TU-AK and partners worked last summer to restore a Southeast Alaska watershed that was damaged by timber harvesting some four decades ago. Starrigavan Valley, near the coastal town of Sitka, suffered heavy ecological damage in the 1960s and 70s when loggers extensively harvested the watershed's large old-growth hemlock and spruce trees. Not realizing that large woody debris provides essential spawning and rearing habitat for salmon, Starrigavan Creek and some of its tributaries were cleared of fallen trees and bulldozers were driven through the creek to access timber stands. These activities proved disastrous for salmon and steelhead populations in Starrigavan.
As years passed and the clear-cuts grew back, the watershed became thick with dense stands of second-growth trees. These young trees and shrubs blocked sunlight and prevented forage plants, an important food source for wildlife, from sprouting. As a result, Starrigavan desperately needed dense stands thinned to allow sunlight to stimulate under-story plant growth and accelerate the growth rate of larger trees along stream corridors.
TU-AK obtained funding from the Wilburforce Foundation, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the National Forest Foundation to help restore fish and wildlife habitat in Starrigavan. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service's Sitka Ranger District, the State of Alaska Division of Forestry, and the Sitka Conservation Society, TU Alaska hired local contractors to thin 74 acres of riparian habitat. 53 of those acres also received slash treatment, the cutting of thinned trees into smaller segments to speed their rate of decomposition. The 21 remaining acres adjacent to roads were left untreated to provide a source for local firewood collection.
This spring in Phase II of the project, TU-AK and the Forest Service will place large woody debris in two miles of tributary stream to improve rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead.
Heading the project is Mark Kaelke, TU Alaska's Southeast Alaska Project Director. "These habitat improvements will contribute toward the re-establishment of sport and subsistence coho fisheries in Starrigavan Creek as well as enhance the contribution of Starrigavan-bound salmon to sport and commercial fisheries in saltwater," Kaelke said.