Communities connect with nature on Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

Teresa Haugh
Alaska Region, U.S. Forest Service
December 8th, 2014 at 9:45PM

A photo of Steve McCurdy and Ariel Cummings and Jessica Davila collect salmon from a fish trap Scott Harris, the conservation science director for the Sitka Conservation Society, is on a mission. He’s dedicated to connecting the communities of Southeast Alaska to the stunning, natural world that surrounds them including the Tongass National Forest.

Sitka Conservation Society’s charge is to protect the forest’s natural environment while supporting sustainable development of surrounding Southeast Alaska communities. As director, Harris has worked for the last seven years to bring these communities together with those responsible for managing the landscape. The society and the forest partner together for work focused on ecological monitoring projects. For the past five years, they have worked with the Sitka Ranger District and local young students to monitor the effects of stream restoration projects. Harris has focused on increasing the number of interns in resource management during the past several years.

“Our internship program benefits both the interns and the organization,” said Harris. “We are often able to hire people who grew up in Alaska who just finished college or are looking for summer work. They want to do so something in their field of interest and we give them that opportunity.” 

Steve McCurdy pulls pink salmon smolt from the screw trap on Twelvemile Creek The injection of youthful energy that the student interns bring to the projects also assist his long-term goal to motivate the students to stay involved in natural resource management on a professional level. 

“Some of the interns may decide to go on to college,” Harris said. “This would prepare them to work for the Forest Service as a technician, biologist or researcher. But even if they don’t do that, they will still have knowledge of what’s going on in the woods in their backyards.”

The interns are savvy with social media tools and create outreach videos and blogs for the internet. They also employ traditional media like newspapers and radio.

“They’re all over it,” said Harris. “They help spread the word and they are excited about it.”

The non-profit organization recruits high school students from Klawock, Craig and Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island to get them involved in long-term monitoring projects with the society and Forest Service staff for hands-on outdoor experience in data collection. As the largest national forest and the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth, the Tongass is also home to many rural communities that depend on the forest’s natural resources including the five salmon species that swim its waters

Last summer, a statewide citizen science initiative called Stream Team sponsored by the society, Forest Service and National Forest Foundation involved students in work with fisheries technicians and researchers at Twelvemile Creek on Prince of Wales Island. Students honed their math and other academic skills to learn more about forest management, salmon habitat, and restoration efforts on the forest.

Kelly Petty learns how to measure fish smolt. The Sitka Conservation Society created an inspiring video of the Twelvemile Creek story profiling the students in action.

For Harris, this is another successful chapter in the Society’s role to connect young people to the outdoors and encourage development of future scientists and technicians. It’s often an inspiring opportunity for local youth to help and learn from natural resource management decision makers including those on the Tongass National Forest.