Twelvemile Creek, Alaska

The Twelvemile Creek watershed encompasses 28 miles of salmon and other fish-bearing streams as well as 59 miles of additional streams covering an area just under 20 square miles in central Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. Logging practices that took place during the era when there was little protection for stream habitat and adjacent riparian vegetation left Twelvemile Creek Watershed in an impaired state. These practices included clear-cutting riparian corridors (areas adjacent to streams), removing large wood from the stream channels, extracting gravel from the stream to build roads, and yarding logs over the stream banks and through riparian vegetation. Twelvemile was one of the watersheds most heavily impacted by past logging and road building on the Tongass National Forest. About 50% of the 19.6 square mile watershed was logged beginning in the early 1960s, including 90% of the riparian forest along streams that salmon, trout and char use for spawning and rearing. The watershed has 59 miles of road, and an average road density of 3.1 miles per square mile. Such high road densities tend to negatively impact aquatic habitat through increased rates of sedimentation from erosion, road failures, blocked fish passage, and reduced hydrologic connectivity. Additional impacts included introduction of invasive plants, and impaired fish and wildlife habitat.

Old growth trees along the banks of salmon streams, such as Twelvemile Creek, are critical to the function and stability of the channel. When these large trees die or fall over into the creek, they provide important wood structure that slow down and spread out water during high flows. This wood is critical to stream function and productive salmon habitat. It interacts with the stream channel and stabilizes spawning gravels, provides shelter for migrating adult salmon, resident adult, and juvenile fish. Old growth trees were harvested to the banks in the Twelvemile Creek watershed. In addition, the majority of existing large wood in the stream prior to logging had decayed and flushed out of the creek. With very few big trees left along the banks to replace the lost wood, the Forest Service and partners prioritized Twelvemile Creek watershed as an area that would benefit from restoration treatments that have previously been used to successfully improve habitat in watersheds including Harris River, Staney Creek, Sal Creek, and Snipe Creek.

In late July 2013, the US Forest Service and partners successfully completed stream restoration efforts in the Twelvemile Creek watershed on Prince of Wales Island. Additional fish passage culvert replacement work and restoration monitoring is planned to occur over the next few summers. This will complete a major watershed restoration effort that started with planning and design work in 2009, included wildlife habitat and streamside vegetation improvements, fish passage at road-stream crossing improvements, road condition improvements and storage with culvert removals, and major in-stream channel work in 2012 and 2013. As part of the National Forest Foundation’s (NFF) Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation campaign, this project exemplifies how myriad partners and communities can work together to achieve significant restoration results. Primary partners included the US Forest Service, the NFF, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Student Conservation Association, and the Sitka Conservation Society. The project was funded by grants from these partners, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through the Tongass Keystone Initiative, Fish America Foundation, and the local communities through Title II funds for ecological restoration. Species benefiting from these efforts include: coho, pink and chum salmon, steelhead trout, resident and anadromous cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden, Sitka black-tailed deer, wolf and black bear, among others.

In 2010, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack described his Vision for the Forest Service policy stating “restoring watershed and forest health would be the primary management objective of the Forest Service.” Due to the degraded state of the stream, the US Forest Service and partners moved to address the impaired conditions. As Greg Killinger, the Fish, Watershed, and Soils Program Manager on the Tongass National Forest, explains, “The Twelvemile restoration project is like a band-aid for the next forty to fifty years or more, holding the ecosystem together and keeping it productive until the young trees along Twelvemile Creek grow large enough to start regulating the system again.”

To maintain and improve stream function and habitat diversity, more than 600 trees, some with root wads still attached, were harvested from nearby areas (away from the recovering streamside forests) and flown by helicopter to staging sites along the stream. The use of a helicopter to transport the trees greatly minimized impacts to the recovering riparian forests. Most of the trees were “young growth” in order to preserve the remaining intact old growth in the watershed. From the staging areas, operators from Southeast Road Builders, Inc. (2012 work) and S&S General Contractors, Inc. (2013 work) used tracked excavators to place the wood and build logjam structures in the stream.

