Story last updated at 3/27/2013 - 2:17 pm
The U.S. Forest Service announced recently it would partner with Oregon State University and Sealaska to plant experimental plots in Southeast Alaska. Red and yellow cedar seedlings will be planted between Connell and Harriett Hunt Lake near Ketchikan. Some seedlings will also go to Prince of Wales Island. These four-inch to two-feet tall seedlings will be planted in areas recently harvested. The experiments are to determine how to prevent deer browsing from killing young trees.
This brought to mind my experience around planting conifer seedlings. Not in Alaska, but in Iceland. Not for experimentation, but for reforestation. Some of the seedlings I planted had descended from Alaskan seeds.
Conifer forests dominated the landscape of Iceland millions of years ago. With numerous glacial periods, the flora became poorer and poorer. As my flight descended over Iceland a few years ago, glaciers, snowy mountains, grassy foothills and rocky outcrops covered with shrubs predominated.
When the Vikings arrived, the settlers cut down the larger trees and burned the scrub land for sheep pastures. The wood became a source of fuel, building materials, and produced charcoal to smelt iron to make tools. Deforestation continued and did not end until the mid-20th century.
Icelanders were worried about the loss of the forests and formed an Iceland Forest Service around 1907. Even before that, Norwegian pine trees were planted in 1899 at Thingvellier. They have not grown very tall, I found, when we visited.
It was the downy birch (Betula pubescent to biologists) that fascinated me. It is the predominate Native species found throughout Iceland. We hiked on trails through it every day. Before we started our first walk, our guide said to us, "Safety first. What do you do if you get lost in the birch forest?" His answer? "Stand up." The tallest forest of birch we saw was about four or five feet tall. On the alpine meadows, it grows between a couple inches to maybe six inches high and looks like a shrub. We were told some were 200 years old.
Now we get to Alaska. In 1935, Haakon Bjarnason, Chief Forester of Iceland, wrote to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). He said he was interested in Alaska because his grandfather had been a member of a party of Icelanders who proposed a settlement where the climate and terrain might be similar to their homeland. The group managed to interest the U.S. Government, and the party was invited to visit Alaska by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874. The Icelanders wanted to continue with the proposal, but the U.S. government lost interest and the plans were abandoned.
Bjarnason said he hoped Alaska might help Iceland. He had obtained Sitka spruce seeds from Norway where the trees were being grown. He believed the spruce trees were doing well in Icelandic tree nurseries. He requested the USFS to send the Alaskan seeds directly to Iceland.
The first seeds were shipped in fall 1935. These were Sitka spruce, white spruce, Western and Mountain Hemlock, and black cottonwood. The seeds grew happily in the Icelandic tree nurseries.
It was the cottonwoods that thrived. We saw many straight lines of "poplars" as we drove between hiking areas. This terminology confused me because I didn't know cottonwoods are western balsam poplars. They looked like cottonwood trees such as the ones up the Stikine River. Bjarnason wrote that he found the cottonwood trees "grow faster than anything I've ever seen." All of the western part of Iceland we visited had windbreaks and I thought, "Amazing, I came to Iceland to see Alaska DNA cottonwoods!"
The mountain hemlock was not highly regarded in Iceland, but Bjarnason figured on using them in the higher elevations of the southern and northern parts of the island. I didn't see any hemlock.
If seeds were sent between this initial shipment and 1941, I haven't found it. By that time, B. Frank Heintzleman was Alaska's Regional Forester, and apparently Bjarmason began to deal with him. As an aside, to my delight in 1971, historian Bob DeArmond gave me a copy of the first Coast Pilot of Alaska dated 1869. When I open it, the front page is inscribed. The first inscription is that of the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey to the President of the Icelandic Commission examining Alaska. Apparently Bjarnason's father gave it to him, and Bjarnason gave it in 1947 to his friend Heintzleman. When the latter became Alaska's governor, DeArmond was his aid, and in 1957, Heinzelman gave it to Bob. Bob inscribed it to me.
In 1941, 54 pounds of seeds were sent: 80 pounds in 1942. Each year seeds continued to be sent, collected by various individuals who were paid to pick up the cones. In 1948 the largest shipment of 272 pounds was shipped. The latter were collected in Cordova. After 1949, I have no references to more shipments.
In exchange, Icelandic foresters sent seeds of the birch to Alaska. These were tried, but by 1949, there were no reports of success. Perhaps this is because everywhere we saw birch, it was on dry, rocky terrain covered in the winter by snow.
On a second trip to Iceland, I took my granddaughter on an Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) intergenerational program. Part of our activities was to plant conifer seedlings in a designated area, one Elderhostel had adopted. We dug holes in a grassy hillside and planted 5 or 6 inch Sitka spruce and white spruce seedling. Being an Alaskan, I planted the Sitka spruce! The original trees must have grown in the nearly 75 years sufficiently to provide Iceland with its own seeds!
The other flora Iceland imported from Alaska was the blue lupine. With its glaciations, the rivers run full of sand, volcanic debris, and small gravel especially during spring thaws or glacial outbursts. The lupine seeds were planted along massive areas of loose material to halt erosion. Many times we saw fields of blue or pushed our way through the plants, taller than the wild ones I see around Wrangell.
If the Icelandic Commission was unable to move immigrants to Alaska, Alaska was able to move fauna to Iceland.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.