River rangers protect people, wildlife, habitat on the Situk

By Maia Mares

LisaByers, AnaLeighSanderson First Float down Situk
Rivr rangers Lisa Byers and Analeigh Sanderson take their first float of the season down the Situk River

YAKUTAT, Alaska - Imagine a river, clear and pristine as it winds its way through the lush green of the surrounding forest. Now imagine the water bubbling and churning as if it were boiling, due to the massive amount of fish swimming up river. This is the Situk River in the Yakutat District of the Tongass National Forest.

The Situk River is one of the richest river habitats for salmon and trout in Alaska, which ranks it among the most popular and most visited fishing destinations in Southeast. Twenty percent of all freshwater sport fishing on the Tongass happens in the Situk, and multi-million dollar troll and set-net fisheries depend on Situk fish.

But the Situk is more than an economic driver in the region—it’s also a home, and not just for the fish. Brown bears feast on the fish, along with approximately 50 other species in the Tongass National Forest. Moreover, the Situk is the principal source of subsistence salmon for the community of Yakutat, providing many families with a year-long store of nutritious wild fish.

“Subsistence use of salmon is an example of a unique aspect to Alaska livelihood, and isn’t part of the management paradigm in the lower 48,” said Lisa Byers, river ranger for the Yakutat Ranger District. “Sometimes visiting anglers don’t quite get why commercial fishing and subsistence use of salmon are so important to the community of Yakutat.”

Enter the Situk River rangers. These special rangers spend their summers paddling the Situk or hiking nearby to make sure the river and its surrounding habitat are maintained for the economic, ecological and social benefit of all. They maintain trails and cabins, clean up the river and river banks, and promote sustainable use by engaging users along the way. Over the summer, the Situk River rangers talk to thousands of people who visit, spreading river conservation knowledge far and wide. 

Lisa Byers stops to talk to an angler on the Situk River

“One of the most important aspects of being a river ranger is trying to balance conservation of the river and its fisheries, while also providing a high quality recreation experience to an array of users,” said Byers.

The river rangers bring conservation education to the people, rather than hoping that river visitors attend presentations or workshops back in Yakutat. By sharing conservation knowledge with the whole spectrum of Situk river users, the river rangers strive to create a culture of stewardship on the river. 

“Being a river ranger is about approaching people and having a conversation,” said Byers. “I believe we can help build a conservation ethic amongst the community of river users that visit the Situk.”

The river rangers also protect both people and wildlife, making sure encounters between the two don’t lead to harm for either party. For example, in conjunction with the Yakutat District wildlife biologist and the local office of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, the river rangers have worked hard to minimize human and bear conflicts by educating anglers about bear safety, including proper fish and food storage practices.

They’re known locally as on-the-river stewards, reminding people that our own care and conservation is what will keep the Situk fish-rich and beautiful for generations to come.