Carving a future for the Tongass National Forest

In Southeast Alaska, youth help manage a forest and protect an ancient art.

Allison Mills manually drilled a bit into the base of a massive yellow cedar tree on Prince of Wales Island, in Southeast Alaska. The drizzly August day filled with the dull squeak of metal rubbing against wood. Once she reached the center of the tree, she gently pulled the delicate core sample free, lifted it to her face and inhaled the wood’s slightly spicy, medicinal scent. “I love the smell so much,” she said. 

Mills, 16, is Tlingit and Haida, and had enthusiastically volunteered for the task. She is part of the Prince of Wales Island chapter of the Alaskan Youth Stewards, or AYS, a collaborative program that provides job experience, teaches leadership skills and gives rural youth a chance to support their communities and cultures. For 10 weeks this summer, her crew worked on natural resource and cultural stewardship projects serving their community. The session culminated in a four-day camping trip in a remote forested area, where the crew members searched for trees that might someday be transformed into totem poles or dugout canoes. The search — and the program itself — are part of a regionwide revitalization of carving and other cultural wood practices.  

 

The crew was exploring the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. At 16.7 million acres, it stretches across more than a thousand islands and encompasses 32 communities in Southeast Alaska. The forest sequesters carbon, provides drinking water and hydropower for thousands of people, and supports large fish and wildlife populations. It’s the foundation for sustenance, culture and a way of life for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, who have lived in the region for millennia. 

Mills uses a clinometer to estimate the height of a cedar tree, a skill the Alaskan Youth Stewards crew learned from foresters with the United States Forest Service and Sealaska, an Alaska Native Corporation. Indigenous carvers, builders and weavers worked with tribal governments and local land managers to outline the ideal attributes of trees for cultural use, including size, minimal trunk twist, location, concentration and distribution of branches, and more. Cultural-use harvests, which are selective and much smaller in scale than timber harvests, are part of a land-management shift focused on sustainability rather than short-term economic gain.

Allison Mills cradles a core from a western redcedar between her fingertips. Mills, who is Tlingit and Haida, and other members of the Prince of Wales chapter of the Alaskan Youth Stewards program collected data on red and yellow cedar trees that meet the stringent requirements for cultural uses, such as totem pole and dugout canoe carving. Trees of this quality are increasingly rare.

 “I love learning about our forest and our village, and learning how I can help protect it.”

Over the last several centuries, Russians, Europeans and Americans colonized the region, and between 1902 and 1909, the U.S. government established the national forest on Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian homelands. The logging industry boomed a few decades later, with the first large-scale mills built in the 1950s. Global, state and national interest in the region’s timber intensified, peaking in the 1990s, when thousands of loggers clear-cut more than 1 million acres, taking out half of the forest’s old-growth trees. Clear-cutting remains a threat, since federal management of the forest changes with each administration. Tribal nations and local residents have sought more involvement in managing the forest, but tribal governments have at times felt that federal agencies have discounted or overlooked their expertise. 

The AYS program may be helping to change that. Founded in 2017, it’s a partnership among tribal governments, tribal corporations, conservation groups, federal and state agencies, nonprofits and community organizations. 

Michael Melendrez of the Forest Service takes measurements with Olivia Vickers of Alaskan Youth Stewards. AYS is a partnership among the Forest Service, Sealaska, local and regional sovereign tribal governments, community and conservation organizations, school districts, the National Forest Foundation and others. Forest Service personnel joined the AYS crew for a field day to answer questions and support the crew members as they collected data. The information they gathered will join a growing database documenting trees suitable for cultural uses.

Left, Justin Reno measures the diameter of a tree. Reno, a Forest Service employee, grew up on Prince of Wales Island. Programs like the Alaskan Youth Stewards initiative are meant to boost local and Alaska Native representation in outdoor and natural resource jobs. Right, Alaskan Youth Stewards crew members take turns measuring the diameter of each cedar tree they inventory. Participants are paid for their work, during which they learn about data collection and river restoration as well as teamwork and responsibility. AYS prepares crew members for culturally relevant careers working on the lands and waters of their rural communities.

 

AFTER LETTING HER FELLOW CREW members smell the core, Mills carefully placed it in a protective container to be shipped to the College of Wooster Tree Ring Lab, in Ohio. Scientists will analyze it to better understand the decline of yellow cedar in Alaska and Canada, and how much of it is driven by climate change. 

Meanwhile, four other crew members got to work assessing the tree. They measured the trunk’s circumference and height, looking for a minimum of 34 inches around and a height of at least 36 feet. They perched on fallen moss-covered logs to observe the twist of the trunk and the number of limbs and knots that obscured its face, factors that can hamper carving. They shouted the numbers to another crew member, who sat on the damp, spongy forest floor, recording data on a U.S. Forest Service-issued tablet. The information will join a database of trees that have the right characteristics for cultural uses. 

Elizabeth Thomas (Tlingit name: Kinda.aat), who helps oversee the regional Alaskan Youth Stewards program, cores a cedar tree. For Thomas, who works for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, supporting the health of the local environment begins with equipping rural and Indigenous youth with the skills, confidence and experience needed for land-management positions.

