Out the road, a new research forest

Forest Service will invite long-term studies of climate impacts in Heen Latinee

Posted: Friday, July 10, 2009

Tongass National Forest managers recently declared 40 square miles at the end of the Juneau road the newest "experimental forest" of the U.S. Forest Service and given it a central research focus of climate change.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Nationwide, it is only the fourth such forest to be approved in the last 40 years.

The new forest will be one of the largest in a network of more than 80 experimental forests and grasslands nationwide. The Tongass has another at Young Bay on the near side of Admiralty Island, but no one uses because of its limited accessibility. The new forest's lead scientist, Rick Edwards, said he hopes this new forest will become more of a hub for world-class research.

Tlingit elders named the forest Heen Latinee (pronounced Heen La-TEE-nee), which means "river watcher."

That describes Edwards as well, a Forest Service stream ecologist. His job is to come up with a management plan for the new forest, coordinate its research, and inspire outsiders to work there.

Edwards heads the Aquatic and Land Interactions team in Juneau. Scientists are coming to understand just how tightly interconnected marine and terrestrial ecosystems really are - and how those connections are already changing, he said.

As an example, Edwards described how salmon indirectly fertilize the ocean with their deaths.

Enriched with nutrients from dead salmon, stream water heads to sea. There, the enriched water can create kilometers-wide swirls that sit on top of the saltier seawater for a few years. Wonderfully productive, the gyres look bright chlorophyll-green in satellite shots, Edwards said. Sea creatures and birds converge and feed there. So do salmon - which eventually peel off the gyre and head back to their streams to spawn, die and renew the cycle.

"All of these interactions are being impacted by climate change," said Edwards. "If we don't collaborate with our colleagues who do the open-ocean research, then we're really going to miss something in how these ecosystems respond."

The idea, he said, is to entice people from major research universities to set up long-term projects here. And data from this temperate rainforest - the sort that stretches from northern California to Prince William Sound in Southcentral Alaska - will join that being collected elsewhere, to help people understand climate change's global effects.

Heen Latinee is unusually useful because it includes so many ecotones - not separate ecosystems, but shades within one - from glaciers to estuaries, and an entire watershed from the mountain ridge nearly all the way to the sea.

Edwards' first priority is not experimentation but systematic monitoring of the streams, soils, trees and weather. The little long-term climate data there is has proven incredibly prescient and useful, but little has been collected in Southeast Alaska's temperate rainforest, he said.

"We really do want to have the vision to set up experiments for the people who come after us, because we know they're going to have questions," he said. "We hope that they'll look back on our names, that have receded into publications in the distant past, and they'll say we knew what we were doing."

Ecology research demands long-term data. Logs, for example, may decompose over decades. One Oregon forest is running an experiment designed to last 300 years.

And, Edwards said, most climate change is predicted to climax near the end of this century.

"Right there we're looking at a 90-year experiment," he said.

Such research requires stability. Scientists can already do research all over the Tongass. But the special designation gives land managers "very strong control over what happens on that land," said Edwards.

The designation is a major change in land use. It took three years, was proposed in last year's Tongass Land Management Plan, and required public comment and high-level approval.

The biggest concern came from miners, who didn't want to lose mineral rights in the area as they did at the Young Bay experimental forest. There are about 30 claims in the Heen Latinee area, Edwards said. They remain. If miners want to mine, the forest will have to work with them.

The forest's controls on land use likely won't affect Cowee Creek fishermen and most other recreational users, aside from muskeg-damaging off-roaders. In fact, aside from climate change, Edwards expects researchers will want to study recreational users' effects on the landscape.

"We see that as one of the pluses," he said.

He hopes also to build an educational center and partnerships where people can learn about temperate rainforest ecology.

All this activity will require more access than the forest currently has. That means road-building, generally a controversial topic on the Tongass.

"None of us are really that keen on putting roads in where there aren't roads, but we'll need roads to make this a world-class experimental forest," Edwards said.

Some experimental forests have taken decades before they're humming, Edwards said. But change is already here; the average winter temperature rose above freezing in the Juneau area in the mid-1980s. Edwards hopes to install weather and other data collection equipment in the next two years.

"We should have been doing this 60 years ago here," he said. "We need to hit the ground running."

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

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