Reflections from Ian Johnson, Community Catalyst in Hoonah
The community of Hoonah is currently working to determine if a district biomass heat-loop and biomass-linked greenhouse are right for our community. We are hoping to save energy and cultivate more local produce here in rural Alaska.
Lucky for Hoonah, schools on Prince of Wales Island are already pioneering biomass-heated greenhouses. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is great because it helps connect ideas and successes from one community, and share them with change-makers across our region. The Biomass Greenhouse Tour arranged by Shaina Kilcoyne and Lia Heifetz of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, brought 5 community members from Hoonah and 21 other participants from Alaska and Canada to Prince of Wales to examine their biomass linked greenhouses. The experience was powerful.
We started in Coffman Cove with the gardeners of the future – the kindergarten class is tasked with feeding the chickens each morning and collecting eggs. It was delightful, heart-warming, and inspiring to see their bond with the chickens and the enjoyment of their work. From there we learned from the high schoolers and Principal, Colter Barnes how the local biomass sourcing provides money to the local economy ($175/ cord) while warming the greenhouse at a cost savings compared to diesel – a $175 cord of wood is equivalent to about $500 in diesel.
We then moved to the large greenhouse in Coffman cove and were given a tour by the middle-schoolers who run it’s aquaponics operation and harvesting. The excitement was truly electric as it became evident that the Coffman Cove model creates student involvement, provides to the local economy during the lean winter months, generates food security, and provides money to the school through produce sales. These were just SOME of the benefits of their incredible operation. We continued our learning by visiting the greenhouses at Thorne Bay and Kasaan to learn about how we can scale our greenhouses and about slightly different boiler systems. Ending the day at the the Whale House in Kasaan was just icing on the cake!
I can’t thank enough Shaina and Lia for putting together this incredible event. I know it will cause quite a stir in Hoonah and we begin to look at our greenhouse options here.
Written by Quinn Aboudara, Supporting Photographs by Kendall Rock, Lee House and Quinn Aboudara
The water laps against the side of the boat gently, the sound rhythmic and steady, like a heartbeat. The engine thrums softly in anticipation then roars to life as I twist the throttle to push the 16 foot aluminum skiff away from the dock and onto Klawock Lake.
My name is Quinn Aboudara, and I’m a lifelong resident of Prince of Wales Island. The Klawock Lake is part of my identity and life. Adopted and raised by the Taakwaneidi Raven/Sculpin Clan, Klawock Lake is more than just a simple body of water for me. Like many residents of Klawock and the surrounding communities, I harvest food from these waters like salmon, trout and beaver. Its tree lined shores provide me with berries and edible roots, bark and grasses for weaving.
Working for the Klawock Cooperative Association I was presented the opportunity to work with the local tribe and with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership as a community catalyst. Klawock Lake and the watershed that feeds it are a fragile system. Over the last 30 years, this life-giving watershed has seen substantial change which have raised continued concern for the residents of Klawock. Some of those environmental changes include: declining fish runs, decreased snow caps on the surrounding mountains, and development along valuable spawning habitat. In 2016, The Klawock Cooperative Association (a federally recognized tribal government), in partnership with Klawock Heenya Corporation, Kia Environmental, and The Nature Conservancy, with funding provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a four month study in regards to one of these concerns: the declining returns of the wild run of sockeye salmon to Klawock Lake.
We began going to Klawock Lake with a single question: Is there anything feeding upon the sockeye fry? What we returned with was more questions. The data gathered from the first season of the Klawock Lake predation study showed that sockeye fry predation was minimal. A second predation study is in the works for 2017 to support and provide stronger data to inform decision making. Simultaneously, we will explore other potential factors in the declining salmon run.
This work, a community priority of both traditional and cultural concern, is a key component of my position within the Klawock Cooperative Association. And as a community catalyst I am given the opportunity to approach this challenge, and many of the other challenges within my community with a holistic approach. There are many challenges of living in a rural Alaskan island community, the high cost of food, a lack of employment opportunities and stable jobs, limited economic development, and through the partnership between the Klawock Cooperative Association and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership I am allowed to address these challenges and pursue solutions. Solutions such as working with local stakeholders to develop a trained local workforce, designing and building greenhouses, providing small business development workshops, and many other opportunities.
