The federally recognized Ketchikan Tribe is working to improve fish habitat on previously cleared land. Ketchikan Indian community leaders hope the pilot program near a tributary of Upper Ward Creek will serve as a model for future stream restoration efforts throughout the southern panhandle.
The woods surrounding Upper Ward Creek echo with the buzz of mosquitoes, the groans of pulleys and winches, and the gurgling of water. A crew member issues a warning to ‘avoid the bite’, it’s the intersection of pulleys that hoist trees rapidly across streams.
The Ketchikan Tribe works on land owned by Saxman’s village society, Cape Fox, in an effort to make the creek a better haven for local fish. This is a partnership with the Juneau-based nonprofit Southeast Alaska Regional Watershed Coalition.
Logging and the passage of time have altered the landscape of the creek. The harvest reduced the trees that once lined the banks of the creek to stumps. The banks are high and steep. Water levels are low.
Restoration biologist John Hudson explained that this harms the fish populations that inhabit the creek. The area is a tributary that feeds Ward Creek, home to several species of salmon, cutthroat trout and dolly varden.
“It can have quite a negative impact on fish habitat, because it turns out that when a tree dies or it gets blown over and falls into the stream, it creates (an) amazing habitat for the fish. fish,” Hudson said. “And if absent from the old growth forest that is here right now to die and fall into the creek, the fish habitat is deteriorating. It goes down. »
So the crew took trees further beyond the creek and replaced the deteriorated trees in the creek.
Crew members use a capstan winch to help fell stronger Sitka spruce trees to replace weaker alders in the water.
Hudson explained that it is a way to slow the rapid movement of water in this eroded creek bed.
“What you could do in a situation like this is cut down trees, bring them in with hand or gas winches, and drive them into the stream so that you block or dam the stream a bit to trap sediments. ,” he said.
Hudson said restoration work can provide a nice resting place for these fish by fortifying natural debris jams and digging through fallen logs.
“It creates these amazing pools, we call them scour pools or plunge pools,” he said. “And these ponds are of crucial importance for the fish. It’s a low energy place to relax, they don’t have to swim against the tide.
But while the job involves felling trees to be hauled down the stream, there’s a balance to be struck. Tony Gallegos, director of cultural resources for the Indian community of Ketchikan, said the work was intended to cause minimal disruption to the environment.
“The idea is we don’t bring heavy equipment here to tear this apart, we fix it, what can we do by hand?” he said.
And it is demanding. Some work is done with gasoline winches. Some are done by hand or with pulleys wrapped around sturdy tree trunks.
It’s a small local team that does it.
Amy Hayward of Metlakatla and Josephine Guthrie of Klawock are two of the crew members who have been trained by KIC and SAWC to help with the restoration. They recently returned from a 10-day restoration project near Margaret Creek, about 24 and a half miles from Ketchikan.
They took weeks of on-the-job training in May. Neither had done such work before. Guthrie said she wanted to continue, despite the Ward Creek job being nearing completion.
“I’ve learned a lot just being here, but I want to do more with the whole saw part,” she said.
Gallegos said KIC is partnering with SAWC and other groups to ask for more funds to continue the work.
“We’re seeing a resurgence in funding where there wasn’t really any in the past, so that kind of helps provide some momentum,” Gallegos said.
Keenan Sanderson is an expert on indigenous food sovereignty within the tribe. He said there’s more to it than dropping logs into streams. It is a collective effort to protect the salmon population.
“It’s not just people here with axes chopping down trees,” Sanderson explained. “We have hydrologists here, fisheries biologists and (and) timber experts here.”
And with Southeast Alaska’s legacy of clearcutting, it’s not just this creek that needs help. Sanderson said there are many places that once had robust fish populations.
“There’s definitely job security there,” he said.
And Sanderson hopes that with work and time, the fish will come back.
Raegan Miller is a member of the Report for America body for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps him keep writing stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to KRBD.org/donate.