The Backdoor Café Installs Red Alder Benches: A Local Young Growth Success Story

Written by Chandler O’Connell

In Sitka, Alaska a favorite coffee shop among locals called the Backdoor Café did a little renovating this season. Alana Peterson, who is both the owner of the Backdoor Cafe and the program director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership installed brand new benches using locally sourced red alder wood. By sourcing local, Peterson supported local businesses, kept more money in the region, and showcased environmentally sustainable timber. The Backdoor Cafe is also modeling what a market for young-growth products looks like in Southeast Alaska, as the Forest Service moves to shift focus from old growth to young growth timber harvests.

The Tongass Transition, announced by the Department of Agriculture in 2011, is meant to bring an end to unsustainable old-growth logging and implement a more holistic management plan that focuses on young-growth trees that grow after clear-cuts, as well as integrating and valuing non-timber forest outputs. The Tongass Transition will ensure that the remaining old growth forests on the Tongass stay standing to provide wildlife habitat, sequester carbon, support subsistence lifestyles and recreation, and produce prodigious quantities of salmon. The transition also provides opportunities to develop new timber products.

Click through the posters that the Sitka Conservation Society created to hang in the Backdoor Cafe along with a local youth wood arts project to inform customers about the significance of these new benches. 

“Mills and entrepreneurs have successfully experimented with young growth forest products over the last few years since the transition was announced,” said Beth Pendleton, Regional Forester, Alaska Region-Forest Service. “They have found that there are applications for young growth wood products from the Tongass and that local utilization and manufacturing can be part of our regional economy. Red Alder is one of the Tongass Young Growth products that has a lot of potential for value-added applications,” she added.

The Backdoor Café worked with Icy Straits Lumber & Milling out of Hoonah, Alaska to source their red alder. Icy Straits is part of a cohort of local mills, including Tenakee Logging Company, TM Construction and Good Faith Lumber that offer a diverse range of second growth products. Local businesses and individuals planning their next construction project should check out these sourcing options – they may be surprised by the high quality and competitive pricing that is available right here at home. And they’ll enjoy the added benefit of knowing that by buying local they’ve kept more money circulating in the Southeast economy.

From Forest to Café: Art Display Inspired by Second Growth Benches

The red alder benches served as inspiration for a storytelling and art display currently showing at the Backdoor Café. The display, a project of the Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaskan Way of Life 4H Club, highlights the benefits of choosing local young growth products, and tracks the benches from forest to café, sharing stakeholder reflections at each step: management, harvest, construction and purchase. The 4H students contributed relief prints made from “cookie” cross sections of fallen trees and short stories on life as a tree on the Tongass.

Businesses: Save Energy, Save Money:  Last Chance to Sign up! 


 

Are you a business or commercial building owner interested in saving money on your heating and electric bills?  An energy audit will show you how energy is used in your facility and will recommend ways to reduce your use and save money.

Southeast Conference, Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) are offering 75% off commercial building audits through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program.  There are limited seats left, so don’t miss this opportunity to sign up.

Last year, businesses and public facilities in Hoonah, Haines and Prince of Wales Island participated, receiving 29 Level I energy audits and 5 Level II audits. The 34 audited buildings totaled over 230,000 ft2. In all, the recommended energy efficiency measures total $382,701. These lighting, heating, ventilation and other recommendations will yield an estimated annual savings of $173,782! This means that it will take only a little over two years for these savings to pay for themselves.

Join the movement to save money and save energy for Southeast Alaska! Interested Southeast businesses should contact Robert Venables (energy@seconference.org) or Shaina Kilcoyne (s.kilcoyne@realaska.org). Communities will need at least three businesses to get them on the Auditor’s schedule, so talk to your neighbors! With an audit, businesses will be eligible for USDA’s Rural Energy for America grant and loan Program for renewable energy and energy efficiency measures. Loan Guarantees are completed continuously throughout the year.

Registration for Southeast Alaska 2017 Farmers Summit Opens

Press Release

Share lessons learned and techniques for overcoming challenges of commercially growing food in Southeast Alaska; learn specific skills, technology, and research that contribute to commercial farming success and efficiency; connect with new and experienced farmers to build an inspiring network. 

Early bird registration is now open for the Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit 2017, the 2nd biennial summit designed to bring together experienced and aspiring commercial growers and support agencies. The Summit will be held February 24 through 26, 2017, at the Chilkat Center in Haines, Alaska. A discounted registration rate is available to attendees who register on or before January 21st, 2017. Travel and registration scholarships are available.

The conference will feature presentations from experienced commercial growers and support agencies, and topical discussions and panels to share resources and lessons learned. Speakers include Doug Collins, Extension Faculty and Soil Scientist with Washington State University’s Small Farms Program; Megan Talley, Farm Manager and Educator at Alaska Pacific University; and experienced Farmers from Southeast Alaska; among others. 

