Efficient resource use helps heal forest, build cabin

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008

A recreational cabin is rising in the old clear-cuts north of Sitka, part of a joint venture between groups that didn't used to be on speaking terms.

Christina Lilienthal / U.s. Forest Service
Christina Lilienthal / U.s. Forest Service

Restoring damaged forest has become an area where environmentalists see eye to eye with the U.S. Forest Service. In the last several years, groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited worked on various stream restoration projects in the Forest Service-run Tongass National Forest.

"This is a project we see as a win-win for everybody that's involved in the Tongass," said Scott Harris, conservation solutions coordinator from the Sitka Conservation Society, which formed in 1967 to fight logging in the Sitka area.

The Sitka Conservation Society has been working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore the Starrigavan Creek watershed, on the road system nine miles north of town, which was clear-cut in the mid-1970s. Part of that larger project is the cabin, now being built with second-growth timber thinned from the dense stands that grew in the clear-cuts.

Granted, the legal battles aren't over. The Sitka Conservation Society filed last week one of 14 appeals of the new Tongass timber plan, handed down this year by the U.S. Forest Service. The group says the plan allows too much timber to be cut.

But that appeal is concerned with the logging of old-growth timber.

Logging second-growth trees, those that grow in the old clear-cuts, is remarkably uncontroversial and even welcomed by conservation groups.

The trees that emerge after an area is clear-cut grow so densely they block light to the understory. The blueberries and dogwood that Sitka black-tailed deer rely on can't thrive in darkness.

Thinning the trees in such areas leaves light and space for the understory, and the forest grows more quickly to have other healthy old-growth characteristics.

But in the short term, thinning can make the forest difficult for anybody but a brown bear to get through. And it's costly to pull out.

"We're always struggling with how to deal with the slash that's left over," said Perry Edwards, a fisheries and wildlife biologist for the Forest Service.

So the Forest Service is digging around for ways to use those byproducts of restoration, including pellets or biobricks and firewood for fuel as well as this cabin project. Projects such as these could make restoration more economical, Edwards said.

"Our budgets get smaller every year, but there's still a need to improve wildlife habitat every year," he said.

Young wood rises from old clear-cuts. The Sitka district alone will have about 50,000 acres of young growth, according to Edwards. In Southeast Alaska, about 800,000 acres were logged on the Tongass and state and private lands, according to a Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society study.

How much of that is usable young-growth wood, and when that wood will be available, is up for debate and being studied by the Forest Service. But some is certainly available now.

The Starrigavan cabin was built in a May class offered by the University of Alaska, taught by Michael and Richard Musick, father and son builders from Ester.

Second-growth Sitka spruce logs, averaging about 12 inches in diameter, were "nice ideal cabin logs," according to son Richard Musick.

"Most of the old growth is just too big to use in a cabin," he said. "You just can't handle the wood."

Twelve students - from various backgrounds, mostly involving at least some chain saw experience - spent two weeks working in a University of Alaska Southeast hangar in Sitka. They learned how to notch logs with precision, how to make sure they shrink and dry snugly. By the end, they had assembled all 44 logs in the hangar.

"It definitely requires a lot of skill and dexterity, comfort with the chain saw," said student Clayton Murral, an Alaska-based field coordinator for the nonprofit Southeast Alaska Guidance Association. "I found it extremely enjoyable."

"When you can take a tree and carve on it a little bit - make it fit and turn it into a house - it's just really satisfying," Richard Musick said.

The cabin wasn't progressive just for the logs. It was designed to be highly energy efficient. And it also will be the rare cabin in the Tongass that's accessible by disabled people.

At least, after they finish cutting the doors in it this week. Last week, the logs were taken apart and reassembled on the concrete foundation in the Starrigavan Campground. The finishing touches, such as a roof and windows, are in progress now.

In a final touch of efficient resource use, Musick said local residents took away the sawdust from the project to use in compost.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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