Restoration effort helps heal Tongass

Conservation groups, Forest Service team up for recovery projects

Posted: Monday, September 28, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Loggers who for decades clear-cut large swaths of old trees from the nation's largest national forest left behind a legacy of destruction.

U.s. Forest Service
U.s. Forest Service

Now, with the logging industry fading in southeast Alaska, most of those outfits are out of business. But a budding, new industry is returning the noise of chainsaws, backhoes and excavators to the Tongass National Forest.

This time, however, those are the healing sounds of restoration.

In Alaska, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited and other groups have teamed up with industry and the U.S. Forest Service on recovery projects.

"Contractors and environmental groups have a bad history. They don't get along, but this is actually a really cool thing," said Tim Eddy, president of S&S General Contractors, which has worked on several projects on Prince of Wales Island. "They are cleaning up some boo-boos in the past."

The unlikely alliance is being played out in other parts of the country, including Montana, where two projects are slated to begin next year in the Lolo National Forest. A project also is planned for the oft-contentious Bitterroot National Forest, said Marnie Criley, coordinator of the Montana Forest Restoration Committee.

"People are getting to know each other and not automatically hating each other because this person is a timber person and this person is a conservationist," she said. "A lot of trust-building has been going on."

Forest restoration is occurring all over the West, said Mary Mitsos with the National Forest Foundation, a Montana-based group. Efforts in Montana, Alaska, Washington and Oregon involve repairing watersheds to encourage healthier fish runs. In Arizona and New Mexico, restoration is more about forest thinning to lessen the danger of wildfires.

Mitsos said much of the money for restoration so far has come from conservation groups but there is a push to get the Forest Service to contribute more.

In Alaska, most of the environmentally destructive logging practices occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s, when it was OK to cut all the big trees right down to water's edge and then use the streambed as a highway to easily remove the wood.

"Sometimes, they were just driving the excavator down the channel and dragging logs through the channel during that heyday," said Sheila Jacobson, a Forest Service fisheries biologist doing restoration work on Prince of Wales Island.

Jacobson is helping steer one of the bigger projects to restore the Harris River and its 19,000-acre watershed. The Harris was chosen because it once provided some of the best salmon and trout-rearing habitat in the Tongass, that is until all the trees were removed on either side of the river channel. That allowed sediment to run down the mountain slopes and clog the rivers, streams and creeks.

"Over the years, you get big rainstorms and the creek banks erode and the rivers take new routes," Eddy said.

To make matters worse, the streams were "cleaned" of logs and debris. That caused the velocity of the water to increase. Fish eggs were blown right out of the water.

Rob Bosworth, restoration manager for The Nature Conservancy in southeast Alaska, said forest restoration is a growing industry.

"The logging industry is struggling and people are going out of work. I don't know that we are replacing every job with a restoration job but I think of it as a new economic sector that is beginning to develop," he said. "We are learning a lot as we go along."

According to a study done for the Conservancy, the restoration industry in southeast Alaska spent an estimated $8.4 million in 2007 and employed about 150 people.

More than $1 million has been spent restoring Fubar Creek, a Harris River tributary. The creek was so filled with sediment water hadn't flowed in its channel for 13 years. Landslides during stormy weather in 1993 deposited even more sediment, creating a sediment bulge that pushed the water out of the river channel, Jacobson said.

The diverted water eventually reached a major roadway and flooded it. The Department of Transportation remedied the problem by putting in culverts. As more water was diverted, the remedy was the same.

"They just kept installing culverts down the road," Jacobson said.

The restoration project aims to get the main stem of the Harris River flowing again in its original channel while at the same time reinvigorating the huge watershed. The Forest Service is using $750,000 in federal stimulus money to help complete the project.

Fubar Creek's banks have been stabilized and log jams engineered and installed to help form deep pools for fish. Culverts were removed from an old logging road.

"Fubar was a renegade tributary but now we feel is buttoned up pretty well," Bosworth said.

One of the techniques used on Fubar Creek was to press big trees with root wads attached into the banks to stem erosion. Sometimes a smaller tree and some alders were added near the root wads to create a tangle of roots and logs. The tangle catches salmon carcasses and leaves that fall to the bottom and decay, putting heat and nutrients back into the river.

Sometimes, trees were placed directly across the river and anchored in the sediment. Other trees were placed to create small waterfalls.

"What you are doing is creating the conditions for the pool to create itself," Bosworth said. "The water comes along and has to go over the top of the logs ... and comes gurgling or rushing downstream... It picks up energy going over the logs and suddenly you have deep pools."

Fish need the pools to rest, feed and survive in cold weather.

Contractor Eddy said some federal projects seem like a waste of money, but not forest restoration.

"It is a constructive thing to spend money on and it creates jobs and it greatly benefits the fish and the fishermen," he said. "You can see the effect of it in weeks. The fish show up."

After the first phase of the Fubar Creek project in 2006, 616 adult pink salmon were counted. Three years later with more of the creek restored 8,630 fish were counted.

Eddy's firm, S&S Contractors, has received $1.4 million for six restoration jobs since 2006.

Bosworth said the Forest Service is doing a good job of project planning. Old logging roads have been converted to trails and bridges put in for hikers.

"They found a recreation goal right along the restoration goal," he said.

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