Short, brilliant pink flowers with vibrant green vegetation lines a river bank with green spruce trees and foothills in the distance.

Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative

The Department of the Interior is investing funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to improve the resilience of ecosystems and salmon in Alaska’s Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound region as part of the Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative. This initiative is multi-million-dollar investment Gravel to Gravel, made up of three elements:

  • Investments to improve resiliency of Pacific salmon
  • Renewed commitment to strengthening relationships through co-stewardship
  • Responding to ecosystem threats to food security.  

While the BLM is working across all three elements of Gravel to Gravel, we are heavily focused on improving watershed resiliency through assessment and restoration. And we, in the Bureau of Land Management, are doing what we can where we can with the provided funding to make a positive and significant impact for the communities and ecosystems of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Norton Sound region. 

Salmon life begins and ends in gravel

Every year, a new generation of Pacific salmon returns from the sea to spawn in the freshwater where their ancestors did the same.  Females grind their tails into the gravel, hoping their nests, and the eggs within, will withstand the scour of ice and spring floods. The gravel is home, where life begins and ends. Gravel moves towards sea like the young salmon do, and the river’s constant movement across the floodplain over the ages will bring more gravel, but the salmon have failed to return in their historic number. Gravel to Gravel aims to restore impacted areas to improve watershed health and resiliency, especially in areas with current or potential Pacific salmon habitat.  

The region

Since time immemorial, this region has sustained people, fish, birds, and other wildlife, which supported strong and resilient communities and ways of life. Traditional foods — including salmon, caribou, moose, and migratory birds — have been vital to food security and Indigenous cultures for the more than 100 Tribes who have stewarded the region’s lands and set up fish camps in its watersheds for thousands of years. In recent years, these communities and the ecosystems they depend upon have suffered as climate change is impacting the Arctic four times faster than other parts of North America.

One stark example of these impacts is the decline of Pacific salmon populations, leading to subsistence salmon fishing closures and empty smokehouses for people who have relied on salmon for more than 10,000 years.

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 ecosystem changes, their impacts on communities and cultures, and the need for immediate and lasting “gravel to gravel” action by the federal government. 

To answer these calls the Department—coordinated through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management — has partnered with Tribes, Indigenous leaders, the State of Alaska, other agencies, and community partners to launch Gravel to Gravel projects. These projects will invest in clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, cultural resources and open spaces to benefit all people, wildlife and local economies for generations to come.  Federal agencies, Tribes, and others will work together to build a strong foundation for co-stewardship, where both Indigenous Knowledge and western science play important parts in the support of resilient ecosystems and communities in the region through the Gravel to Gravel Initiative.

Urgency

The Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative for 36 million acres of the 69 million acres that we manage will make immediate investments in the foundational science and projects needed to respond to the salmon crisis and invests in projects to heal the broader ecosystem. The initiative ensures that we build a framework that is robust, resilient and durable well into the future. The ecosystem restoration efforts must have tangible and measurable improvements in biodiversity and functioning ecosystems on a landscape scale. And finally, that our efforts provide just and equitable benefits to communities and people, and that those efforts are consistent with the requirements of the law(s).

BLM's role in the Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative

Expanded Habitat Assessment

The BLM is focused on expanding stream habitat assessments across the entire region to create a network of hundreds of permanent monitoring sites. We will leverage BLM’s National Aquatic Monitoring Framework to move beyond BLM lands and create a network of long-term habitat monitoring sites across the region. Data collected from healthy streams would be used to describe the range of habitat conditions for streams across the large study area. In addition, the information would be used to assess stream sections degraded by past human activity and help prioritize restoration needs across the region. Additional data would also be collected based on input from regional partners and could include the collection of water and sediment samples, fish inventory, invasive species assessments, and surveyed channel cross sections. BLM’s rigorous training program, public data portal, and data analysis tools will help empower stakeholders across the region and help shape strategic investments in restoration as additional BIL and IRA funding becomes available.  

This inventory project would be implemented in partnership with the State of Alaska and Tribes under the Good Neighbor Authority beginning in 2024 using an initial $1M allocation with similar funding levels from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act expected annually. 

More information about BLM Alaska's work to expand habitat assessments across the Gravel to Gravel region can be found here.

A more in-depth overview of BLM Alaska's stream habitat assessment program can be found here

Restoration of Degraded Streams

BLM will continue efforts to restore impacted streams in the upper Yukon River within Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) Restoration Landscapes. As priority restoration needs emerge across the region, BLM will provide support and expertise to help formulate and implement stream restoration plans.  

The upper Yukon River has been the focus of applied research and the application of new stream restoration techniques since 2013. To date, several completed projects led to the creation of stream restoration datasets to improve project success across the region and the publication of an interagency Stream Design Guide

Restoration work was completed on Wade and Nome creeks in 2023 and efforts are expected to continue in 2024 and over the next several years. These watersheds, like many watersheds in the region, were the focus of the Alaska gold rush in the mid-1800s to early 1900s. This period ushered in hundreds of industrious individuals seeking to strike it rich, but it also created significant impacts to many of the streams given the removal of vegetation, rerouting of water, and erosion of soils from the placer mining practices of the time.  

Alaska’s slow growing season, winter breakup events that scour away newly established vegetation, and repeated mining activities prior to restorative environmental laws resulted in slow habitat recovery in these areas. BLM’s current efforts seek to accelerate the improvement of watershed health through deliberate restoration actions.  

Over the next decade, the BLM plans to invest millions of dollars within these IRA Restoration Landscapes and other priority areas to improve miles of stream habitats. These improvements will enhance fish habitats, improve water quality, and boost overall watershed health across the Norton Sound - Yukon - Kuskokwim region. 

Streamlining Riverscape Restoration

The BLM is developing a programmatic National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document  to guide future aquatic and riparian habitat restoration activities on BLM-administered lands in Alaska. This effort’s goal will increase the pace and scale of these restoration projects to address legacy impacts from historic land use practices, many of which occurred in the late 1800s to mid-1900s.    

The BLM’s proposed activities would occur on up to five miles of stream and associated habitats annually across the proposed project planning area. Actions being considered include in-stream and floodplain enhancements (pond, lake, and wetland restoration), including the addition of large woody debris and other in-stream structures; streambank enhancement; head-cut stabilization; restored channel alignment; and plantings and vegetation treatments.  

Invasive Species Management

Invasive species, such as Elodea, present a significant risk to salmon streams.  Early detection and rapid response to invasive species in Alaska is critical to reducing these risks in Alaska ensuring the resiliency of our aquatic ecosystems. Aquatic invasive species such as Elodea present a significant risk to salmon streams since this plant effects the quality of habitat for juvenile salmon and as a result could lead to population-level impacts on salmon returns. Invasive species within the riparian and wetland plant community also pose impacts to the health of our riverscapes. Ensuring that invasive species do not keep established requires a strong commitment to invasive species inventories and being responsive once infestations are detected. Beginning in 2024, BLM’s partnership with the Soil and Water Conservation District will be expanded to include the inventory, and potentially some high-priority control, within several Wild and Scenic River units. The development of an invasive species management plan is also planned for 2024. 

Co-stewardship and Ecosystem Threats to Food Security

Though our initial focus is related to investments in Pacific salmon resiliency, we are also renewing our commitment to strengthening relationships through co-stewardship opportunities. We're also seeking enhanced funding for Alaska Native Tribes and ANCSA corporations through federal grants that specifically focus on Assessment, Inventory and Monitoring projects to continue the use of applied research and science in areas that are frequently disturbed and have limited resources.

Current partners

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 invasive species 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. Learn more with the Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative Factsheet.pdf