Peer beneath the evergreen canopy of the forests that envelope Southeast Alaska and one can find deer grazing on the understory below towering old growth, the leaves of berry bushes waving gently in a breeze, and streams cascading down from the mountains into the ocean providing passage for salmon to return to their spawning grounds.
So, too, can one find where past forest management and logging practices have created thick areas of impenetrable second-growth forest, occluding the sunlight for plant life on the forest floor and choking out wildlife movement. One can also find stream systems that were logged right up to the banks, criss-crossed with roads that now have failing culverts, and in some cases streams that were used as thoroughfares to move logs and equipment. The forest bears the marks of a landscape in need of healing.
Over the last decade tribal governments, Alaska Native Corporations, the U.S. Forest Service, nonprofit organizations and other management agencies have sought to do the work of healing those lands and waters. In doing so, restoration work has become a priority approach in the Tongass National Forest and surrounding lands. This multi-disciplinary work also breathes fresh air into local economies by creating forestry jobs, developing youth apprenticeships and making opportunities for independent contractors — all while strengthening the deer, fish and berry habitats that sustain Southeast Alaska communities. Improved salmon spawning habitat in turn bolsters fish runs that also support local livelihoods in the fishing industry.
“We’ve been working on restoration for a while now, but this work is in a really exciting moment because it’s gaining attention for the impact it is having beyond just restoring the landscape,” says Katherine Prussian, the forest service’s hydrologist and watershed program manager for the Tongass National Forest. “Now we’re seeing how it is feeding the economy, creating jobs, increasing operators, increasing contractors, and working with tribal organizations. It’s really growing and everyone is interested in doing more.”
As a part of these growing efforts, tribally-led “community forest partnerships” have risen to the surface as impactful models that work on the forest holistically, deploying local crews to work across management and ownership boundaries rather than confined within. This approach is made possible through multi-partner agreements that hinge heavily on collaboration. By working cooperatively, communities are returning to how this region has been stewarded by the Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian for thousands of years: as whole, interconnected lands and waters.
Three community forest partnerships exist to date in Southeast Alaska with similar efforts on the rise in the region. More than just a job, these stewardship crews are rooted in community, working towards the benefit of future generations and listening to current community stewardship priorities. They are creating capable crew members, training in forestry skills, collaborating with state and federal agency staff, and centering local and traditional knowledge to sustainably steward watersheds and forest habitats that are inextricably linked to the ways of life of the region. This approach helps move the means of management action and job creation to the communities and tribes who have lived in relationship with these lands and waters since time immemorial.
Hoonah Native Forest Partnership (HNFP)
Eight years ago the forest partnership model came to fruition on Huna lands with the creation of the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership. The partnership started with the common guiding vision of “a thriving community with access to abundant resources and workforce opportunities that consist of members who work together to improve economic, ecological, and social conditions,” setting the scene for future partnerships to come.
The partnership is comprised of the Hoonah Indian Association, City of Hoonah, Sealaska, Huna Totem, The Nature Conservancy, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP), Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), Forest Service (USFS) and Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Hoonah Indian Association Environmental Coordinator Ian Johnson says “the HNFP started in its first years looking from a perspective of what’s on the land, what condition these resources are in, and listening to what people want from these lands.” Discussions focused on project opportunities that the partnership could work on together to build economic opportunity, climate resilience, food and harvest resources, and recreational opportunities across the 205,000-acre working area.
Johnson continues, “collectively, we decided to work in a focused area to be efficient in working together.” The area that the collective chose to work on first was the Spasski Watershed (one of six watersheds in the HNFP working area). “It’s a really high-value watershed — the local community relies on that watershed for aquatic resources, deer, fish and berries,” says Johnson.
Members of the HNFP crew have steadily made progress over the years, pushing through brush, over logs, wading in streams, clamoring through dense young growth, and hauling tools day in and day out. The work has included meticulous inventorying of forest, streams and roadways, thinning dense areas of young-growth forest, restoring fish passages where roads cross streams, rehabilitating fish habitat through stream restoration projects, and continuous data collection.
Phillip Sharclane, who has been an HNFP crew member since the start of the partnership reflects on the years of work, “It’s really a great feeling to be a part of this restorative process. The forest partnership is really out there to have a positive impact on future resources and, most of all, my family, my people and my community.”
