By Laurie Cooper
It’s go time in the Tongass National Forest as Alaska’s southern panhandle gears up for the 2014 travel season. Drawn by the region’s rich cultural and natural resources, nearly 70 percent of all Alaska visitors this summer will travel to Southeast Alaska making it the state’s top summer destination for tourists. Beginning in late April, residents will once again share their town and its backyard wilderness with just over 1 million visitors.
A must-see for most tourists is the Mendenhall Glacier, a natural wonder just 14 miles from downtown Juneau. As one of the most road-accessible glaciers in the world, Mendenhall tops the list as the most visited Forest Service site in Alaska. Surrounded by lush rainforest and towering mountains, the Mendenhall Glacier is part of a 5,800 acre recreational area managed by the Forest Service as part of the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.
“The Mendenhall offers world-class opportunities for our guests. They can experience a wide range of recreational activities within a dynamic and evolving landscape,” said Jeremy Gieser, director of tours and marketing with Gastineau Guiding Company, one 21 tourism companies permitted to operate at the glacier.
Unlike most recreation sites across the Tongass, most visitors will experience the Mendenhall Glacier via commercial tour operators like Gastineau Guiding Company. These companies rely on the Forest Service to maintain the recreational area while adapting to the evolving tourism market and visitor trends. But lately the Forest Service appears unable to keep pace and the Mendenhall is showing signs of wear and tear.
In the past 15 years, the number of visitors to Mendenhall has doubled and the expectation is that this trend will continue. The Forest Service anticipates hosting just over 440,000 visitors this summer at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and Interpretative site.
“The 2014 season looks to be strong,” said Kirby Day, manager of port operations and passenger logistics in Alaska for Princess Cruises. “And with more cruise passengers comes additional visitation at Mendenhall and pressure on the outdated and aging public facilities including the visitor center, trails, restrooms, and parking/staging areas.”
The Forest Service acknowledges that burgeoning demand is outpacing the agency’s available resources and its capacity to improve access, services and facilities at the glacier.
John Neary, Mendenhall Glacier visitor center director, said the current year budget is just enough to “keep the doors open.”
Beyond covering essential operational costs, the Forest Service’s budget for the Mendenhall is inadequate. The facility needs $800,000 in deferred maintenance for repairs to deteriorating rock walls, stairways and path systems, and roofing on structures; an estimated $8,000,000 for additional restrooms, bus and parking structures, trails and platforms for safe bear viewing, and restoration of salmon habitat; and $200,000 for programs and staffing to ensure safe bear viewing, adequate visitor management, and optimal interpretation.
In recent years, Forest Service investment in the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center programs and facilities has plummeted. Between 2013 and 2014, funding allocated from congressional appropriations was cut in half from $200,000 to just over $100,000 covering only 10 percent of the annual operating and maintenance budget. With the drop in federal investment, the Forest Service has increasingly relied on revenue collected from fees paid by businesses and visitors to cover basic costs. These funds are meant to be used to enhance facilities and services in order to provide visitors with a quality experience.
The decline of Forest Service investment in the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center parallels a sharp decrease in federal investment for recreation and visitor-related services across the Tongass. Since 2009, congressionally appropriated funding for Tongass recreation has dropped by nearly half. During the same general timeframe, Southeast Alaska’s visitor industry employment has increased by seven percent and employment income in this sector has seen a ten percent increase.
Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is a bucket-list destination for world travelers and their trips help propel the region’s economy. With 80 percent of the region’s land base in the Tongass National Forest, the visitor industry depends upon the Forest Service to be a strong and effective partner in delivering world-class experiences to their clients. If the partnership is to thrive, the funding problem at Mendenhall Glacier and across the region needs to be fixed. Any solution must include increasing congressional appropriations for the Tongass recreation program as well as finding ways to leverage additional resources through new partnerships and alternative funding sources.
Laurie Cooper is the Recreation and Tourism Liaison staffer for Trout Unlimited, Alaska Program.
Commercial fishermen and tribal leaders from Southeast Alaska are in Washington, D.C, this week. They’re there to press for U.S. State Department action to protect their region’s copius wild salmon runs, thriving tourism industry, and cultural resources from large-scale mine projects planned for neighboring British Columbia. Southeast Alaska is home to the lush, 17-million-acres Tongass National Forest.
