This article originally published with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
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."
Leuband and Hillman sit in the corridor the team cut through dense piles of slash to improve navigability for wildlife. Both emphasized the significance of keeping natural resource management locally rooted.
The sharing of knowledge is reciprocal. The crew learns from the Forest Service and the Forest Service 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.