Story last updated at 6/20/2012 - 2:01 pm
The Forest Service took reporters and some prominent fishermen by float plane to the site of a $318,000 salmon-river restoration project in Southeast Alaska on June 13.
The Sitkoh River project site, about 12 miles west of Angoon, showcases the Forest Service's increased emphasis on restoring fish-producing watersheds in the Tongass National Forest. According to the Forest Service, about 70 such watersheds need rehabilitation because of the damage to salmon spawning and rearing habitat caused by logging and road-building practices no longer allowed.
In Sitkoh's case, old-growth timber along the river banks was harvested in the 1970s, leading to instability, erosion and loss of fish habitat. In one section of the river, the water flows down an old logging road and it offers few areas where fish like to spawn and rear their young, such as quite pools and eddies. According to a U.S. Forest Service fact sheet, the service had constructed about 30 miles of road and harvested 2,800 acres - mostly clearcut - in the watershed. The current condition of the river had led to lower quality and quantity of salmon spawning. According to the fact sheet, the river was diverted and a section of a stream is wide and shallow, braids in numerous locations around shallow roots and has chronic sediment issues.
Over the next two months, contractors will re-route the river back to its original channel and place large logs in the water to recreate natural fish habitat. The goal is to increase the Sitkoh River's coho and pink salmon runs, primarily, along with steelhead, Dolly Varden, and other species.
"Fish is the lifeblood the economic base of the Southeast Alaska. I like to tell people that Southeast Alaska is the fish basket of North America. We produce more fish than any other part of the country," said Wayne Owen, standing on the banks of the Sitkoh River as reporters listened and observed the restoration work.
Owen directs the Forest Service's office of wildlife, fisheries and ecology in Alaska.
"The work we do here can be immediately translated into ecosystem advantages; it can be translated immediately into economic advantages; and it can be translated immediately into social advantages. Those are all good reasons for the Alaska Region and the Forest Service to focus on watershed restoration," Owen said.
As Owen spoke, an excavator lifted soil from the streambed as workers prepared to re-route the river. A large, temporary dam diverted the flow so that the heavy machinery could operate. A small group of high school students from Sitka, along with interns from Sitka Conservation Society, walked through the river, trapping juvenile salmon and char. They placed the fry in buckets and transferred them to an aerated cooler. Later they would be placed in a lower reach of the river, away from the project work and out of harm's way.
The Sitkoh River project is a partnership of the Forest Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Trout Unlimited and Sitka Conservation Society.
"We're real happy to participate in a project like this that will improve high-value fish habitat and improve the productive capacity of the original stream course. Fish and Game certainly looks forward to seeing this project through to completion, seeing the returns as they come about, and continuing the collaborative nature with our partners," said Randy Bates, Habitat Division director, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of July.