Photo: The Tongass Tiny Home at Sitka High School. Credit: Amelia Milling.
Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is excited to announce the selling of the Tongass Tiny Home! The Tongass Tiny Home was built by students enrolled in the Advanced Construction class offered from 2015 through 2021 through the vocational education program at Sitka High School (SHS) in partnership with SCS. This was the first advanced construction class offered by the Sitka School District in ten years. The custom place-based curriculum provided students with the opportunity to build valuable technical skill-sets, while exploring potential pathways to success in the regional economy.
The Tiny Home was purchased by a Juneau family and was delivered to them in March 2021. The final construction and customization of the home will be done by the current owners. Prior to sale, SHS students completed the bulk of the home construction, in different semesters learning and applying important trade skills such as framing, roofing, siding, windows, flooring, finishing, construction safety standards, selection of materials, use and maintenance of construction tools, review of building codes and appropriate professional behavior for the construction sector.
“Some of the things we were most excited about was the chance for this project to really advance our curriculum,” said Mike Vieira, CTE Instructor at Sitka High School. “This project led us to talk about species of lumber, where that labor came from, why we’re using it, why we’re not just using stuff that’s easier to work with, and what the whole goal of the project was, which was to promote Southeast Alaska and try to make some jobs that are sustainable for the region.”
The lumber for the project was sourced from local mills in Southeast Alaska including Good Faith Lumber, TM Construction, Southeast Young Growth Milling Entrepreneurs, and H&L Salvage Mill. Whenever possible, local materials were purchased to build the Tongass Tiny Home. Buying locally manufactured wood products crafted from sustainably sourced Tongass timber provides jobs and supports local businesses across Southeast Alaska. By purchasing local wood, this project is strengthening relationships between Alaskan builders and Alaskan lumber suppliers to facilitate intra-region commerce. As Senator Lisa Murkowski said after visiting the Tiny Home in 2018, the initiative is a “wonderful example of buying local and responsibly utilizing our sustainable resources, all while equipping our young Alaskans with valuable skills and real-world experience.”
Photo: Maureen O’Hanlon, Chandler O’Connell (SCS), Andrew Thoms (SCS), Perry Edwards (USFS), Pat Heuer (USFS), SHS student Ryan Bartlett, Mike Viera (SHS), Tristan Rhoads, and Olan Moore. Credit: Amy Li.
The Tongass Tiny Home demonstrates sustainable home design and construction that meets climate needs, reduces material use, and maximizes energy efficiency with an overall low carbon footprint. Buying local wood means less fuel used and fewer greenhouse gas emissions generated from shipping than imported timber from other states and countries.
Young growth wood regenerates quickly and provides a sustainable alternative to the harvest of industrial scale, old growth timber clear cuts. The Tongass National Forest is in the midst of a transition to sustainable young growth timber management, and student use of young growth wood in the Tiny Home highlights opportunities for using these forest products.
This project also prompts Sitkans to explore the economic potential of the tiny home model. Affordable housing is a challenge for many rural Alaskan communities, and a tiny home may be a viable alternative for certain home seekers or homeowners. While not right for everyone, tiny homes may be a great option for Alaskans seeking to downsize, to reduce their energy bill, to avoid the need for a mortgage or to lower their rental payments. Tiny homes also may provide an avenue for communities to thoughtfully increase housing density and add affordable rental units to the market.
Thank you to the purchasers of the Tongass Tiny Home, and thank you to the partners, collaborators, and volunteers who have contributed to the project: The Sitka School District, the National Forest Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, Mike Vieira, Randy Hughey, Meredith Condon, Island Enterprises Inc., Sitka Electric, Gordon Hall Plumbing, Schmolck Mechanical, & Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.
Contact SCS for more information on local young growth timber, regional youth workforce development programs, and sustainable housing.
The term ‘affordable housing’ sometimes has a stigma associated with it. Depending on who you ask, It also means multiple things to various people. When we say affordable housing, we mean a rental or permanent home that may be rented or purchased by an individual or family with a living wage. There are multiple, creative housing types for increasing the amount of affordable housing in Sitka. The most desirable approach would be one with a triple bottom line ethic, not just highlighting the social justice issue of affordability, but also encouraging economic growth of local builders and suppliers, and reducing the carbon footprint of our homes. This means not only saving energy through design, but locally sourcing materials and decreasing our reliance on barged products for construction.
