Alaska is a place that is ruled by seasons and cycles that get fairly predictable after you go through them a few times. We harvest fish, berries and our gardens in the summer, hunt and chop wood in the fall, do various forms of sledding or skiing, take vacations or hibernate in the winter and get ready to do it all over again the spring.
Alaska is also comprised of mostly federal land, some 219,000,000 acres or almost 70 percent of its total land area. Many of these lands are iconic places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Denali National Park and the Tongass National Forest—places well known as national treasures. What is likely far less known outside of Alaska is how frequently Alaskan politicians attempt to raid these treasures. I haven’t kept track of the actual number myself but it seems a plan to do just that gets hatched about every two years up here.
The genesis of these plans follows a predictable cycle of its own. Even though Alaska receives more federal dollars per capita than any other state, many Alaska politicians get elected on platforms that include loud but vague anti-federal agendas— like “Keep the feds out!” or “Let Alaskans run Alaska!” Next they add in some unsustainable resource extraction, like what went on during almost 50 years of industrial-scale logging on the Tongass, leaving a private industry in a quandary as to its next move. Then some politician, full of anti-fed rhetoric, will typically swoop in with a proposal to rescue the failed industry by proposing to take federal lands from those nasty people in Washington D.C. (and all us taxpayers) and put them under state ownership, thereby righting the injustice, oppression and tyranny the mere existence of federal lands represents to all true Alaskans.
There’s usually a day or two of factional chest-pounding when these resolutions get introduced in our legislature but that fades quickly as folks remember it’s really up to the U.S. Congress to decide how to manage federal public lands. State Senator Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) probably knows that as well as anyone but it hasn’t stopped him from recently introducing Senate Concurrent Resolution 2 which calls for the transfer of Tongass National Forest lands to the State of Alaska so they can be logged by private companies.
The days are finally starting to get noticeably longer up here now and yet another federal land grab has been proposed in our legislature. Alaska’s seasons and cycles continue but some cycles are best recognized for what they are: silly ideas that may score the odd political point up here but will go nowhere in Congress.
Read a media story about Sen. Stedman’s resolution.
Of all the salmon species in Alaska, the king salmon is the most highly regarded. Folks come to Alaska from all over the world for a chance to catch a king on sport tackle, and every year the Southeast commercial troll fleet gears up for the short but intense opener to harvest these valuable fish. The largest of the Pacific salmon, the king attained historical weights approaching triple figures and is considered the sport angler’s prize fish, renowned for its fighting ability and unsurpassed as table fare. For the commercial fisherman, they represent the most value-per-pound of all the Pacific salmon and the fish most folks identify as the symbol of Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The least populous of all the salmon species in Alaska, the king is now facing troubling times as statewide productivity is decreasing and opportunities for both sport and commercial catch of kings are being restricted.
King salmon have very specific spawning requirements, and they favor larger, deeper rivers with large gravel and consistent winter flows. Since most of the rivers and streams in Southeast Alaska are relatively small and fairly short, kings are found in only a handful of the larger rivers, most of them on the mainland coast. The bulk of the Southeast Alaska king salmon population spawns in 4 large trans-boundary rivers – the Taku, Stikine, Alsek, and Unuk rivers. These rivers have a total annual run of about 140,000 king salmon, or about 80% of all the spawning kings in Southeast Alaska, and have shown disturbing downward population trends for the past decade or so for reasons unknown.
“Patterns of Chinook salmon productivity and abundance generally have varied over time and among different areas of Alaska. However, recent declines in productivity, abundance, and inshore harvests appear widespread and persistent throughout Alaska.” (Chinook Salmon Stock Assessment Plan, 2013, ADF&G) As if this observation from ADF&G wasn’t enough, the state fish of Alaska is now facing yet another threat in the form of ramped-up mining activity in the trans-boundary watershed basins of Southeast Alaska. A major mining boom in northwest British Columbia (B.C.), combined with B.C.’s reduced environmental safeguards and a lack of engagement from the U.S. and Alaska, poses significant risks to downstream fisheries, water quality and livelihoods in Southeast Alaska. This development is occurring under permitting processes and environmental regulations less rigorous than those in the U.S., and has the potential to negatively impact the spawning and rearing habitat of these major king salmon producing systems.
The US and the state of Alaska have spent several decades and millions upon millions of dollars to responsibly manage and conserve king salmon populations in Southeast Alaska, and will no doubt be spending millions more in the coming years in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the factors that affect king salmon productivity. The potential negative impacts of loosely regulated mining activity on the trans-boundary watersheds of Southeast Alaska could negate these years of work and millions of dollars spent – do we really want to take that chance? Can we afford to lose the king salmon economy of Southeast Alaska?
