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Seeing the forest through the trees: visiting Kake, Alaska

Seeing the forest through the trees: visiting Kake, Alaska

By JP Leous


“I want to work. My family needs me to work.”


As these impassioned words hung in the air, much like the low-hanging clouds blanketing the town of Kake, AK that morning, those gathered in the drafty gymnasium nodded their heads with empathy. The gentleman then sat back down in quiet resignation. We were in a town that’s seen severe brain drain in recent years and unemployment estimated as high as 80%. For communities like Kake, nestled in the heart of the Tongass National forest (our nation’s largest national forest and home to the largest tracts of remaining old growth forest), poverty is the enemy of conservation.


You might not expect a group named The Wilderness Society would advocate cutting down trees— but sometimes this is just what nature needs to thrive, and what communities need to make ends meet. Towns like Kake live in the wake of boom years spent clear-cutting ancient forests. With the mills gone and many forests now in poor health, everyone from loggers to the mayor is searching for the fastest onramp to economic revitalization. These converging challenges create an opportunity for communities and the Forest Service to view forests through new lenses; The Wilderness Society is working to shift the paradigm from heavily subsidized logging to ecological forest restoration that will provide good paying jobs to the local community.


Across the Tongass many large stands of forest now suffer from an ironic twist: they have too many trees. Years ago, the clear cut forests quickly sprouted a dense cover of new trees. This new generation’s canopy acted like a sun-shielding umbrella, limiting understory growth and a host of other important ecological forest functions. While from afar this new growth certainly appears green, upon closer inspection even the layperson can see these are far from healthy forests. Experts agree that properly “thinning” certain stands (in other words, strategically removing certain trees while leaving others standing) can improve forest health while creating local economic opportunity.


Sitting in the Stewardship Workshop in Kake a few weeks ago, I became aware of how TWS’ work in the region could be categorized as community economic development. In fact, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu during several discussions—the conversations among stakeholders and the various issues at play brought me right back to the challenges I saw communities face during my service as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer years ago. Upon mentioning this observation to colleagues around the table, two other Returned Volunteers remarked that they had the same reaction. Struggling indigenous populations; poverty; lack of local capacity; strained relationships between stakeholders; a sense of desperation peppered with an optimism rooted in a sense of place that dates back generations—these sentiments accurately describe communities many Peace Corps Volunteers work in, and they certainly capture the range of frustrations and desires around the Workshop in Kake.


Because of our ecological understanding, economic expertise, and relationships with key stakeholders, including the Forest Service, The Wilderness Society is uniquely positioned within Southeast Alaska to create space for communities to work with key players to protect natural assets while creating local wealth.


Experts including Karen Hardigg and Evan Hjerpe help find workable answers, challenging outdated and unsustainable land management strategies with equitable and environmentally sound solutions that can help drive economic growth in the region while repairing impaired lands for future generations.


Here in D.C. “green jobs” is a political frame used to chart a new course for the American economy. In places like Kake “green jobs” has far more intimate connections to the land, particularly in relation to cultural knowledge and traditions. Kake, a tiny town most from the Lower 48 have never heard of, is at the crossroads of resource exploitation or restoration. The Wilderness Society will continue to work both in D.C. and the Tongass helping local citizens, businesses and agencies make sustainable decisions that put bread on the table today while protecting valuable natural assets for future generations.


Follow JP on Twitter @TWSjp

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4:32PM PST on Dec 13, 2010

Thanks :)

4:31PM PST on Dec 13, 2010

Thanks :)

12:31PM PDT on Oct 28, 2010

It is truly amazing how subjects are brought up and then they get lost. It seems that not too many people care about this small community in Alaska - except to voice their negativity about it - Frank is not included in this.

12:31AM PDT on Oct 26, 2010

Interesting debate here! Hope and pray that the the right thing will be done for Nature and the community affected; that this won't be another, "let's mint money" !

9:49PM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

BMutiny TCorporationsEvil
I am assuming the thinning they are contemplating in Kake is what we called "pre commercial thinning". i.e. taking out the smallest sickliest trees in the young forest, thus allowing more space for the other trees to grow. In general this has been done for nefarious purposes to speed up the harvestable trees growth to again clearcut.

Clearcutting is unfortunately one of the most "sensible" ways of logging in S.E. Alaska. This is due to the geography (steep hillsides) and high cost of road building. As I may have mentioned earlier most of the timber sales in S.E. Alaska did not generate profit for the U.S. Forest Service, indeed they cost the Forest Service money. Since S.E. Alaska is comprised mainly of islands, you have to barge in a camp and equipment, build roads on muskeg (swamp like terrain) with large amounts of rock (very costly) etc. etc. To make a profit the timber companies needed rock bottom prices on timber, which our government provided. Thus logging the Tongass cost the U.S. Taxpayer money, true corporate welfare.

