A project to restore an important salmon river in the nation's largest national forest is getting under way in what marks a new direction for the Tongass National Forest.
Public and private groups, which in the past were so fiercely divided over managing the temperate rainforest that their battles were called "The Tongass Wars," are collaborating on restoring the Sitkoh River.
The U.S. Forest Service announced last summer that it was taking a new direction in Tongass management by moving away from cutting old-growth trees and toward harvesting younger, second-growth trees and forest restoration work.
The Sitkoh River restoration project is one of the first significant projects in that direction. The $290,000 project is to begin this summer and will likely extend into 2012.
The goal is to restore the river to its near-original condition.
The river was damaged in the 1970s by poor logging practices that are illegal today, such as dragging logs down rivers and clear-cutting to the edges of streams.
The project is being funded by the U.S. Forest Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Trout Unlimited and the Sitka Conservation Society.
Trout Unlimited spokeswoman Paula Dobbyn said instead of paying lawyers to fight each other in court, Tongass stakeholder groups want to work more cooperatively.
"We are looking at this project as the way forward," Dobbyn said.
The Tongass, which has about 5,000 salmon streams, produces 30 percent of the wild salmon caught in Alaska from a fraction of the land, said Greg Killinger with the U.S. Forest Service.
"Acre for acre, the Tongass is America's wild salmon breadbasket," he said.
The Sitkoh is particularly important for coho salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing.
The first phase of the project will restore 1,800 feet of the river that runs along an old logging road. Over time, that part of the river became filled with logs and debris, forcing the river out of its banks and onto the road.
The aim is to put the river back in its original channel, said Perry Edwards with the U.S. Forest Service's Sitka Ranger District.
Restoration work also will include constructing small pools where fish can spawn and rear, and building log jams and placing large woody debris into the river to improve spawning and help stabilize banks.
The Sitkoh project is a great example of how the Forest Service is getting things half-right managing the Tongass, by pursuing projects that restore damage inflicted by past logging, said Matt Zencey, a media consultant to the Alaska Conservation Society.
It's the other half where the Forest Service continues to pursue old-growth logging that is the problem, he said.
That part, he said, "looks too much like business as usual."