? This is a question and goal that needs more exploration.
We continued our tour and noticed, smoke billowing out above a gravel mountain from the corner of the property. This is where waste wood is burned. Around fifty percent of a given log can be wasted and unfortunately, as it is now, these local mill operations are left to burn the leftovers. Keith Landers and Hans expressed a common guilt and sadness for burning this waste. Removing wood from the forest only to end up using half of it to fuel a continuous bonfire is a modern tragedy in the Southeast. Wasted wood can and should be used to fuel creative markets and heat homes in a region where incredibly high energy costs debilitates our economy and leaves residents scrambling to pay utility bills. This waste is not only problematic at the stage of manufacturing and processing, the floor of clearcuts and thinned forests are often littered with abandoned wood, disregarded as ‘non merchantable'.
Eliminating the waste stream in our industry requires both societal and political change. For one, building a culture that admires defect, that refuses to burn waste wood when it can be manufactured into unique and functional products. This wasted wood could also heat homes. Exploring a sustainable ‘biomass' industry that could fuel Southeast Alaska and reduce exorbitant energy costs for rural Alaskans is on the agenda of everyone from SCS and the Forest Service to the millers themselves. Four mill owners on Prince of Wales, including Keith Landers and Good Faith Lumber, are interested in partnering to turn waste wood into chips or pellets for sale to local markets. The success of a localized biomass industry, depends on regional markets. The Forest Service is exploring biomass utilization schemes. This exploration and the related initiatives have not yet trickled down into action on the ground, in the communities and across industries where it is needed.
There are a number of policy changes that can also help eliminate wood waste at its source. As it is now, the US Forest Service has a very relaxed definition of ‘merchantable' wood. This allows the winning timber sale bidder to leave behind high volumes of ‘slash' or cut and abandoned ‘unmerchantable' wood on the floor of a clearcut. Policies like this incentive our current timber culture that lags far behind the lower 48 as far as eliminating waste streams and maximizing industry efficiency per board foot.
One way to eliminate old-growth waste is by encouraging selective logging and only cutting the trees that are wanted. By leaving trees standing, rather than cutting and ultimately abandoning on the clearcut floor, this practice better protects forest structure that would otherwise be lost under a clearcut regime. In many situations, the USFS requires all trees to be cut. The resultant forest consists solely of trees of the same age. Once the canopies close, these even-aged trees block out the sun and prevent a healthy understory from growing. In order to speed growth, restore habitat diversity and improve function for deer and other wildlife, these stands are periodically thinned- often at great cost. Under a partial, selective-harvest regime, a certain percent of the multi-aged structure of the stand is retained. The resulting forest avoids complete canopy closure and the subsequent detriment to wildlife. Therefore, costly thinning procedures are no longer required and the ecological integrity of the forest prevails.
The Tongass already contains vast tracts of clearcut land and subsequent young-growth forest. Additional, mass clearcutting of our vanishing old-growth forest is wasteful and costly in both economic and environmental terms. Future old-growth harvests should focus on reducing needless waste and destruction of valuable wildlife habitat by leaving a selection of trees standing and only removing those which meet the specific needs of the logger. By being more selective and prudent in the way we harvest our forests we can achieve common goals and bridge the differences between those driven by economic and conservation goals.
We left Good Faith Lumber and stopped distracting the very busy workers from the tasks at hand. Good Faith Lumber produces large quantities of high quality dimensional lumber and their products are in high demand. We thanked Hans and his colleagues for their time and piled back in the rig to ruminate on and discuss all the insight and wisdom these delightful woodworkers shared with us.
Check back next week for the conclusion and summary of our visit to Princce of Wales.
We rolled up to our next stop to visit Keith Landers at H&L Salvage. Keith has been making shingles here for twenty years. In the last decade, H&L began manufacturing dimensional lumber as well. Landers was eager to chat and there was no shortage, or filter, to the wisdom he was willing to share about the industry, society, timber sales and even his opinion of environmentalists. When we asked him how he found himself in the Alaskan industry he smirked.
"You want to know how I came here? I came here because of the spotted owl okay."
Keith's operation in Oregon was shut down with the controversial protection of the Northern Spotted Owl. Keith didn't blame the owl, but he was concerned about environmentalists abstaining from level-headed discussions with millers and loggers. We need to obtain wood from somewhere and displacing logging activity from the United States, to say- the Amazon Tropical Rainforest is a ‘not in my backyard' attitude that doesn't tackle the roots of the problem- overuse, waste and unsustainable management. He also reminded us that unlike historical logging in Southeast Alaska, when loggers were often transient visitors who worked out of logging camps and eventually packed up and left when the season or era ended, today's workforce is here to stay.