Today nearly every restoration prescription for the 33,097-acre Spasski Watershed has been completed by the HNFP. Next year they will set their sites on the second priority area, the Game Creek/Port Frederick Frontal Watershed.
Sharclane continues: “Knowing that I’m having a positive impact is awesome. Knowing that I’m out there thinning a forest that my son is going to be hunting in. I know that he’s going to be able to traverse it really well because of a prescription that I put on it, and I’m happy that he’s going to be able to go get some fish from a stream that I possibly restored.”
Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan Community Forest Partnership (KKCFP)
“It feels good to give back, helping to rebuild salmon habitat,” says Travis Adams, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow while looking upstream. Adams is the field leader for the Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan Community Forest Partnership working alongside his three friends (and fellow crew members), Rob, Cam and Angelo this year. During a sunny week in July the KKCFP crew, alongside the USFS Petersburg Ranger District and the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition (SAWC), worked to add large wood structures into Shorty Creek on Kuiu Island to foster salmon spawning and rearing habitat. Beyond Kuiu Island having important salmon-bearing streams that provide fish for the residents of Kake, the area is also traditional Lingít homelands to many in Kake, including Adams.
From the HNFP’s success, the KKCFP based its model with the goal of achieving “a resilient blend of timber, salmon, and wildlife production while supporting a diversified economy and healthy watersheds.” Starting in 2019, core partners include Sealaska, Kake Tribal, the Organized Village of Kake, the City of Kake, ADF&G, Southeast Alaska Land Trust, SSP and USFS.
Water peels past Adams and the crew’s ankles as they stand in the stream. The flow creates eddies behind their boots that juvenile coho salmon come up to rest in. The structures the crew is building in the stream are, in essence, doing the same thing on a larger scale: slowing water down, building complexity, and shifting rock and sediment deposits to make varying depths of pool and eddy habitat for the fish. Without large old-growth trees keeping stream banks intact and eventually falling into the stream to add structure, those streams are coming undone from currents that flow through the forest unchecked, flushing away precious fish habitat. The crew’s restorative action mimics what older, larger trees would have created, if not logged, by eventually falling into the stream.
“This stream had logging occurring around it in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and all throughout that time, there were excavators moving through the stream changing how the water flows,” says Forest Service fish biologist Eric Castro. The presence of the little fish underscore the importance of the work. “They remind us why we’re here,” says Castro. “To see that we’re doing more than just rebuilding a stream channel, we’re helping to support fish populations that communities rely upon.”
“Wood is good,” says Kelsey Dean, a SAWC watershed scientist. “It’s a crucial factor in streams all around Southeast Alaska.” SAWC is a key player in watershed rehabilitation in Southeast Alaska. Look at just about any stream restoration project in the region, and SAWC will be there connecting organizations, lending technical support, and supporting local crews to do the work of furthering their community’s stewardship goals. Dean continues, “Wood makes fish habitat, adds cool coverage, and helps create the spawning gravel that fish lay their eggs in. We’re using hand tools, chainsaws, winches and human power to bring that wood back into the streams.”
When the team is done for the day, Castro, Dean and the crew head back to the Forest Service Rowan Bay Field Camp. Over meals they share ideas about upcoming projects, the forest and the value of their work. When Forest Service hydrologist, Heath Whitacre, arrives back from a heavy equipment stream restoration project at a nearby watershed, Sḵanaxhéen, he shows the team his sketches and schematics of the larger structures he is working with the contractor to construct.
KKCFP’s Adams reflects, “Everyone has been so willing to teach us about this work. I want to express how happy I am to be here learning about these structures that we’re putting into the stream. These last couple years have been an eye-opener. I love my job and everything it stands for. To give back to future generations — our kids and our kids’ kids.”
Klawock Indigenous Stewards Forest Partnership (KISFP)
Quinn Aboudara, Stewardship Coordinator for Shaan Seet Inc. Natural Resources Division likens the collective progress of forest partnerships in Southeast Alaska to building a house. “The HNFP really laid the foundation for the rest of the partnerships, and then the KKCFP came along and they put up the framing for the house, and now we, KISFP, we’re putting on the siding. We are utilizing the successes, lessons and even some of the struggles to build on.”