It is through this multi-faceted approach toward creating a resilient community that I have dedicated my time and energy to protect the way of life in Klawock. I do this work for myself, my family, and my community, so we may continue to prosper and enjoy our way of life along the bank of the Klawock River indefinitely.
Across the country cafeteria trays aren’t often admired for their nutrition, freshness, or taste. In rural southeast Alaska, however, a dedicated school district and its greenhouse program are challenging that notion, while invigorating local economies, growing entrepreneurs, and gratifying taste buds.
Prince of Wales Island rests at the southernmost end of Alaska’s panhandle. The communities that make up this island are isolated, connected by seemingly endless miles of winding roads. The Southeast Island School District (SISD) is the major school district on Prince of Wales. It includes nine schools in unique communities from the small Haida village of Kasaan to old logging camps like Coffman Cove. All of these communities share some key challenges. Only one of them has a grocery store of considerable size, and the majority of the food is barged in. By the time these costly imported vegetables hit family plates, they are often wilted and unappetizing. Residents are in search of long-term economic solutions.
As in many small schools across the state, cafeteria lunches also lack crunch. “Small schools don’t have full time cooks and use mostly warming ovens to make eggrolls and burritos,” says Lauren Burch, the superintendent for Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island. “That’s not what we should be feeding our kids.”
Those heat-and-serve lunches are not only uninspiring, they are costly too. “In my school district I lose roughly $100,000 a year even having a food program at all, and that’s gotta come from somewhere,” Burch says. The state’s purse strings aren’t loosening any time soon. Alaskans are witnessing the slicing and dicing of many key programs, including the whittling away of school funding. “State funding right now is traumatizing,” he admits.
But Burch—along with teachers, students, administrators, and community members of Southeast Island School District—is stepping up to face these challenges with gusto. What started with a few raised garden beds and a heat recovery system in one school has since grown into an island-wide phenomena. Kasaan, Naukati Bay, Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove have all replaced costly diesel generators with wood boiler systems and are using local wood to heat schools, greenhouses, and businesses. They are growing their own food, freshening up those lunch trays, and supporting the local economy as they revolutionize district thinking. This inspiring cohort is accomplishing all of this while giving the next generation of Alaska’s leaders a mouth-watering hands-on education.
So, how does it work? Let’s take a tour.
AQUAPONICS: FROM FISH TO FRESH VEGGIES
“Everything we do starts with those fish. All we have to do is feed them. We use their feces throughout the system as nutrients. We use the poop to grow the plants, in short speak,” explains Ieshia Searle. Ieshia is a senior at Thorne Bay High School and has been involved in the greenhouse since its’ inception.
Eager goldfish crowd the window of a big central tank as Ieshia sprinkles a bit of fish food from above. A pump moves nutrient rich water from this tank through colonies of bacteria that filter the solid waste and convert fish feces into a form of nitrogen the plants can use. The water is then funneled into a series of pools where rafts of lettuce float beneath energy efficient LED lights. Different varieties of lettuce reach down into the water, absorbing nutrients while filtering and cleaning the pool. Ieshia pulls up a raft of butter lettuce, carefully inspecting the long spindly roots. “These are beautiful roots!” she declares. “Normally we harvest once a week, if not more, depending how our crops turn out. We actually stay pretty busy at the Thorne Bay greenhouse.”
Over in Coffman Cove, the largest and most impressive of the school greenhouses is over 6,000 square feet. At full capacity Coffman Cove will be churning out 800 heads of lettuce a week. That’s a lot of greens.
But, greens aren’t all that these greenhouses produce. Water continues to move through the aquaponics system into a series of beds containing a very fine matrix material made of coconut husks, which fully filters the water. It then returns to the fish and the loop continues, nourishing everything from turnips and tomatoes to green onions and basil. The vegetables are packaged by students, served in school lunches, and delivered and sold to shops where they reach families throughout Prince of Wales.