"The people that are here now are people that are living here, this is where their family is, they purchased property, this is where they live and it's the last thing anyone wants to do here is dirty the water, dirty the air, and massive cut our forest to the point where environmentally it's hurting the animals, the water- that type of thing. The people here are very conscious about the environment and how we should handle this forest, we live here."
Like most residents of Southeast Alaska, Landers and his employees depend on the forest for more than economic prosperity.
"We invite anybody to come and visit us and see the way we see the forest. Not necessarily, do I see it strictly as as a way to make a living. There are many different uses in this forest and we use it in many different ways. From berry picking, to subsistence, we live off of this land here. We are one of the few people that are able to do that still, and we want to protect that. That is why a lot of us came here, because of the way we still get to live. We aren't really city people."
Landers let out a belly laugh and Marjorie and I nodded in unison. Most Alaskans aren't really ‘city people' after all. Recognizing our common goals is necessary for defining a sustainable timber future for the Tongass. We need to break down this false dichotomy that pits environmentalists against all development initiatives. This summer, the Tongass Advisory Committee and the Tongass Land Management Plan amendment process will put our capacity to collaborate to the test as industry representatives, environmentalists and other stakeholders discuss face to face what the future of timber on the Tongass should be. Landers stressed the importance of securing a long-term timber plan. He emphasized the particular devastation this ambiguity and uncertainty has on small mills. Uncertainty in the industry prevents small operators from investing in growth, innovation, retooling and even replacing damaged and outdated equipment that impacts productivity and poses a safety risk.
"The timber industry needs to have a twenty year plan- at least, because of the expenses involved. That guy right there, when it was new [points to excavator] costs 700,000 dollars- that's a lot of second growth and old growth…That's what I would like to see, everyone get together and try and make a decision about what we are going to do on the Tongass instead of all this uncertainty."
Of course, this constant uncertainty is also taxing on the well-being of workers and their family who are interested in continuing, growing and supporting the family business. As is the case with Landers, "My son would like to move back into the company again if we can see some longevity in the industry."
So why should we support small mills? Supporting the longevity of these operations benefits those directly involved with the mill: the owners, employees and family members. The direct impact can be pretty substantial, these operations provide quite a few stable local jobs.
"The small mills are high in employment - it takes us quite a few guys to produce a board due to the fact that we are not as efficient as an engineered mill. So, [small mills] may not have the type of payroll that some of the larger mills have but there is longevity in having more small mills than just one large mill. If one large mill goes down, the impact that it has on the communities is huge. Whereas if one small mill goes down, there's very little impact. "
As Keith points out, having a number of smaller operations not only supports more jobs. It also provides a security to rural towns that a single, large scale operation does not. In the past, when a small mill goes out of business, other operations, like H&L Salvage hire laid-off employees and pick up the slack. If large scale timber industries go under, like the giant pulp operations of the past for example, the ensuing devastation to communities is much more severe.
We toured the facility and witnessed raw lumber being sliced up and processed into shingles at the hands of specialized machines and talented woodworkers. My ears were ringing and sawdust soon coated every cranny of my camera. I started to wonder whether our Nikon warranty covers sawdust damage but was quickly distracted and refocused on the scene before me. The sheer enormity of the operation and the amount of talent and work required to turn trees into shingles was startling.
Keith gave us insight and a marked goal: how can we support these local operations, maximize benefits to our communities and minimize irreversible degradation to our environment? We need to quell the animosity between environmentalists and the timber industry, recognize our common goals and draft a timber plan.
How can we better design timber sales to support small scale local millers?
Part of that entails designing small manageable sales that attract bids from smaller operations. Michael Kampnich, Field Representative from The Nature Conservancy and our avid tour guide and mentor, explained the need for ‘no export provisions' on a selection of timber sales to level the playing field. According to Michael,
"As it is now, its apples against oranges and mill owners who want to focus on a higher percentage of local processing are at a disadvantage when bidding on sales that include an export provision."
‘No export provisions;' on targeted timber sales would incentivize in-region manufacturing of raw lumber and help small mills fairly compete for, and win, small timber sale bids. As Landers pointed out, small mills are high in employment, provide stable jobs, and use wood resources on a sustainable scale. However, many of the woodworkers we met, including Landers, stressed the important balance of larger and small mills. The larger, more engineered mills (mainly Viking Lumber) support regional infrastructure that the smaller mills, and communities more generally, depend on (e.g. barge, road systems etc.). It's a tricky balance and one that will require more thought, fieldwork and discussions in communities with a great variety of stakeholders. Understanding the impact this balance has on our forests, how we can more carefully and responsibly craft timber sales is also an important piece of the puzzle.
