Stream Restoration Marks New Direction in Tongass

Trout Unlimited, Alaska Program, recently got involved with a major stream restoration project in the Tongass National Forest. In a unique public-private collaboration, the Forest Service, TU, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Sitka Conservation Society announced over the winter that they would collaborate to restore the Sitkoh River, a key salmon and steelhead producer in the Tongass that’s important to commercial fishermen, anglers and subsistence harvesters. Prime Sitkoh fish habitat suffered damage from logging back in the 1970s. The Forest Service has indentified Sitkoh as one of the top watersheds in Southeast Alaska in need of restoration.

The nearly $350,000 project was supposed to start this summer, but administrative delays resulted in the work being pushed back until summer 2012. The first phase of the project, to be completed next summer, will focus on restoring 1,800 feet of critical rearing habitat. 

This section flows down an old logging road, meandering through former clear-cuts devoid of the towering spruce and hemlock old-growth trees for which Southeast Alaska is famous. Such trees provide the shade, nutrients and large woody debris that salmon and steelhead need to reproduce. If left as is, the river will continue to widen and erode its banks near the logging road, block fish passage, increase fish mortality and further degrade downstream habitat. Restoration efforts will focus on constructing small pools in which the fish can spawn and rear, restoring hydrologic function and preventing the river from flowing back into the old logging road.

Phase two of the project will recreate natural spawning conditions in a downstream section of the river that is also damaged, and the final phase will focus on thinning second-growth stands along the river and in upland areas to improve conditions for deer, an important subsistence food for local residents. The work will likely extend into 2013.

What makes this project particularly unique is the broad collaboration it involves among federal, state and non-government groups. It’s the result of hard-fought and often intense dialogue and negotiations to end the Tongass timber wars and to move beyond the past. TU has helped lead those efforts. The Sitkoh project is hopefully one of many ecological restoration efforts to come in the Tongass National Forest.

“We applaud the Forest Service for not only engaging in the Sitkoh River restoration project but for showing leadership and vision when it comes to managing the highest salmon producing region in our country’s national forest system,” said Mark Kaelke, Trout Unlimited’s Southeast Alaska Project Manager. Read a news article about the project.