The tiny house movement is a design and social movement centered on living small and simply, and is one solution to affordable housing. Sitka is surrounded by federal and state private lands, so as a community, it is faced with a conundrum. How to encourage growth and promote sustainable development with literally no room to grow? The simple solution is going smaller and denser. Density is a valuable tool, allowing a municipality to control growth and develop districts. In many communities where space isn’t an issue, it is used to preserve open space and agricultural lands outside of a community. In a place like Sitka, it is necessary to allow for sustainable growth and affordable housing options which lead to mixed-income and diverse communities. The tiny house is the symbol of living with less and in a smaller space, as opposed to recent trends of maximizing square footage. Tiny houses add environmental value to homes and set a new standard. While it may not be for everyone, tiny house living can contribute to a greater environmental ethic in more ways than one. In addition to the tiny home or microhome style houses, another planning and development tool for affordable housing that is gaining momentum is the Community Land Trust. The SCDC (Sitka Community Development Corporation) has established the Sitka Community Land Trust, an entity that maintains ownership of a lot or parcel, to ensure the house or residence remains affordable. The local land trust is currently working on its first project, the Lillian Drive house.
When rethinking housing options, a heavy focus on the triple bottom line and sustainability broadens the scope of the issue to include local energy needs and costs. This means transforming the face of not only affordable housing, but community development, which has become a significant force in the national sustainability movement. Given our location, Sitka is heavily reliant on imported materials, food and fuel. All of which are associated with rapidly rising costs. However, with planning, deliberate design, innovative amenities and import substitution, Sitka’s housing model can be redefined. This new way of thinking about housing may generate community awareness and lead to more local jobs along with providing new, innovative housing options.
Sitka and its efforts have been fortunate enough to catch the attention of the State of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development (DCCED). The DCCED worked with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) to conduct a case study on Sitka and the Land Trust’s Lillian Drive project. The CCHRC prepared a full report that addressed design elements, energy efficient construction methods, housing features and components, and local timber materials. They also prepared concept designs that illustrate how these elements may be incorporated into the design and planning of a home with goals of maximizing space, building in energy efficiency, and sourcing local materials to reduce the overall carbon footprint of a house.
As Sitka’s housing needs grow and change, SCS is hoping to see more projects that embrace at least one of these key features: affordability, energy efficient, locally sourced and produced. SCS is especially interested in the use of local materials as our community explores these various housing models. We will be partnering with UAS and SItka High School on projects this spring. SCS hopes that pilot projects can help change perceptions and lead to more community development that focuses on a paradigm shift and diversifies our local, affordable housing stock.
Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Directorat SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.
Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.
My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with anarea of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.
From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I've been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we've reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.
From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake.Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven't tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.
Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.
On the 28thof August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.
Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms is a member of the Tongass Advisory Council, a group of 15 stakeholders from all over the Pacific Northwest, including fishermen, timber salesmen, Alaska Native groups and conservationists.
Thoms traveled to Ketchikan last week for the first of many The Tongass Advisory Committee meetings that will discuss strategies for implementing a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest. The goal of the new plan is to shift from old growth to young growth timber harvesting.
"This committee is leading the way in figuring out how land and resource management can sustain and benefit communities while also conserving intact ecosystems," Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society and a member of the committee said. "It is natural that this is being done in Southeast Alaska because all of us who live here are so connected with the natural environment and the resources it provides."
The Tongass National Forest, Sitka's 17 million acre backyard, is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. And, the Tongass Advisory Committee wants to make sure it stays that way. Thoms and other members of the committee still want the forest to be profitable, but in more sustainable and community-focused ways. The Tongass National Forest is home to 74,000 people.
"I am very impressed that 15 people can come to consensus and put community at the top of the list," Wayne Brenner, one of the nominated co-chairs of the committee said after the three-day conference. "That is the key that holds Southeast together."
