The gravel is home, where life begins and ends
Set in motion at birth, the fate of Pacific salmon fulfills like clockwork: each year a new generation returns from sea to spawn where their ancestors’ lives began. Females grind their tails into the gravel, hoping their nests, and the eggs within, will withstand the scour of ice and spring floods. Many do — this gravel is home, where life begins and ends. As baby salmon grow up and move, migrating out to sea, the sediment too is kicked and swept up, traveling with them. But the river’s constant movement across the floodplain is a renewing force. Over the ages, the riverbed replenishes with gravel, offering the salmon who return a healthy place to continue their cyclical lifeways.
Our state's heartbeat
These awe-inspiring journeys are experienced all over Alaska, though perhaps no more vividly than in the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Norton Sound region — sometimes referred to as the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim, or AYK — a massive geographic area covering 419,274 square miles.
The AYK region comprises the 1,980-mile Yukon River (the longest river in Alaska and the third-longest in the United States) and the Kuskokwim River, which flows for 702 miles. Every river, stream, and channel that empty into the Bering and Chukchi Seas are encompassed within the AYK, as are 10 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Region’s 16 total National Wildlife Refuges.
Alaska Native peoples living in this region include Iñupiat, Yupik, and Dene’ (Athabascan). Since time immemorial, more than 100 Tribes have and continue to steward these lands and set up fish camps in these watersheds. Traditional foods in the region include salmon, caribou, moose, and migratory birds — harvests which continue to be vital to food security, sovereignty, spirituality, subsistence lifeways, and Indigenous cultural practices.
For Alaska’s people, fish, birds, and other wildlife, the AYK region supports and represents strong, resilient community.
Empty smokehouses, and a call to action
In recent years, these communities and the ecosystems they depend upon have suffered. Subsistence salmon fishing closures and empty smokehouses for people who have relied on salmon for more than 10,000 years are becoming a more common experience. Climate change is impacting the Arctic four times faster than other parts of North America.
In recent consultations, congressional field hearings, and other forums, Department of the Interior leaders heard directly from Alaska Native Tribes and subsistence users about these changes, their impacts on communities and cultures, and the need for immediate and lasting “gravel to gravel” action by the federal government.
Answering the call
The Department of the Interior — coordinated through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — is partnering with Tribes, Indigenous leaders, other agencies, and community partners to launch the Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative. The effort is designed to enhance the resilience of the region’s ecosystems and communities through transformational federal, philanthropic, and other investments.
Over the next four years, investments from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other sources will be made into the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Norton Sound region to improve its ecosystem and salmon resiliency.
Federal agencies, Tribes, and others will work together to build a strong foundation for co-stewardship, where both Indigenous Knowledge and western science inform plans for collective action to support resilient ecosystems and communities in the region. Gravel to Gravel will also make immediate investments in the foundational science and projects needed to respond to the salmon crisis, while simultaneously investing in projects to heal the broader ecosystem.
Each Gravel to Gravel project is shaped and guided by at least one of the following goals:
USFWS's role in the Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative
With Gravel to Gravel investments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is actively supporting and funding a variety of projects that will ensure safe, resilient, and equitable futures for our people, salmon, land, and waters. We are working to shape this Initiative with local and regional partners, including the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Association of Village Council Presidents, Kawerak, Inc., the Kuskokwim Intertribal Fish Commission, the Yukon River Intertribal Fish Commission, the Bureau of Land Management, USGS, National Park Service, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, State of Alaska, and nonprofit partners like Trout Unlimited.
Importantly, the initiative is not a one-and-done effort. Gravel to Gravel-funded projects will build upon previous work and partnerships, while catalyzing the future of our service in Alaska – leveraging new funding, and strengthening fresh relationships, as we continue our work in serving Alaska’s people, ecosystems, and wildlife.
Just as the life cycles of Pacific salmon are interconnected with past and future generations, so too is Gravel to Gravel one important part of an ongoing story in Alaska.
Our projects hope to:
Invest in Co-stewardship with Tribes in the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Norton Sound Region: Gravel to Gravel’s investments in co-stewardship — Tribes and DOI working together — is necessary to: 1) strengthen existing conservation and management activities to sustain salmon and other natural resources; 2) give greater voice to Tribes in the conservation decisions and research affecting subsistence resources; 3) pool resources and expertise, using both Indigenous Knowledge and western science, to implement priority fish and wildlife habitat assessment, monitoring, and restoration activities; and 4) take collective action to ensure resiliency of the freshwater ecosystems of this region. Funds allocated under this project will be co-designed and implemented with Tribes. Tribal consortia are currently identifying efforts to prioritize.
Restore Degraded Streams: Restoration work is planned to improve and restore historic channels impacted or abandoned as a result of past development, including 20th century mining operations. The service will be reestablishing natural hydrologic conditions in Cripple Creek and other streams and rivers – including the Salcha and Chena Rivers, historic Chinook salmon spawning grounds – which comprise the Yukon River ecosystem.
Expand Habitat Assessments and Practices: Annual Chinook and Chum salmon harvests are essential for the livelihoods of the 76 small, rural villages within the ~330,000 square mile Yukon River ecosystem. But over the past few decades these harvests have declined, and in some places, failed completely. With Gravel to Gravel investments, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association (YRDFA), in coordination with BLM, with work directly with river communities to complete first-of-their-kind comprehensive salmon run assessments that incorporate Indigenous Knowledge and result in a watershed ecosystem action plan (WEAP).
Replenish Native Vegetation: The health of Pacific salmon is directly tied to riparian vegetation, which keep streams cool and offer places for fish to rest, spawn, and grow. Where the Yukon River flows through Ruby, Alaska, YRDFA-partnered projects will replant and restore riparian flora using native vegetation and seed mixes. By reconnecting streams, floodplains, and wetlands habitat, the service will ensure the long-term viability of the restored vegetation, thereby improving population success and abundance for Pacific Salmon, upon which local and Indigenous people rely for food security and culture. This project will also be the first of its kind in Ruby and will provide a model for implementation of high priority restoration actions throughout the Yukon identified by the initiative-funded WEAP.
Study Salmon Productivity, Health, and Survival: Additional research opportunities, in partnership with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and others, include the Kuskokwim River Smolt Out-Migration Partner Project and annual in-season management and fishery monitoring. Other efforts include an ichthyophonus disease impact study on the Yukon River, and a pilot Southern Bering Sea survey to better understand marine juvenile salmon survival and ecology.
Gravel To Gravel is a focused effort in Alaska to support the Department of the Interior's Keystone Initiatives - projects that promote coastal resilience and climate adaptation, address threats, and provide for additional data collection needed to support successful natural resource resilience. The restoration and resilience framework plan is to leverage historic investments in climate and conservation to achieve landscape-level outcomes.