by Mike Beacom
Eric Geisler admits that until recently he hadn’t given much thought to enlisting soil and water conservation districts as cooperators. “I’d worked with the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) following the Eagle Trail Fire, but that was in 2010,” said Geisler, the program lead for forestry in BLM’s Alaska State office.
In 2015, BLM’s Alaska State office entered into a pair of Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) agreements with a variety of objectives, including mine reclamation, streambank restoration, and fire rehabilitation.
Recruiting partners became a top priority. One SWCD board supervisor sold Geisler on the idea that conservation districts could help get the job done, so Geisler sent a note to all of the state’s soil and water conservation districts asking them to complete a skills inventory. He was pleased with what he heard.
“(GNA) allows us to target where we want the work to go based on the strength of the partners,” Geisler said.
What makes soil and water conservation districts strong GNA partners in Alaska? “It’s their ability to bring on the necessary resources, whether it’s hiring a consultant or staff or equipment, particularly for time-sensitive projects,” Geisler said.
Following the 2015 Prospect Fire, the nearby community wanted a winter road built by January 1, requiring hazardous tree removal along a two-mile stretch of road. The Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) put out a request for proposals in late fall. “Within a week there was a signed contract and the guy went to work,” Geisler said. “And it was done on time.”
Salcha-Delta SWCD also has agreements with BLM to rehabilitate a fire line, perform hazardous tree removal, and conduct a weed survey following recent fires. They recently completed a demonstration project on reclamation of a placer mining operation that involved an engineered stream realignment.
Other soil and water conservation districts have assisted BLM’s Alaska State office with GNA project work.
This past summer, Homer SWCD staff helped collect soil data to be used in conjunction with vegetation and ecological data for mine reclamation monitoring. “Our team used the newly developed monitoring protocol for the mine sites we visited, looking at vegetation coverage and species diversity, as well as sand, silt, and clay content in the topsoil and characterizing soil pits,” said Homer SWCD Natural Resource Technician Brad Casar. Data was collected on reclaimed sites and reference sites to compare reclaimed status to undisturbed areas.
In 2015, BLM cut a firebreak near a remote cabin to help protect it from wildfire. Since bare ground is an invitation to invasive weeds, it was a priority for BLM to get an approved seed mix on the open soil of the firebreak. This summer, BLM provided the appropriate seed mixture and Palmer SWCD provided the agronomic expertise, tools, and irrigation equipment. The firebreak was seeded and adequate soil moisture was ensured for germination. Palmer SWCD also helped BLM conduct a weed survey and prepare an invasive weed management plan.
The Fairbanks and Upper Susitna SWCDs have both responded to BLM’s request for proposals and could assist in future GNA project work.
Geisler admits there has been a learning curve in working with Alaska’s conservation districts, but the partnership is off to a strong start. “The work they’ve done has been good, quality work,” he said.