The old growth that is left in the Tongass only makes up about 4 percent of the forest. The committee wants the U.S. Forest Service to shift the focus from valuable old-growth timber to renewable resources and industries like salmon fishing and tourism. Timber harvesting will not completely disappear, but rather the committee wants to encourage a shift to young-growth harvesting.
Forrest Cole, Tongass National Forest supervisor, said the transition to young growth will support a healthy forest ecosystem, while also creating more sustainable southeast communities.
"We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects," Cole said. Other young growth harvesting projects are being planned for Kosciusko Island and Naukati-Greater Staney on Prince of Wales.
"For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads," Cole said. "This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy."
Kirk Hardcastle, a committee member, is also a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska. He applied for the committee because he wanted to help transition the Tongass Management Plan to one more focused on fishing and renewable energy.
"We have every renewable energy resource in southeast Alaska," Hardcastle said. "We're not looking to export as much as apply the technology to our communities."
In addition to fishing and renewable energy, the committee meetings on August 6 – 8 in Ketchikan also focused on subsistence, tourism and recreation.
Thoms is honored to be a member of this committee and to be a part of implementing a new management plan in the forest. While the actual transition may be several years away, he is working with the Forest Service to ensure they are taking steps in the right direction.
Protecting old-growth forest is no longer a revolutionary idea. As we continue to discover ways that old-growth habitat are critical to salmon, birds, Sitka deer and numerous other species, people are making the connection between protecting these areas and the wildlife that we depend on. Leaving old-growth habitat intact is a no-brainer forSoutheast Alaskans whodepend on the forest as the place where theyforage, hunt and fish. But we can't ignore the fact that we use woodon a daily basis. Can these needs coexist?
One way that the Sitka Conservation Society is exploring this question is by looking at ways that Southeast Alaskans have selectively and sustainably harvested old growth trees throughout time. Immediately, we turn to the ways that Tlingit Alaska Native peoples have harvested the trees. In contrast to the ways that the forests were used in the 20thcentury when they were liquidated and exported ascommodities, Alaska Natives used craftsmanship to carve useful and meaningful objectsthat were often imbued with their values and ideals. And they did it whileunderstanding andmaintaining the character and quality of the tree.
Equally as masterful was the way the Yakutat Tlingit steered their canoes through unexpected terrain. Lieutenant Frederick Gustavus Schwatk agreed. He wrote prolifically about traveling throughout the Tongass.After being welcomed on a canoe, he described how the Yakutat people delicately maneuvered a large canoe across a dam. In a 1886 New York Times article, he wrote "… . I never knew a canoe would stand so much.." After being carved, the Tlingit took great care of their canoes, covering them with damp clothes and lathering them with seal oil.
Untilthe early 20thcentury when Alaska Natives turned to skiffs with on-board motors for hunting and fishing, canoes made from old-growth wood were critical to the Tlingit lifestyle in southeast. And with the Alaskan coastline being longer than any of the other states' combined, paddling is and always has been one of the most intimate ways to navigate our unpredictable waters.With craftsmanship, care and respect of the old- growth dug-out, the Tlingit perfected the art of floating through Southeast.
Keep an eye out as we explore the way that canoe-building in southeast demonstrates a sustainable use of our crucial old-growth trees.
Tommy Joseph is a Tlingit master carver in Sitka. He teaches and carves what he is commissioned to do and what he feels inspired to create.
His apprentice, Kristina Cranston, says of him: "I think (Tommy) could recall probably where each tree came for probably if not most, all of his jobs. This tree came from this, and the other half of it went to this job. And so it becomes personal. It's like when you go into a grocery store and you see all these fruits and vegetables, you're really just getting the final product. You don'tknow where it was planted and who grew it and how it was harvested and cared for and transported. Whereas with his trees he's usually part of most of the process and knows where it comes from…And I think when you have that experience it's not a commodity, it's really the entire process, this whole cycle. And the end result is this beautiful totem pole, and usually somebody really happy."
Continue reading to see some of Tommy's work and how it relates to the community!
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.