We thanked Landers for his wisdom, dusted ourselves (and our camera equipment) off and left R&L Salvage for our next stop, Good Faith Lumber.
We rambled down a maze of logging roads in search of the bucket Larry left by the road to signify our pulloff. Eventually, we spotted the bucket and a sedan pulled conspicuously off the gravel. We were greeted by Larry Trumble who owns and operates Wood Marine a soundboard manufacturer. Larry is intriguing. He often speaks about himself in the third person and mumbles off topic pretty regularly. All his idiosyncrasies contribute to his charm and we were eager to follow him to his worksite. We trudged behind him up the cliffside. Larry maneuvered through the forest with an unexpected agility and grace. It became clear that Larry spends a lot of time in the Tongass. We balanced behind him, filed up the trunk and along the spine of his treasured Sitka Spruce. We arrived to his ‘office' and Larry quickly began rigging up a makeshift antenna so he could access some motivational music before he began harvesting future soundboards from the spruce laying before him.
".. It's always country music," he murmured in disappointment once the sound waves hit our spot. He began to work, splitting the spruce and hammering out pieces with the occasional curse and remark about the quality of each block, "It's a pig in a poke, a pig in a poke!"
The view was inspiring. We were perched on a huge stump, balanced on a cliffside, overlooking a calm and misty afternoon settle across the Tongass and coast. The peace was quickly interrupted by the sawing and chatter of Larry. Larry wasn't used to having guests tag along; he talked incessantly. He commented how in most cases, he hikes across rough terrain and eventually camps beside his beloved spruce for the time it takes to buck it up.
The work was hard and I felt a bit guilty snapping photos and asking questions while he sweat and toiled over his woody bounty. This particular spruce will take Larry an estimated five weeks to process between chopping up the tree, packing down to the wood, processing the raw lumber into a ‘book set' for soundboards, drying and selling. Larry will salvage about six trees a year and produce from the raw lumber, valuable book sets that will be sold at a high price to a variety of guitar markers across the country. Trumble stressed the rarity of musicwood trees and emphasized how this invaluable resource should be managed to incentivize the in-region manufacturing of high value added products like soundboards.
It doesn't get more ‘small scale' than Larry. He prospects for trees alone and chops up the wood by himself. He processes and sells the boards on his own and it only takes six selectively harvested dead and down trees a year to sustain his valuable business providing musical instruments for the world. He's an atypical kind of guy, that flourishes in an atypical ‘self employed' type of business. The kind of peculiar resident that gives rural Alaska its distinct character.
Keeping characters like Larry in business requires more than just the careful management of old-growth trees. According to Larry, "The most important thing for keeping the microscale program going is keeping roads open."
The US Forest Service intends to close fifty percent of existing roads across the region. These musicwood businesses operate under the US Forest Service's microsale program and as Larry points out, depend on access to old-growth stands in timber designated areas to prospect and find appropriate dead wood that meet the stringent qualifications for musicwood.
The microsale program is a valuable timber initiative that facilitates the extraction of high value products from fallen trees within a short distance of particular road systems. Programs of this scale and minor environmental disturbance should be supported and efforts taken to prevent subsistence loggers like Larry, who obey all protocols and responsibly extract a high value product from dead trees on an already disturbed roadside, from being forced out of business. Existing roads that the Forest Service made, are depended on by Larry and other residents and businesses across the region. This is particularly evident on Prince of Wales. A careful selection of existing roads should be maintained for sustainable timber microsales and to maintain access into forest stands for management activities such as silvicultural thinning and restorative restoration. Instead of focusing efforts on building additional roads, the Forest Service could instead maintain the ones we have. The specific roads that access timber designated areas, support a valuable and diverse microsale industry that is becoming increasingly relevant on the Tongass as large-scale mass timber harvests subside and small, value added, innovative woodworking enterprises flourish.
We left Larry to his work and jumped into our rig. As we drove past, we could hear a chainsaw firing up somewhere hidden in the treeline. Musicwood producers on Prince of Wales Island showed us how you can flip an astonishing profit from the careful use of a small amount of dead old-growth spruce. We left the glamorous world of musicwood behind and headed next to a mill where we would learn a thing or two about shingles, dimensional lumber and spotted owls. Tune in tomorrow.