INTEGRATED LEARNING: GROUNDING THE ‘COMMON CORE’
All four greenhouses are using adaptations of an aquaponics system. Originally, Thorne Bay tested hydroponics, but made the switch to aquaponics in order to diversify their crops and offer students more integrated learning opportunities. “We wanted to dive more into the process. Hydroponics felt like a mystery machine where you pumped chemicals in and lettuce came out,” says Megan Fitzpatrick, the SISD science teacher. “Aquaponics is more of a natural ecosystem approach to growing.” She is able to teach the nitrogen cycle, soil chemistry, plant biology and more. Students are also able to craft experiments. “It’s more engaging. There is a lot of flexibility,” Fitzpatrick explains.
The greenhouse does not replace the curriculum, it brings it to life. Students spend one hour of class time each day working with the program and experiential learning opportunities abound—for more than just chemistry and the life sciences. Students across the island are investigating ways to make their greenhouse programs as self-sustaining as possible, while learning how to conduct feasibility studies, identify niche markets, gauge supply and demand, and brand their products. They are also looking at ways to improve the system, exploring opportunities for saving energy while increasing food production.
“Working at this greenhouse, I’ve been able to learn how to grow food while also being able to learn how to manage a business and keep it running without having to depend on the school district. At the start, we had the school district buying the seeds and the supplies that we needed, but now we are able to pay them back and make a profit,” Ieshia asserts with pride.
The four greenhouses are part of a larger program that also includes raising poultry, growing apples, making and selling tortillas and pizza dough, and a student-run restaurant and storefront. This engaging combination of projects creates opportunities for teaching business skills, life skills, employment skills and responsibility in a meaningful and hands-on way. “When kids first started here they were so shy and didn’t want to talk about the greenhouse,” says Fitzpatrick. “Now, so many people come by and visit the greenhouse from the community and even the lieutenant governor has stopped by. Kids are learning public speaking skills,” she says. “When students are engaged, they retain and when they retain they are more confident.”
AN IMPACT YOU CAN TASTE
Rural Alaska is hungry for fresh food and innovation. “Our schools absolutely are the heartbeat of the community and play a vital role in the sustainability of these communities,” attests Colter Barnes, the school greenhouse manager on the island. Southeast Island School District is looking at their students as powerful assets for building more resilient communities, supporting the local economy, and addressing food system challenges, while receiving a top-notch education.
“I think the progressive districts are out there saying, how can we do more with less funding, how can we generate revenue? I have a thousand students in my building, how can I give them real learning opportunities that are connected to standards, their diploma, their interests, and strengthens our community, but also generates revenue. There is so much you can do with kids, they want to engage,” Barnes says.
“We need to teach kids healthy eating skills. They need to use knives to cut their food, enough of these heat-and-serve open boxes,” adds Megan Fitzpatrick. “I saw these kids when they first started in the greenhouse. They weren’t eating the stuff and now they’re fighting over it. Seeing kids recognize the healthy benefits of eating fresh vegetables and recognizing that they can do this at home, that is a life skill they can carry on through their adult life. That to me is the most rewarding.”
Back at the school cafeteria, the rewards keep on growing as more and more students swap egg rolls for rainbow chard.
Southeast Alaskans are not shy around the forest. Our rural communities are surrounded by the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth. We build homes and businesses with the natural resources those lands provide. Every summer, Alaskans are reminded that the majority of the fish that feed our world-renowned salmon industry begin their lives among these trees. We escape into the forest and disappear between the spruce and hemlock in pursuit of Sitka black-tailed deer or wild mushrooms. We are forest people, and a coalition of land managers across the region are collaborating to ensure that the people who help manage these forests are the same people who call these lands their backyard.
Harrison Voegeli is one such man. “Seeing that locals are out in the forest hunting — they are the ones out in the forest cutting their firewood and getting trees for their totems — it’s very important to have the participation of locals,” Voegeli said. Voegeli is one of ten people who are spending their workdays inspecting the forests on Prince of Wales Island.