Brent and Annette Cole have been supplying sustainably sourced, high quality sound boards or 'tone wood' to string instrument producers since 1995
We ambled down the road and through the rain to our first lesson in woodworking. Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is a major soundboard producer on the island. We pulled into the drive and were immediately welcomed by Annette who was grinning and eager to show us the operation. The place was caked in sawdust. Antlers dangled from the rafters and every available space was jam packed with plates of wood. These soundboards will be mandolins, guitars and other string instruments someday strummed by the hands of established musicians and frustrated hopefuls.
Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business' humble and family oriented beginnings.
"The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with him [Brent] and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack…"
Today, business is booming and the charming bucolic series of wood sheds in the Cole's yard is being replaced by a shiny new manufacturing facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. This advancement is welcomed by Annette and Brent who explained how even minimal exposure to the elements can influence a sound board.
So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the glory of sound board wood, which is why Brent's products are in demand by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent string-instrument crafters across the globe. To demonstrate the quality of this wood for sound production, Annette pinched a ‘½ sound board set' between her thumb and forefinger and let the wood hang. With her other hand she tapped and flicked the center of the sound board. A beautiful sound reverberated from the wood and a big grin crawled across her face. "Just listen," she said.
Straight, slow growing, ancient Sitka spruce with tight uniform rings (and the way the wood is cut) produce the stiff, tough softwood quality necessary for musicwood. The particular trees that meet the stringent requirements necessary to produce high quality sound are not widespread. ASW salvages ‘dead standing' or ‘dead down' old-growth spruce for their production. They will search the forest for appropriate trees and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service who then refer to a long-list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges! This mantra of salvage, reuse and eliminating waste is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.
"All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste- not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on- as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture...This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don't know that it's a waste. But, I like to see it get used and if it's used to put groceries on a family's table then, I think that's a good thing."
As Brent points out, although wood is technically a ‘renewable' resource, the types of trees he sources are limited and stewardship and care are required to assure their presence in the long run. One thing is for certain, once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little is ‘wasted'. Every possible space on their property is cram packed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by ASW and not a single inch of this wood will be unused. When excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried during a landslide, twenty feet under the earth.
"We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray." Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. "It's 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years" Annette proudly announced. This wood is being processed and soundboards are sold under the ‘Ancient Sitka Line'. The story of this wood reminds us just how astonishingly unique our natural resources are. The rarity, age and significance of our forests gives a story to our lumber that adds unparalleled value to wood products manufactured here in Alaska.
The Ancient Sitka Line of sound boards is crafted from a 2,800 year old Sitka Spruce that was uncovered during excavation on their property. Once unearthed and exposed to the air, the blonde wood turned a brilliant blue gray color with spectacular streaks. This tone wood is available for purchase on the ASW website.
"There's a lot of history recorded in these boards... every one of those growth lines is a year and we aren't going to use anything less than a 300 year old tree to get a sound board out of."
Protecting the longevity of the musicwood industry rests on the careful management of old-growth forests in Southeast Alaska. Part of a responsible management scheme will involve maximizing the best use and highest value for the raw material.
"I like to see the resource, the fiber, being used for its best purpose... I wouldn't take something that could be a sound board and turn it into a floor choice. Now you need good quality timber, but there's certain criteria that is specific for a soundboard and yea, it would make 2 x 2 for a wall but, it needs to be used for what it's best value is-where it will do its best for everybody."
Recognizing the most suitable and valuable use of a given tree or piece of lumber is a critical component to maximizing benefits from our invaluable old-growth forests. Understanding when we can and can not substitute second-growth, or younger timber for wood products is an important piece to a successful industry and a responsible timber program.Business is booming and Annette and Brent are moving their family business from their humble woodshed to a refurbished facility across the street. Like the lumber ASW utilizes, the original building frame was salvaged and transported from an unused facility on South Prince of Wales.
Brent and Annette were wonderful hosts who taught us a great deal about the careful use of our globally rare wood. We admired the beautiful Ancient Sitka Line a bit longer before Michael herded us back into the truck. We slid beside piles of boards and were careful not to be hooked by a saw.
We left Alaska Specialty Woods and headed for our next stop. There, in the company of an unconventional guide, we would witness raw musicwood being extracted from the rainforest floor. Check back tomorrow to meet Mr. Larry Trumble.