The problems in Kake are very complex. The Tlingits no longer have the resources to survive the way their ancestors did, and many are westernized to a large degree. I agree that capitalism and the concept of jobs is ludicrous. I have often found it amusing that most progressives I meet at social gatherings always ask me what I do ..meaning what do I do for work.

4:57PM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

Oops, my last few remarks were for Stephen Greg {is he still around?} not for Frank. Sorry, Frank. I saw the contradiction there!

Still, this turned into a good and interesting discussion -- see what happens when we are CIVIL to one another? :-]

Let us not say "Move to where the jobs are" to people that lived in a place from the time of their early ancestors!
It is one of the MYTHS of Capitalism -- as well as Socialism! -- that everyone NEEDS a "job", working for somebody else! A nine-to-five, wage-slave, working for "the man", thing that you hate, that you do because you'd starve otherwise, the system is set up like that....
Hunter-gatherers and farmers didn't have a "job", tho the people worked hard at lots of things..... neither does a Parent, or an Artist or Craftsperson, tho these may be described as "jobs" by the prevailing metaphors.... Ideally, one needs a Living or a Life, a community of people seeing to each others' needs.....
It is a ghastly, horrible thing to invade a community of indigenous people, take AWAY from them their means of livelihood, of SUSTAINING themselves and their communities: kill the buffalo, cut down the trees, steal the land, poison the water; and then sell them a "livelihood" back in little bits and pieces, in the form of "wages" for "jobs".... do you understand what I'm saying? The "benevolent capitalist" granting "jobs" to people forced into being "workers", is NO GREAT BENEFIT OR GENEROUS GIFT TO THEM....

4:53PM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

Hey Bmutiny I do not believe that Frank was referring to Selective Logging of "Old Growth" and neither was I. Thinning is done in the early stages - taking out the sickly trees to give space and oxygen to the stronger trees.

4:33PM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

Frank: Very AWESOME, all the info you've given us here! I hope everyone has come back here to read it! LOTS of Greenstars, if I could! You've really Walked the Walk, not just talked the talk!

Am I not right, tho, in the commonsense observation that AFTER a clearcut, all the seedlings more-or-less start growing at once; then when the tiny seedlings get bigger, they start to COMPETE for the same air, sunshine, water, nutrients in soil, etc. -- and they are now all big and crowded together in a pattern that CAN'T happen in a forest put together over time, by Nature itself? and they also crowd out {and shade out} all the other stuff that would be growing "naturally" on the forest floor in a BALANCED eco-system, which this is NOT.....
So the original clearcut, if nothing is done, goes on damaging the land maybe for decades....
And was it not the observation that humans could HELP the forest recover its original balance, by thinning this "after-clearcut" not-natural growth?

And on the other hand, a different issue ENTIRELY, is the question of "selective logging" of OLD-GROWTH forests; "thinning", as you say, Frank, that could be used as an excuse to do MORE than just "thin", if a company got GREEDY....{and they are just that!}

I believe we are "on the same table" on these issues, basically, and have sure learned and are learning a lot from each other! Thanks, Frank and Nancy, for this discussion and your civility in conducting it!!!

4:17PM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

Frank - Well now we know the difference between the American government and Big Business and the Canadian government and Big Business - back then. Canadians treated their workers much better. Although I have to say that the Canadian government still fights for the people. The US allowed Monsanto (only after 3 months of testing) to inject cows with some type of hormone to produce more milk. The Canadian Government would not allow it. I quit eating beef and pork almost 35 years ago. And when I found out that all animals are injected with antibiotics ( because of the dirty conditions that they live in) - well I do not want to eat chicken anymore. Soon I will be building a chicken coup and I will be growing my own food as well as the food for my chickens. I feel so bad for the kids today as they have no idea how to cope if there is no electricity. All they know is the world of the computer - cell phones.

2:19PM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

I'm not sure about the state of the industry nowadays, but in the time period I was working Canadian logging camps were a sort of shangrali we Alaskan loggers would tell tale about. I tried several times to work in Canada during the late 70's and early 80's but could not get past immigration even though they had severe labor shortages. Canada least at that time really guarded their citizens jobs. To offer a job the employer had to post the job on the local job center board for I believe 6 weeks. If during that time any Canadian qualified or not wanted the job he or she got first shot. If after 6 weeks no canadian wanted the job I had to go to my point of entry into Canada and request a visa there.

My understanding of Canadian camps is that they paid roundtrip airfare to and from your point of origin. The bunkhouses were much nicer, wages better, some camps had ammenities such as swimming pools and gyms. The Alaskan camps had pretty much nothing, and like I said we paid our own airfare. Also the Canadian usually worked something like six weeks on two or three weeks off. In Alaskan you worked six or seven days a week straight through from April until shutdown around Thanksgiving. There was one break given without pay for 4th of July, usually a week or ten days. There was no holiday, sick, or vacation pay.

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