“At the moment, the timber industry is geared toward cutting down old trees. Trees that have been alive for several hundred years to in some cases, several thousand years. These older trees have older, denser and harder wood than young trees, but now there is a push to move away from cutting these old forests because the health of our forest is tied to these old growth stands,” explained Voegeli. “We want to start cutting trees that are younger than 150 years but not all are ready to be logged yet. So what we are doing is going out and determining how long it will take until they are ready.”
The crew are measuring trees, recording forest stand makeup and collecting a suite of data that is helping land managers paint a more detailed picture of our young growth forests. The inventory was initiated through an agreement between the State of Alaska and the USDA Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry arm earlier this year. The goal is to collect valuable forest data to aid Southeast’s transition to a predominantly young-growth timber industry. It’s also an opportunity to develop a local workforce.
Jason Anderson is the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Tongass National Forest. “As we went out to try and understand what’s going in that older young growth timber on the forest, the need to capture that data was a good fit for figuring out how the work of that data collection could also benefit local communities who are interested in working in the natural resource field,” said Anderson.
The crew conducting the inventory come from a range of backgrounds. “Clayton Smally is kind of a local legend. He’s 57 now and he had been logging here since he was 14,” Voegeli said. “A couple of years ago he decided he was done with logging and wanted to see a different side, now of conservation. You can definitely teach an old dog new tricks!”
Then there’s Brent O’Conner, a former manager at Papa’s Pizza who wanted to try his hands at an outdoor job. Some have kids; one is a forester.
This group attended an academy in the spring that prepared them for careers in local forestry. This two-week field course was facilitated by Haa Aani, LLC (a subsidiary of Sealaska that is dedicated to local economic development) Kai Environmental, the United States Forest Service and the State of Alaska.
“Working with our partners, we put together the Forest Academy and found that we have an interested group of people who want to participate in that work and learn more about the forest while producing really valuable data that helps us manage those lands into the future,” said Anderson.
“Having a local workforce that understands forest dynamics rather than having the Forest Service, for example, hiring someone to come up from Kentucky for the summer to look at trees and after that they leave, is really really good. It brings the local community in to be a part of the process where they are able to make decisions and be informed and inform their fellows about what’s going on in the forest, and how their lands are being managed,” Voegeli said.
The academy was the collaborative effort of multiple land managers to train a skilled local workforce that could be called upon for work on both private and public lands. All eight of those who attended the academy were offered work on Prince of Wales.
“My sense is that all land managers are motivated by similar interests: a skilled workforce that they can count on to do work year after year to support the forest industry, not just logging but all activities that occur in forest landscapes,” Anderson said. “And these jobs will always be stable. I think the public will always expect goods and services from their lands — both public and private…. Individuals who already live here and love it have great employment potential and that is what are seeing so far.”
There are plans to orchestrate a second Academy in the next several months that would invite interested folks from beyond Prince of Wales to get professional development experience catered to work in Southeast Alaska’s forests. For more information check www.sustainablesoutheast.net or contact Alana Peterson, the Program Director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Haa Aaani LLC directly at 907-747-3132 or Alana.Peterson@sealaska.com.
As the morning of Sept. 3 broke warm and clear over the village of Kasaan, a small southeast Alaskan village of approximately 50 year-round residents, a sense of excitement and celebration — along with laughter, music, and the sound of carving tools on wood — filled the air. Carver Gitajang (Glenn “Stormy” Hamar) along with apprentice carvers St’igiinii (Harley Holter), Nang K’adangaas (Eric Hamar), and Wooshdeiteitxh (Justin Henricks) were in the carving shed, preparing for the rededication of Náay í’Waans (The Great House), better known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House.
“It (Náay í’Waans) is our history and connects us to our heritage, our ancestors, and means everything to the people and to the village of Kasaan,” said Gitajang.
