Definition: watershed productivity

Productivity is defined by ecologists as the rate of production (e.g. grams per
year) of some component of the community such as the biomass of vegetation.
When referring to “productive” SE watersheds, we employ a market-weighted bias that might gloss over some other ecologically important kinds of productivity.
In terms of annual tonnage, timber and salmon far outweigh all other Southeast commodities. We define productive watersheds, as those that–relative to their biogeographic province–rapidly grow very large trees and associated fauna, and/or host exceptional runs of salmon. This kind of productivity often appears to spring from the nature of underlying bedrock, with carbonate rocks at the rich end, and granitics toward the lean end of the spectrum.

But, as ecologist Mary Willson points out, it’s important to be clear that timber or fish productivity

doesn’t translate directly into productivity of anything else, because habitat structure and exposure and plant defensive compounds and a zillion other things may regulate other community components.”

For example, shrub production is often inversely proportional to forest canopy production. So it could be there’s higher production of some shrub-nesting birds and blueberry parasites in the types of scrubby-forest watersheds we’ve defined [in the 2005 summary report] as “less productive.” Diversity within many taxa (e.g. bryophytes) is also probably higher in our “less productive” watersheds.

Even more relevant (and confounding) for this essay; some conditions that are
productive of certain fish species need not be productive of forests. Anan Creek
watershed has extraordinary pink salmon productivity but almost zero large-tree forest. The entire watershed is mapped as granitic. Evidently, this relatively sterile parent rock is a deal-breaker for tree production, but not for a fish that barely feeds in the freshwater portion of its life cycle. Anan’s pink productivity may have less to do with in-stream fish food than with flow-stabilization provided by the many lakes in the system.

Still, for better or worse, timber and salmon productivity tend to go
together in most watersheds. Since our greatest large-tree forests have mostly
been cut, the best single indicator of watershed productivity is probably the province ranking for pink and chum salmon. Sadly, an even more reliable productivity index is percent loss of productive old growth (POG) and large-tree forest.

The good news is that productivity and resilience tend to go hand-in-hand.
This makes many ‘hammered gem watersheds’ guaranteed long-term payoffs, given the expected volatility in nature’s “market:” i.e. the impacts of global warming and the like.


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Fall 2001 Newsletter, Off Trail

Our Fall 2001 newsletter includes an article by Steve Merli exploring the benefits of going off trail with kids, and an essay by Richard Carstensen on how Southeast Alaska ranks compared to neighboring ecoregions.

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Hotspots: Bird Survey of Mendenhall Wetlands (April 2002 to May 2003)

This report is the culmination of eighteen bird surveys conducted in the Mendenhall Wetlands, an area widely recognized as an important habitat for migrating birds.  The survey results are complimented by GIS maps, graphs, and extensive habitat descriptions.  Looking towards the future, this report also addresses concerns about habitat use and destruction in the Wetlands.

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Landmark Trees Project – Kake

This is an interpretive guide for the Hamilton Forest, a landmark tree area near Kake.  You will find descriptions of individual trees, a list of plant species, a brief natural history of the region, maps, diagrams, and more.

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Landmark Trees Project – Sitka

This Landmark Trees project report from Sitka, AK covers the Gavan Forest.  Part one of the report is a tree-by-tree description of the forest, and part two gives context for big tree forests across the region.

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The Mendenhall Wetlands: a globally recognized Important Bird Area

The Mendenhall Wetlands have long been recognized as an important habitat for a large variety of birds.  This book provides an exhaustive picture of this federally recognized “Important Bird Area.”  It begins with a brief history of how the wetlands came to fall under environmental protection, and goes on to describe the birds that call the area home. You’ll also find information on vegetation, mammals, invertebrates, and ecological interactions in the wetlands.  The pages are complimented by wonderful color photographs of birds.

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Wildlife “Out the Road”

This is a report from Richard Carstensen  to the Southeast Alaska Land Trust on habitats and wildlife use of glacially-rebounding valleys from 25 to 28-mile Glacier Highway in Juneau. They call this area “risen valleys,” and in the report you can trace animal use and habitat descriptions for this remarkable portion of Southeast Alaska. This report contains extensive habitat descriptions, photographs, and animal descriptions.

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