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Trendsetters in the Tongass

Nelson alumni help lead transformative conservation and development efforts in Southeast Alaska

Spring/Summer 2012 | By Jenny Peek

After years of defensive land protection and opposition to development, many environmental organizations are coming to see smart, sustainable economic growth as a benefit to both communities and ecosystems. In the small coastal town of Sitka, Alaska, the Sitka Conservation Society is one organization that has dramatically shifted its focus over the past decade.

View of Sitka Alaska from above Bear Mountain
A view of Sitka, Alaska, from above Bear Mountain.

The group's innovative work to protect the Tongass National Forest while supporting the sustainable development of communities nearby has received support from all sides. Many of the organization's recent benchmarks have come through collaboration within the Sitka community.

"It has become increasingly apparent that we, as a community, need to work together to solve problems," says Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms. "The energy we used to put into the conflict can go toward creating solutions."

Thoms, a graduate of the Nelson Institute Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development program (M.S. '05), is one of several Nelson Institute alumni among the organization's staff who have seen striking advantages in promoting proactive environmental programs.

On the rebound

Throughout the mid-20th century, Sitka's economy centered on large-scale, clear-cut logging. As the industry expanded and began to threaten forest areas surrounding the town, a group of concerned citizens formed the Sitka Conservation Society to help protect the last pristine, uncut temperate rainforest in the world.

Amid growing disdain for large-scale Tongass logging and a shift in world markets that changed the economics of the pulp industry, the Sitka pulp mill closed its doors in 1993. The closure greatly impacted Sitka's economy, but created opportunities for change. Commercial fishing was entering a period of rapid growth, soon employing about 10 percent of the Southeast Alaskan workforce.

With Sitka's transition from industrial logging to more sustainable resource use and land management, the Sitka Conservation Society began looking into projects to restore the salmon habitat that had been destroyed by clear-cut logging. As Sitka continues to change, the Conservation Society is committed to introducing activities that support the economy while achieving conservation goals.

Andrew Thoms of Sitka Conservation Society
Nelson alumnus Andrew Thoms, pictured netting
sockeye salmon in Tongass National Forest, serves
as executive director of Sitka Conservation Society.

Zia Brucaya, who holds a master's degree in urban and regional planning from UW-Madison, serves as the organization's conservation solutions coordinator and leads a number of its restoration projects. She coordinates with the U.S. Forest Service, local organizations and residents, integrating community input into management decisions.

"A big part of Zia's work is figuring out how forest habitat restoration and salmon habitat restoration can be done in a way that benefits everyone," Thoms explains.

The group's most recent restoration and sustainable development projects have produced results that would encourage even the most avid economic growth supporter.

The organization's work repairing salmon habitat in the Sitkoh River Watershed, an area heavily damaged by logging, helped show local citizens that restoration initiatives can have a positive impact on business. The project created family-supporting, blue-collar jobs with contracting firms while simultaneously increasing the amount and quality of salmon spawning habitat.

School of salmon

Nicolaas Mink coordinates salmon education and outreach programs for the Sitka Conservation Society. A 2010 graduate of UW-Madison with a Ph.D. in history and a Culture, History and Environment graduate certificate from the Nelson Institute, he works to help the Sitka community understand the crucial connections between a healthy forest and a robust salmon population.

"Anadromous fish like salmon are supported by the forest," Mink explains, referring to the salmon's migration from the sea into the Tongass Watershed, where they need well-shaded, cool streams to spawn. Five species of Pacific salmon reproduce in the Tongass National Forest. The fish serve as a keystone species -- hundreds of other species depend on them, including humans.

"If you don't have a healthy national forest, you don't have a healthy sustainable fishery," he says.

Nic Mink
Nicolaas Mink leads a Sitka
Salmon Tour. Photo: Helen Schnoes

With Sitka having one of the world's most abundant populations of salmon, the organization works to educate visitors and residents about the importance of the fish to the region's economy, environment and culture.

"At one time, salmon were the most numerous fish in all the North Atlantic and all the North Pacific," says Mink. "Now we're down to a few remnant pockets of what those bigger, broader salmon ecosystems were. We have more spawning salmon just in Sitka Sound than the entire North Atlantic has."

In an attempt to connect consumers to the salmon industry, Mink and the Sitka Conservation Society created an outreach program called Sitka Salmon Tours, which offers locals and the 250,000 people who visit Sitka each year the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the city's sustainable wild salmon industry.

The project has brought together a variety of stakeholders and collaborators, including the National Park Service, the Sitka Sound Science Center, a dozen fishermen, and several processors and local restaurants. In its first year, Sitka Salmon Tours saw 300 participants, a number Mink is hoping to increase significantly in coming years.

"We need to do everything in our power to promote this new economy based on sustainable fisheries, recreation, pristine environments and tourism, in a more diversified manner than it was 40 years ago," Mink says.

Branching out

In addition to celebrating a world-class salmon fishery, the organization has begun looking to the timber industry to find ways to support the local economy and ensure a healthy forest habitat. Zia Brucaya insists the conservation society is not anti-timber; its members are just concerned with scale.

Thoms seconds that sentiment. "We're looking for ways to sustainably manage the resources, rather than log the Tongass in the boom-and-bust cycle as was done in the past," he says.

The Sitka Conservation Society believes Sitka can support a small-scale timber industry centered on family-owned mills. Products made in the mills will remain in the community, further enhancing the local economy.

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