KISFP began on Prince of Wales Island (POW) in 2021, but is rooted to years of past work organizing a collective response to concerns around sockeye salmon in the Klawock Lake Watershed. The partnership exists between Shaan Sheet Inc., Klawock Heenya Corporation, Sealaska, Klawock Cooperative Association, the Prince of Wales Tribal Conservation District, Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, SSP, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the USFS.
This year, the KISFP crew made their first move beyond the Klawock Lake Watershed, and began restoration and thinning work on Kosciusko Island off POW. During one stint, USFS, SAWC, and KISFP budgeted eight days to complete a stream restoration project, but ended up taking only four. That efficiency has been the trend for most projects that KISFP has undertaken on POW. Aboudara credits the speed to strong collaboration and well-coordinated partners, but also the passion and dedication that comes from a local workforce. “We know these lands best. We hunt here. We fish here. We live off the land. We spend every day here,” says Aboudara.
As for Kosciusko, Aboudara adds, “It’s a very remote place. It’s easy to forget about, and we are doing our best to remember those forgotten places. It’s the traditional homelands of the Tajik’aan people (Coast Town Tribe) and the Taakw.aaneidi Clan. Three of our team members belong to the Taakw.aaneidi Clan, so there’s a lot of personal pride there.”
Jon Carle, field operations supervisor for Shaan Seet Inc.’s Natural Resources Division says, “Growing up here, you feel real proud about helping your community. You can be driving with your kids by a stream you restored or a plot of forest you thinned, and they can be like ‘Oh, my dad did that!’” Now Carle and his oldest son work in the forest alongside each other.
Carle, Aboudara, and many others involved in KISFP also spent their earlier years honing their forestry skills in the logging industry. The forest partnership allows them to apply their skills restoratively to improve the health of the forests and streams around their home communities.
Community forest partnerships are key components in developing what is known as a regenerative economy, where economic growth is spurred on by local workforces that are improving the habitats and ecosystems that sustain their communities throughout the region. “There’s lots of opportunity on the landscape, which can create jobs and diversify the economy through restoration actions,” says USDA’s Katherine Prussian. “There are opportunities for people to learn heavy equipment skills, learn sawyer and hand tool skills, learn about designing stream channel restoration, learn about designing culverts to provide fish passage, and so much more.”
The momentum from the last decade of this collaborative restoration work has helped to influence the core of the USDA’s recent Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy (SASS), which is giving way to a holistic shift in land management of Southeast Alaska. As part of the strategy, SASS is supporting USDA staff and management efforts to work alongside communities, Tribes, and local partnership networks to align with their values and priorities. In doing so, the agency is investing further in reciprocal partnerships, sharing resource management knowledge with current community crews, supporting local youth to develop skills for futures in community forest stewardship, and building meaningful relationships throughout the region.
“Having grown up in Southeast Alaska and worked here for the last 30 years, it’s been really exciting for me,” says Prussian. ”To not only be working with communities, local crews, and the people on the ground, but to know that because of SASS, it is cemented as something that we (USDA) are supposed to be doing.” Prussian cites her work over the last eight years with the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership as one of the most rewarding opportunities of her career. “I’m not just working for the agency, I’m working for and with the people that depend on these resources.”
Adams of the KKCFP says, “It’s nice to know that our lands are being healed with the help of everybody — teams all over Southeast. We’re all working as one to try and put it back together to the way it used to be.” Showing that this work is healing not only the lands that sustain the communities of Southeast Alaska, but it’s also healing relations across entities, individuals, and within.
In addition to the USDA and the community forest partnerships featured, SAWC, Ketchikan Indian Community, Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, Prince of Wales Tribal Conservation District, Klawock Cooperative Association, SSP, Trout Unlimited, National Forest Foundation, ADF&G, and USFWS have played pivotal roles in advancing the work of restoration in Southeast Alaska.
• Written by Lee House, who seeks to communicate stories that embody respect, collaboration, stewardship, and positive change throughout the region. Lee works at Sitka Conservation Society in collaboration with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and the USDA Forest Service. Resilient Peoples and Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.