Prior to the past three years of reconstruction, the longhouse, built in 1880, was subject to insects, adverse weather and vandalism. Gitajang and his crew have replaced rotting and weakened poles, planks, and roofing, carefully restoring Náay í’Waans to its traditional beauty and strength. They’ve used as much of the original longhouse as possible.
As the day progressed, nearly 1,000 visitors began to make their way from Kasaan to Náay í’Waans, a leisurely stroll along a sun dappled trail, to meet canoes from Kasaan, Klawock, Ketchikan, and as far away as Juneau. St’igiinii ran briskly along the trail, calling out greetings to guests as he raced to meet the first of them.
St’igiinii has worked tirelessly on Náay í’Waans. Many who call him nephew or friend have heard his laughter in the carving shed or through the forest. On Sept. 3, however, he was serious when he spoke of what the longhouse means to him. “Náay í’Waans was a beacon of hope to the people of Old Kassan,” he said. (A century ago, many people moved from Old Kassan, on Skowl Arm, to Kasaan for jobs and the school.) “It was built to preserve and protect the Haida culture. And today it still serves as that beacon of hope to this community. It still preserves and protects the Haida culture and connects us to our ancestors.”
That morning, a young voice announced the sighting of the first canoes as they rounded the point into the small bay in which Náay í’Waans sits, its main entrance facing the beach. People began to fill the beach as the canoes paddled closer to shore. Both those on water and on shore sang traditional songs as each canoe passed the beach, allowing the standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, to recognize them before they gathered off shore and waited to be recognized. (Kóyongxung was the original Chief Son-i-Hat, a wealthy Haida chief and the man who commissioned Náay í’Waans; he died in 1912.)
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat’s voice sounded across the water as he identified each of the canoes and granted them permission to land upon the shore before Náay í’Waans. Those on land sang them in, and St’igiinii waded into the water to help the crews disembark and join those gathered on the gravelly beach. People sang songs of celebration and welcome as they walked the canoes up the shore with the rising tide; guests and locals filled the area around Náay í’Waans. As the grand entrance began, dance groups from Hydaburg, Klawock, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), circled the longhouse, singing and dancing as they entered. Their voices and drums filled the air and drifted through the trees.
Haida elder from Kasaan Julie Coburn gave opening prayers and recognition to Taslaanas, the bear clan of Kasaan. Then Anthony “Tony” Christiansen, mayor of Hydaburg, and Chalyee Éesh (Richard Peterson), President of Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who is from Kasaan, took over the duties of announcing the speakers for the event.
Speakers included Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot, Kavilco Incorporated president Louis Jones Sr., Organized Village of Kasaan tribal president Ronald Leighton, City of Kasaan mayor Della Coburn, Rasmuson Foundation representative Jason Smart, Skidegate Traditional Chief Russ Jones, and Chief Son-i-Hat descendant Clinton Cook Jr.
As the speeches ended guests began to make their way back toward Kasaan, where an evening of celebration awaited before the recently opened Totem Trail Café. Kasaan community members and volunteers had been preparing throughout the day, cooking and setting up seating for their guests. They filled long tables with traditional foods: salmon, halibut, venison, and more, along with endless pots of hot coffee and strong tea.
As dance groups from around Southeast Alaska and Haida Gwaii sang and danced, gifts of carved panels, woven cedar hats, headdresses, and regalia were given to honored guests while gifts of t-shirts, jams, honey, jarred salmon, jewelry, posters, clothing, and many other items were given in thanks to all that attended.
And as the sun set on Náay í’Waans and the village of Kasaan, the carvers had been honored, respect had been given to all who had made this historic event possible and Náay í’Waans, The Great House, often known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House stood, restored, in the brilliant glow of the setting sun, a continued beacon of hope for the preservation and protection of the Haida culture and a testament of strength and unity.
The traditional Haida longhouse restoration project was made possible through the partnership of the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK), Kavilco Non-Profit, and the Kasaan Haida Heritage Foundation. The efforts were also aided through funding from the Rasmuson Foundation as well as donations of timber from Sealaska Corporation, The U.S. Forest Service, and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.