It’s not clear how many of the rare forest giants known as monument trees are left. This inventory is part of an effort to shift away from unsustainable logging toward long-term management that supports cultural needs and new growth. “I love learning about our forest and our village, and learning how I can help protect it,” Mills said. “So even someday when I’m older, I can show my kids and grandkids everything, and just be able to have this beautiful place stay alive.”

Allison Mills shows her grandfather, Edward Thomas (Tlingit names: TSA Xoo and Shaans Kadake; Haida name: Skil Quidaunce), president emeritus of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council, a core that she collected from a cedar tree. Mills, whose father works with Sealaska, was eager to share her new skills with the family members who inspired her desire to work in forestry. As an aspiring land and resource manager, Mills may one day make decisions about this forest that help sustain it, and the cultural practices it supports, into the future.

“These kids here already have two steps ahead of what we had back in the day.”

Charlene Wolfe (Haida name: Jaat Gíigangaa), a Haida and Tlingit carver from Craig, joined the search for totem trees on the last day of the campout, sharing her knowledge of trees suitable for carving. Wolfe told stories about growing up on the island and about her art, and she spoke of the hope local youth inspire. “I think it’s pretty phenomenal to see these kids out here, learning the things that they’re doing,” Wolfe said. “They’re the future. … We lost out on a lot of this because our culture, our native language, was taken away from us.” Forced assimilation included federal bans on cultural practices. “But we’re coming back stronger now. These kids here already have two steps ahead of what we had back in the day.”

The sun sets through the Tongass National Forest; loggers have clear-cut half the forest’s old-growth trees. During the 20th century, federal management often prioritized timber interests over the needs of Alaska Native communities, and high-value cedar trees were logged and exported. Forging stronger relationships among tribal governments, federal agencies, land managers and local youth is a first step toward improving overall management practices.

 

After breaking camp, the crew traveled to the town of Klawock and met with Jon Rowan Jr. (Tlingit name: Tooyeek), a Pueblo and Tlingit carver and teacher, to get an idea of the possible fate of the trees they cataloged. Still in their muddy camp clothes, they gathered around a half-carved log inside Rowan’s carving shed, a large shop filled with loud rock music, the scent of cedar and piles of wood shavings. Rowan talked about the spark he felt the first time he saw a totem pole being carved in Klawock, in the 1990s. At that time, the practice of carving was rare in the area. “Now it’s happening all over the place,” he said. “It’s really cool.”

At his carving shed in Klawock, Jon Rowan Jr. (Tlingit name: Tooyeek) rests his hand on a pole with crests belonging to the Ishkihittaan people. Rowan and two young apprentices are carving it as part of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí (Totem Pole Trail) for the Juneau waterfront. The trail is a project of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, an Alaska Native nonprofit that promotes Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian culture. Its existence highlights the cultural value of large trees, as well as the contribution that selective harvesting can make to the region’s tourist economy. Trees large enough for totem poles typically take more than 450 years to grow.

“Now it’s happening all over the place.” 

Left, TJ Young (Haida name: Sgwaayaans) blasts Elvis Presley from his boombox while smoothing the curves of a pole he is carving in Hydaburg for the Juneau waterfront project. Young grew up in Hydaburg, a Haida community with fewer than 400 year-round residents and a thriving carving community. As a child, Young remembers being excited to buy new books of photos by master carvers, which he would share with friends. Today, he mentors local youth. Right, in Klawock, Jon Rowan Jr. (Tlingit name: Tooyeek) discusses totem pole carving with the Alaskan Youth Stewards crew and learns about their experiences in the forest. One of his current apprentices served on the 2021 AYS crew. In 50 years of carving, Rowan has completed about 30 poles and trained many young carvers.

 

The recent resurgence is part of a larger push toward community and cultural healing. Healing is happening in the woods where AYS crews work on rehabilitation projects and catalog cultural-use trees, in the carving sheds where the doors are always open, and at the pole-raising events that bring everyone together to celebrate. 

“I feel like it’s a really cool thing that we’re doing, being able to look at all the different cedars and decide which ones are good for people in the future,” Mills said. “Maybe they won’t be used, but it’s still cool to have those trees noticed so that carvers could maybe one day be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that is a good tree.’”   Victoria Petersen

A totem park sits in the heart of Hydaburg, beside the school. The practice of carving and raising totem poles and then letting them return to the earth has been part of the rhythm of life here for thousands of years. Carvers, land managers, culture bearers and local youth are working hard to care for the old-growth forest that sustains this practice and the lifeways tied to it, determined to help them endure for thousands of years to come.

Editor’s note: Photographer Bethany Sonsini Goodrich is an employee of the Sitka Conservation Society, a member of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, a collaborative of community organizations, tribal governments, native corporations, land managers and others that supports the Alaskan Youth Stewards program.

Bethany Sonsini Goodrich is a Southeast Alaskan writer and photographer who is deeply passionate about the power of story to inspire positive social and environmental change. When she’s not behind the camera, you’ll find her hunting, fishing, foraging, surfing, playing or sharing all sorts of tasty wild foods in the Tongass National Forest — her home.

Victoria Petersen is a freelance journalist living in Anchorage, Alaska. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at The New York Times and a High Country News intern. Follow her @vgpetersen 

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Help us create more stories like this.This project was supported by a 2022 High Country News Western Communities photo essay grant and by contributors to High Country News.