Sealaska Corporation is in the business of cutting trees. Part of that is timber regrowth, which officials say maintains or even improves habitat for deer and fish.
Thick stands of young trees surround Election Creek, near Klawock on Southeast Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. The forest was logged in 1989, and it’s been left to grow back on its own. Now, more than 20 years later, Sealaska is getting ready to thin the crowded stands of trees that have returned.
Ever since 1971, after Sealaska selected land through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Juneau-based corporation has logged. Most of that logging has taken place on Prince of Wales.
What might be less well known is how the corporation manages its property following a clear-cut, in hopes of restoring tree stands quicker for future logging. That makes the forest more profitable over the long-term, and creates what Sealaska officials say is improved habitat for deer.
“Immediately following timber harvest, and I’m not going to try to tell you guys that following timber harvest looks pretty. It doesn’t. It looks rough,” said Ron Wolfe, Sealaska’s natural resource manager.
He said the corporation’s logging operation includes taking care of the land after it’s been harvested. A clear cut is not the end.
“That’s the beginning of a next forest,” he said. “And that happens within the first year. We have this burst of understory vegetation that’s important for deer.”
Wolfe said the deer habitat grows along with new trees. After about 15 years, though, the trees start crowding out other vegetation. That’s when Sealaska sends out crews for precommercial thinning; they remove some of the young trees, favoring the most valuable ones. In order: cedar, spruce and hemlock.
That practice is good for business, but Wolfe said it also extends the time frame for deer browse to grow.
Another silviculture practice is basal pruning. Crews remove emerging limbs to create larger pieces of knot-free wood. Wolfe said that allows more light to filter to the forest floor, improving deer habitat. Sealaska saves the expensive pruning work for where it will do the most good.
“I’ve come up with some criteria,” he said. “The first thing is I want it to be below 500 feet in elevation, and that’s because a good part of the reason I’m pruning is for deer. Well, winter habitat for deer tends to be below 500 feet in elevation.”
So, why all this concern over deer habitat? Sealaska has approximately 21,000 Native
shareholders, about half living in Southeast. Many hunt for recreation and for subsistence. Wolfe said it’s also concerned about the general health of the forest, which includes habitat for the animals that live there.
He said Prince of Wales Island has a healthy deer population, and he believes logging is the reason why.
Bob Claus, a POW resident and Forest Program Director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, has a different point of view. He agrees that the understory vegetation following a clear cut provides great browse in the summer. The problem is winter.
“Winter habitat for deer, meaning the big trees where they can move around without snow is gone and the habitat is lost until some trees die and other grow back and you start to get characteristics of old growth forest again that’s good for deer both in summer and winter,” he said.
Also of great concern to Alaska residents is salmon, and Sealaska keeps an eye on salmon streams that might be affected by its logging activity. Seattle-based fisheries scientist Doug Martin is a contractor working for Sealaska since the 1990s to help monitor fish habitat.
On a recent visit to Election Creek, Martin pointed out that the 66-foot buffer is the minimum required by Alaska’s 1990 Forest Practices Act.
“It was pretty much driven by a study done by Mike Murphy and K Koski. They’re both Juneau residents, fisheries biologists. They studied streams like this one we’re standing on right here,” he said. “And they looked to see where large woody debris comes from. And the reason why they wanted to know that is as the trees fall down and fall into the stream, they create habitat. They create cover for fish, so if you didn’t have that wood in the stream, it would be less complex and not as good a habitat.”
That study showed 95 percent of the wood that falls into a salmon stream — creating that important habitat — comes from 66 feet on either side of a stream. To reach 100 percent, the buffer would have to be 100 feet.
“This is where the politics and policy comes in,” he said. “The science said this is what the curve looks like, now you guys go in the back room and talk about it. That’s where they come out and they said, well, you know if we do 66, we’re protecting essentially 95 percent of the source areas. There was a negotiations, they said OK we’re going to do adaptive management; we’re going to monitor and see does this really work or not.”
And it appears to have worked. Martin said there have been no negative impacts to fish habitat, and in some cases, habitat was improved because more trees in the buffer zone end up falling into streams.
Martin notes that a healthy and diverse ecosystem benefits the whole forest.
“The emphasis on the deer is really important, but it’s very obvious that creating all this understory vegetation, you’re just simply increasing biodiversity for everything,” he said. “And biodiversity is becoming a huge issue. It’s really important.”
Claus sees a problem. Improving habitat is great, but there’s no measurement of how many fish, or deer, were there before logging.
“I don’t think we ever will know. I think bigger buffers are better, and leaving streams undisturbed is the best way to go,” he said.
Claus knows Sealaska will continue to log its land. He said the corporation appears to be managing its forests well.
“I think that the historical logging of private land in Southeast Alaska was a crime,” he said. “But it’s historic. It’s done. And the activity that they are doing now appears to be scientifically informed, it appears to be as good of forest management as we can expect.”
Sealaska owns about 290,000 acres. About 40 percent of that is designated for selective harvest, and about a quarter is not forested.