The America’s Salmon Forest Coalition along with Rivers Without Borders and several sport and commercial fishing organizations are asking Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Representative Don Young to request that the State Department engage with Canadian officials on this matter. It is critical to ensure that salmon habitat and communities in Southeast Alaska downstream from large B.C. mines do not suffer the ill effects of mine pollution entering trans-boundary waterways. As the kings that spawn in Southeast Alaska’s trans-boundary watersheds make their way in from the ocean, they provide harvest opportunities all along their migration routes for sport and commercial use alike. With the future of Alaska king salmon growing more uncertain every year, we can ill afford to lose the limited opportunities that we currently have.
If you would like to add your voice to the growing number of folks asking for the guidance and leadership of our Alaska legislators, visit www.salmonbeyondborders.org and sign the online petition.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski lambasted the head the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, today during an oversight hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Her chief complaint, as usual, is what she perceives as a lack of old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska’s 17-million-acre temperate rainforest, a place that produces tens of millions of wild salmon and trout every year.
“Providing the Forest Service with a clear timber harvest management mandate is a key part of getting us back on track,” Murkowski said. “In Alaska, we need to do more because the reinstatement of the roadless rule is crippling our communities in Southeast. I believe we need to repeal the rule, but at the very least the Forest Service must provide flexibility in how it applies the rule in the Tongass.”
She was referring to a 2013 court decision allowing a Clinton administration-era regulation restricting road building in roadless parts of national forests to be applied to the Tongass. The Southeast Alaska forest – the country’s largest national forest and its biggest producer of wild salmon — had previously been exempted. The roadless rule protects intact fish and wildlife habitat. The Forest Service has announced plans to transition away from logging old growth and is developing plans to cut second-growth timber.
“Second growth timber is accessible from existing roads in areas not covered by the roadless rule so it’s peculiar that the senator would see repealing the rule as a necessity,” said Austin Williams, TU’s Alaska Forest Program Director.
Williams went on to say Murkowski’s remarks about Southeast Alaska’s economic condition belie realities on the ground. He cited, among other things, a report last summer by the Southeast Conference, a business trade group based in Juneau, indicating that Southeast Alaska has more residents – and more jobs – than ever before and that the region has recovered from the 1990’s logging industry crash.
The Southeast Conference noted that nearly every single economic indicator in the region is up and continuing to rise.
“The Southeast Alaska economy is now in a cycle of growth and is stronger than ever,” Meilani Schijvens, the report’s main author, told CoastAlaska public radio.
Rather than pushing for more logging, Murkowski should be encouraging the Forest Service to invest more in Southeast Alaska’s key industries – fishing and tourism, Williams said.
A Canadian First Nation is suing to stop the reopening of the Tulsequah Chief mine, located in the Taku River watershed about 40 miles north of Juneau.
The Taku River Tlingit First Nation filed the lawsuit against British Columbia’s environment minister, Environmental Assessment Office and Chieftain Metals Inc., the company seeking to reopen the 1950s-era mine. The Taku River Tlingit are seeking to void the environmental permit issued to the mine in 2002, arguing that it is outdated and also that they were not properly consulted about plans to restart operations at Tulsequah Chief.
The permit, known as an environmental certificate, originally went to Redfern Resources, the prior owner of Tulsequah Chief. But when Redfern went bankrupt, Chieftan Metals took over the permit when it assumed ownership of the mine four years ago. Chieftan has been trying to raise money to restart the defunct mine since then.
Tulsequah Chief has been releasing acid mine drainage into a tributary of the Taku River for some 60 years.
Read more and listen to a radio story about the lawsuit.
Coho, pink and chum salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout, and Dolly Varden char are benefiting from a recently completed restoration project on the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. Sitka black-tailed deer, wolves and black bears also stand to gain from habitat improvements in a watershed called Twelvemile Creek.
Twelvemile is located on Prince of Wales Island, near Ketchikan. During an era of large-scale logging before modern timber regulations and laws were enacted, Twelvemile, like other easy-to-access river valleys, was hit hard by chainsaws and the construction of logging roads. Loggers downed old-growth trees right up to the banks, destroying important spawning and rearing habitat. Most large wood in Twelvemile prior to logging had decayed and flushed out of the creek, limiting the amount of pooling habitat salmon and trout need to survive and reproduce.
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 of the Tongass that would benefit from restoration efforts used previously to successfully improve habitat in watersheds including Harris River, Staney Creek, Sal Creek, and Snipe Creek.
The restoration project included thinning of young-growth tree stands to make the forest for accessible for wildlife. It also involved improving fish crossings and road conditions, and concluded with in-stream channel work in the summer of 2013.
Matthew Anderson, a district ranger on the Tongass, said the effort is definitely paying off.
“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 National Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Forest Service on the project.
The Tongass is the largest of the country’s 155 national forests. It produces 70 percent of all salmon that spawn and rear on national forest lands in the U.S.