“This will be an opportunity for commercial growers of Southeast Alaska to learn from each other, find opportunities to collaborate, and build a network that can leverage everyone’s efforts,” said Lia Heifetz, Local Food Director for Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition. “Many resources will be shared over the course of the weekend – from financial planning for small farms to innovative solutions for soil building, policy implications for agriculture, and much more.”

Other topics to be addressed at the Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit include:

  • On Farm Food Safety
  • Building your Farm Community
  • Planning for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
  • The Future of Seed Saving in Alaska
  • High Tunnel Applications and Innovations
  • Electric and Walk-in Cold Storage for your Farm
  • Biomass Heated Greenhouses and Aquaponics
  • Per Foot Crop Values for Market Sales
  • Using Local Amendments to Improve Soil Quality
  • Fruit Trees and Grafting Techniques
  • Policy and Initiatives
  • Building a Future of Farming with Internships and Education
  • Business Planning and Farm Finances

For more information and to register for the conference please visit: http://www.alaskawatershedcoalition.org/safs2017/

Back to School: Swapping Eggrolls for Rainbow Chard

Written by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich for Edible Alaska Magazine

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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.

powgreenhouse_-52AQUAPONICS: 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.

powgreenhouse_-8The 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.”

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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.

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Annual Retreat Helps Chart Path Forward for Partnership

By Alana Peterson

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One key element to a successful partnership is communication. In the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, our partner organizations model deliberate communication that results in action. We meet on a monthly basis through Google+ video hangouts where we share ideas and information to strengthen our collaborative efforts. We also participate in daily dialogue on our Google+ community page. Our blog posts, emails, phone calls, and community visits all contribute to a network of individuals and organizations that are highly collaborative, sharing resources, and learning from each other along the way. Finally, we commit to communicating through in-person visits as frequently as possible and commit to two full partnership meetings twice a year (once in fall and once in spring).

This year’s autumn retreat took place in Hoonah, Alaska from October 3-7th. We used this time to develop year-long work plans for our individual and collective projects, learn about projects in Hoonah, and strategize ways to grow and strengthen the partnership in 2017.

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Our retreat included a site visit to the new deep water dock and Icy Strait Point, a cruise ship destination that includes adventure options, a zip line, restaurants, a museum and shops. The group was not only inspired by the expansive project that is unique to see in a small SE village, but was also excited to learn about how cultural values and the community have been a priority through the development and implementation of the tourism site. Our group was led by a local Huna Totem shareholder, Brittany who started working at ISP as a ticket taker, and has moved up in the ranks to now working administrative functions in the office. It was clear she has pride in her work, and impressed our entire group in her knowledge and ability to answer all of our questions. We learned that decisions at ISP are made based on a filter of authenticity. Icy Strait Point was built to be as true to the culture and community it represents as possible.

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We also spent time learning about the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership, a powerful new model for land management in SE Alaska.

The retreat also included a day-long workshop for community engagement. The workshop, led by Element Agency, gave each partner new skills and tools to plan successful community events such as meetings, workshops, etc. We put the new tools to use by planning and facilitating a community meeting in Hoonah. The goal of the community meeting was to introduce our partnership and outline the current projects in Hoonah. We then opened up discussion to the participants to learn about priority projects that the community has identified, and support those efforts through the SSP network. The meeting concluded with a beautiful performance from the Mt. Fairweather dancers who also prepared a tasty dinner for the event.

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Other outcomes of this years retreat included a review of 13 successes from last year’s projects. Between all SSP partners, over 50 projects are taking place in 2017. A full list of those projects can be viewed by clicking here. The partners also dedicated four hours to identifying four priority areas to strengthen the SSP in 2017, they include:

(1) Promote the SSP collective impact model and Triple Bottom Line approach to economic development in each of our communities through direct outreach.

(2) Catalysts & Partners will engage the community, new partners and new demographics to increase community ownership of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.

(3)  All partners will work towards making SSP self-sustaining by improving and implementing our metrics to communicate success for potential funders and by building capacity to fundraise within partner organizations (this includes capacity building activities).

(4)  All partners will demonstrate success in projects this year through strategizing community outreach through each communications output and achieving one clear project success in each community this year.

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For each of these four initiatives, each participant wrote down one or two actionable steps they will take as individuals this year to move the partnership forward on each initiative. Though tired and drained from a long week of collaborative work, each partner left Hoonah reinvigorated and excited about the year of work ahead.

Building a Better Backyard: Locals Inventory Alaska’s Young Growth

Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly

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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.”

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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 conduclayton_1-1cting 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.”

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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.

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