Written by Carolyn Rice, Tongass Communications Fellow for the Tongass National Forest and the Sitka Conservation Society and Isabella Haywood, Community Economic Development Fellow for Spruce Root

The stream is beginning to relax. Ever since the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership (HNFP) started restoring this stretch of Spasski Creek on Northern Chichagof Island in 2017, the water moves more slowly and gracefully. In one stretch, it meanders through a recently-installed pile of logs and pools just downstream. These pools created by restoration provide habitat that young salmon can use as they grow, feed, and eventually return home to spawn.

This ongoing transition from stifled stream to healthy salmon run earned Spasski Creek recognition from National Fish Habitat Partnership as one of the 2019 “Waters to Watch.” The list highlights multi-stakeholder conservation efforts to improve ecologically and culturally important rivers, streams, and shores across the United States. 

Young-growth logs installed in Spasski Creek. Photo by Katherine Prussian (USFS)

The Hoonah Native Forest Partnership (HNFP) is a science-based, landscape scale, community forest approach to watershed planning whose overall goal is to achieve a measurable and resilient blend of timber, salmon and deer production, local economic diversification, and improved watershed health. It is comprised of the Hoonah Indian Association, City of Hoonah, Tongass National Forest, Huna Totem Corporation, Sealaska Corporation, The Nature Conservancy, Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. 

Of the watersheds surrounding Hoonah, the HNFP identified the Spasski Creek Watershed as a top priority for restoration after extensive data collection and analysis. This revealed that logging has removed over 6,000 acres of trees in the 33,000-acre watershed and that there are over 12 miles of high-quality pink and chum salmon habitat can benefit from restoration.

Members of the HNFP crew. Photo: Katherine Prussian (USFS)

Watersheds like the Spasski are entire systems that support the streams and rivers, from soil to animals to trees. Logging disrupted the watershed by removing the old-growth trees, a critical part of the system. Normally, old-growth trees fall into streams and change the water flow. Some create deep pools that young salmon use as a safe haven. Spasski Creek, however, has had fewer natural inputs of wood since the logging, meaning there is less in-stream wood to control the anatomy of the stream.

Meanwhile, dense stands of young trees have grown in the logged areas, and they crowd out wildlife, people, and even light. This has reduced the availability of deer, berries, and other foods to the people of Hoonah, who rely heavily on subsistence harvest. 

Aerial view of a wildlife gap installed in young-growth forest. Photo by Ian Johnson

All of these impacts combine to make the Spasski restoration a priority for stakeholders from land managers to subsistence users. There is a lot to gain from this work, and it has begun to pay off. The HNFP has been working hard to restore balance to Spasski Creek Watershed. U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service staff designed the restoration and trained the local workforce that implemented it. 

First, the crew thinned young-growth trees along the creek to allow light to reach the forest floor. The underbrush and remaining trees will now be able to grow bigger more quickly. Unlike traditional thinning, which leaves the felled trees in piles, the crew also cut up the trees to ensure that wildlife and people can easily navigate the forest. The crew thinned over 200 acres of young growth in 2019. 

The HNFP crew moves a log into place. Photo by Ian Johnson

Using only hand tools, the crew then placed some of the felled trees into the stream to form salmon habitat. The in-stream wood also helps prevent flooding. In 2019, the workers restored half a mile of the stream. 

The National Fish Habitat Partnership also acknowledged the HNFP’s efforts to invest in the local community and economy through the restoration work. For instance, the HNFP has hired and trained a crew of local workers, including TRAYLS (Training Rural Alaska Youth Leaders and Students) members, to complete the restoration. Watch this video to learn more about the work that they did this summer. Overall, this project has generated 12 jobs in Hoonah and over $500,000 in income for the local community. 

The TRAYLS crew, with HNFP crew member Phillip Sharclane. Photo by Ian Johnson

The HNFP has already accomplished so much, and has created an 80-year vision and a 5-year action plan to accomplish even more. In the recently released Public Watershed Management Plan, the HNFP outlines their plan for conservation efforts on the Spasski watershed as well as the five other watersheds around Hoonah. This work will continue to improve environmental and human health, create jobs, and support stewardship of the local environment. The success of HNFP has inspired restoration efforts in Kake, where the Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership (KKCFP) kicked off its first season this past summer. 

The Sustainable Southeast Partnership strongly believes in the HNFP’s community-centered approach to land management and is so glad that the National Fish Habitat Partnership recognizes not just the restoration work but also the larger impact that collaborative land management can have on a community.