Craig District Ranger, Matthew Anderson, visited the scene during implementation and was impressed by the collaborative effort on the ground with The Nature Conservancy representative Norman Cohen, Forest Service hydrologist and fisheries biologist putting their minds together with the local contractors operating equipment and constructing logjams. “It was apparent during the 2013 hot, dry weather, when stream flows were critically low, that migrating salmon were utilizing pools developed with large wood additions during the 2012 restoration efforts,” said Anderson. “They were taking refuge there, and appeared to be crowding into these pools to survive the dry spell until flows increased and they could continue to migrate and spawn.”

The Tongass National Forest is truly a salmon stronghold, home to one of the most productive and sustainable salmon fisheries in the world. The Tongass is one of 155 national forests in the US, but it produces 70% of all salmon that spawn and rear on national forest lands. “When we invest in systems like Twelvemile that are at risk but still very productive, we make an investment that pays off: healthy salmon runs are economically, ecologically, and culturally important to Southeast Alaska,” said Cohen.

The work accomplished upgraded the rating of Twelvemile Creek watershed from a ‘Functional at Risk’ to a ‘Properly Functioning’ classification. The work benefits commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen as it provides insurance that the function of these salmon spawning grounds and rearing areas will persist. Improved wildlife habitat and available forage will benefit sport and subsistence hunters. Completion of these projects also contributed to local communities and economies since multiple contracts were required over several years to complete the work. Now that restoration work is complete, the Forest Service and the NFF are implementing extensive monitoring with local partners for the next several years. This monitoring will help to inform future habitat restoration projects.

Human Interest/Community Benefit: Watershed restoration provides benefits to local communities, including increased local employment, greater involvement in resource management by local organizations, and ultimately an increase in the quantity and stability of valued resources that are important to commercial (fishing), recreational, and subsistence lifestyles.

Randy Hagenstein, Alaska state director of The Nature Conservancy stressed, “Salmon are a way of life in Alaska, and restoring streams helps ensure our traditions continue for future generations.” Tying the project to the Economic Transition for Southeast Alaska, Hagenstein continued, “Restoration projects like this show how the transition toward sustainability now underway on the Tongass National Forest is good for fish and wildlife and provides jobs in rural communities.”

The Tongass National Forest collaborated with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) in 2012 and 2013 to conduct fisheries monitoring work (coho smolt trapping) on Twelvemile Creek. This activity will continue at least through 2015 and now involves a formal partnership with the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS). The primary operating funds were provided by NFF and the TNF. A key goal of the cooperative arrangement with SCS in 2014 and 2015 is to ‘significantly engage local youth in watershed monitoring activities.’ The specific objectives for the youth engagement goal are to 1) build local workforce capacity to engage in the growing habitat restoration economy, and 2) to provide on-the-ground restoration monitoring opportunities for local middle and high school students. Two to four local students will alternately work with SCS and TNF technicians and biologists to acquire hands-on fisheries experience and receive school credit.

National Forest Foundation: SCA Interns Monitoring Twelvemile Creek, Tongass National Forest -
(Spring of 2012, the NFF supported fish monitoring efforts in the Twelvemile Creek Watershed. Two SCA interns worked with Forest Service specialists to gather data to better understand restoration efforts at this Treasured Landscape)

Project Timeline:
2009 through 2011 - Project planning, design, and NEPA begins
2012 – Phase I In-stream restoration and large woody debris placement /restoration monitoring begins/ 40 acres riparian thinning completed
2013 - Phase I In-stream restoration and large woody debris placement/restoration monitoring continues/7.8 miles road storage and 1.6 miles road decommissioning completed
2014 – Fish passage culvert replacement contract awarded /Restoration monitoring continues
2015 – Fish passage culvert replacement work completed/Restoration monitoring continues

USFS Tongass National Forest, The Nature Conservancy, National Forest Foundation, the Student Conservation Association, and the Sitka Conservation Society. The project was funded by grants from these partners, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through the Tongass Keystone Initiative, Fish America Foundation, and the local communities through Title II funds for ecological restoration.

2014 Waters to Watch