Life After Timber

What's a community to do when outside forces and ecological realities threaten the very industry on which it's built?

On a chilly September morning, Bob Christensen stopped his battered SUV outside an annex belonging to the local tribal government, the Hoonah Indian Association, picked up Donovan Smith and Phillip Sharclane outside, and headed for the woods. Thirty minutes later, the three were scrambling through a steep scrub of young trees on a slope overlooking the sea that rings Chichagof Island, in the archipelago that forms Alaska’s southeastern spur.

Dressed in rainbibs against the region’s ever-present moisture, Smith called out plant names as he scrutinized the ground. The list sounded almost like a poem: Beard lichen, bunchberry, oak fern. Christensen, who carried a fat revolver in case of any run-ins with brown bears, scribbled on a clipboard. “I’m the oldest and the laziest,” he joked,” so I do data entry.”

Sharclane paused at each young tree, his hand appearing from the leafy tangle to mark his own height against its trunk, then each foot past, his fingers flat as if in salute. “Growing up, I really would have rather ran through the woods than load them up on a ship,” the 38-year-old said. “There’s nothing better than being out here and getting paid for it.”

The land they pored over belongs to Sealaska, an Alaska Native Corporation, and the three men were there as part of a promising new project to help build a more balanced future for the forests surrounding Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Tlingit village.

Back in the 1970s, to settle Alaska Native land claims, Congress conveyed millions of acres in the state to Native-run corporations like Sealaska to develop on behalf of tribal shareholders. In southeastern Alaska’s rugged forests, that meant heavy clearcutting. Bob Starbard, a Huna Tlingit who left home in the early ‘80s for a law degree and returned for the first time, by floatplane, in the ‘90s, recalls being stunned by what he saw: The mountains appeared shaved. “I sat on the dock and literally started crying.”

The local clearcutting boom moved through both corporation-owned and neighboring national forest lands. And while it generated wealth for a time, it came at a cost to key subsistence food resources like deer and salmon, and it limited future opportunities: The number of trees loggers pulled from these woods between 1970 and 2000, bound mostly for Asian markets, would have run a small sawmill for 500 years.

Eventually, though, saplings started growing back, and people were resilient, too: Fishing and a cruise ship facility helped Hoonah float through timber’s decline. But the old cuts stood for some as persistent reminders of loss, and poverty and drug abuse gnawed at the community’s edges.

Today, both Starbard, now the Hoonah Indian Association’s tribal administrator, and Christensen, an ecologist, hope the forests can be a force for healing. Over years of looking for irreparable harm in old clearcuts for groups hoping to build support for conservation, Christensen instead saw glimmers of resilience in young forests.

But he also found deep scars in logging-dependent towns. ”Protecting lands through wilderness designation felt empty as far as delivering something to people who actually lived in those places,” Christensen said. And environmentalists weren’t offering much vision for the heavily logged lands, immediately surrounding communities—the lands that mattered most to residents for hunting, fishing, foraging, and recreation.

So eight years ago, Christensen, who is now the natural resource staffer for a regional group called the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, helped convene a handful of Hoonah residents to brainstorm how they might achieve their hopes for local woods—some logging, yes, but also restoring streams and wildlife habitat.

Christensen met Starbard through a deer habitat project that came out of that effort, and they worked to get Forest Service funding to put a tribal crew on the job. ”We were watching our labor force sitting around,” Starbard said, ”while at the same time, we saw the Forest Service contracting with outsiders and even people from other countries.” Wouldn’t it be better to keep hiring and training locals for forest projects and research?

Thus was formed the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership—a collaboration across lands owned by the Forest Service, the local Alaska Native Village Corporation Huna Totem, and Sealaska—that got underway in 2015. In part, the effort aims to give locals new ways to work within the area’s forests, and more voice in how they’re managed.

The jobs, which the tribe administers, pay well at $18 an hour—with support from a $1.8 million grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And although they’re few, they open doors for advancement in locally relevant science. But more than careers, it’s about helping people stay, said Dixie Hutchinson, an official with Sealaska. “You can’t get your culture, if you’re from Hoonah, in Wrangell. You have to get it from Hoonah. Fostering that rich connection to places is vitally important.”

This summer, the five-member tribal crew sloshed up streams counting fish, inventoried 200 miles of logging roads, even collected scat for research examining how deer use young forests thinned for their benefit. When I joined the crew, they were finishing their bushwhacks into old clearcuts to see how plants and trees are growing back, data that will help develop a detailed picture of the 150,000-acre project area. “That’s what this crew is about. Starting with what you have left and asking yourself the question ’Now what?’” said Christensen: ”What do we have to work with?”

In the shrubs that September morning, Sharclane picked blueberries, which were plentiful enough to leave my pants smeared with purple juice. “Perks of the job,” he said with a wink, palming a handful into his mouth. And perhaps a better use of this spot in the future, if the crew built a trail for pickers. ”It’s not a great place to grow timber, and it may never be again,” Christensen observed, stopping to count rings on the stump of a tree that took 338 years to grow large enough to be worth cutting.

“The long-term objective is to launch chunks of a new natural resource economy,” he said. In addition to subsistence use, that could mean commercial blueberry harvest, or even someday payments for ecosystem services—like asking fishermen to chip in to enhance the watersheds that supply their salmon.

Exactly what happens, though, will depend on how plans jive with Forest Service and Native corporation goals for their lands, as well as on feedback from Hoonah community meetings the Forest Partnership will hold this winter. By next summer, the partners hope to have a list of projects that the crew can tackle, such as returning woody debris to streams to form the pools and hiding places that salmon like. “You and I both know that fish don’t pay attention to whether they’re crossing a property line,” pointed out Hoonah District Ranger Chad Van Ormer, so doing a better job unifying management between national forest and Native corporation land will benefit not just the community, but the ecosystem.

“There is strength in working together, working as one—the Tlingit concept of Woosh-jee-een,” added Starbard. Cutting timber is still part of the long-term picture, “but it’s not the only concern. Nor do I think it’s any longer the primary concern. This holistic model of how we manage lands for all of the resources and all of the people has sort of taken ascendency.”

Sarah Gilman

Sarah Gilman is a writer, illustrator, and editor who covers the environment, science, and place from rural Washington state. She's also a contributing editor at Hakai Magazine. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Audubon, Smithsonian, High Country News, National Geographic, and others.

Sarah Gilman

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