Five big B.C. mines are proposed for development upstream from Southeast Alaska in watersheds that produce healthy and lucrative salmon runs. The group in D.C., carrying a letter signed by 40 organizations, tribes and individuals, says safeguards are currently lacking to ensure that Canadian mine development doesn’t harm one of Southeast Alaska’s main economic engines — salmon.
The mine projects are in a very bad location from a fishing standpoint. They sit in the headwaters of the Taku, Unuk and Stikine Rivers. These international rivers support important commercial, sport, and customary and traditional fisheries.
The Taku is typically Southeast Alaska’s single largest overall salmon producer. The Stikine is the second largest and the Unuk, which drains into Misty Fjords National Monunment, is one of the top four king salmon producers in the region. The Unuk’s eulachon run support an important customary and traditional fishery especially important to tribal members.
Salmon need clean water and pristine habitat to thrive, the group says. Pollution from upstream mining activity could not only directly harm salmon. It could jeopardize Alaska’s multi-million-dollar seafood and tourism marketing efforts.
“We cannot afford to sit quietly as these mines are being developed on an accelerated timeline. The risk of pollution in the form of acid mine drainage is very real, while the benefit of these mines to Alaska is basically zero. We are asking the Alaska delegation to see that the State Department protects our downstream interests and works with Canada to ensure this unique international salmon-producing region is not negatively impacted by industrial development,” said Brian Lynch, executive director of Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.
Read the letter the group sent to the Alaska congressional delegation and a news release.
by Rob A. Sanderson, Jr.
FOR THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
My grandmother who raised me taught me an important lesson — take care of the land and water, and it will take care of our present and future generations. I try to live by that principle every day. That’s why I’m speaking out about industrial developments happening near my home in Southeast Alaska. These developments are occurring across the border in Canada, but they have the potential to pollute Southeast Alaska rivers and harm our wild salmon.
There’s been a big push to open mines in northwest British Columbia. Over a dozen large mines are planned or in development in B.C. Five are located in salmon-producing watersheds that flow into Southeast Alaska. The B.C. and federal Canadian governments are aggressively promoting these regulations by relaxing environmental regulations and offering multimillion-dollar tax incentives to mining companies. I’m not against development. As a single father raising a teenage son, I understand the value of hard work to provide a better future for our children. As an Alaska Native and a fisherman, I know how critical our wild salmon are our culture, economy and future here in Southeast Alaska. I became aware of what’s happening in B.C. when Seabridge Gold showed up in Ketchikan in 2011. Seabridge held an open house to let residents know their plans to develop a massive gold and copper mine in the headwaters of the Unuk River, one of Southeast Alaska’s largest king salmon producers and a traditional and customary river for hooligan fishing.
What they are envisioning really frightened me. Seabridge is in the process of seeking permits to develop what could be the world’s largest gold mine. The proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) mine is located about 50 miles northwest of Hyder. It sits in the Canadian headwaters the Unuk, upriver from Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument. The KSM project calls for three large open pits, an underground mine and enormous dumps for billions of tons of acid-generating waste rock, called tailings.
Acid mine drainage, and its potential to leach heavy metals into Alaska’s waters, worries me. This toxic brew results when sulfide-bearing rock is exposed to air and water during the mining process. Most ore at KSM is known to generate acid, and although the developers say they can build a mine that won’t release any, I have my doubts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that mining has contaminated portions of over 40 percent of the watersheds in the western continental U.S.
KSM isn’t the only B.C. mine that threatens our region. Developers are planning three mines upriver from Wrangell in the Stikine River watershed. They’re called Galore Creek, Schaft Creek and Red Chris. All have the potential to pollute the Stikine, Southeast Alaska’s second-largest salmon producing river. Plans are in the works to reopen the Tulsequah Chief mine located in the Taku River watershed near Juneau. The Tulsequah Chief has been releasing acid mine drainage into the Taku since the mine closed in during the 1950s.
There is a lack of engagement by Alaska officials on this issue. We need our delegation in Congress to step up to the plate, listen to the growing concern among fishermen and tribal groups in Southeast, and get the U.S. State Department involved.
Even though these mines are located in Canada, this is our water, too. Several Southeast tribes including the Tlingit and Haida Central Council, Ketchikan Indian Community, Douglas Island Indian Association, Metlakatla Indian Community, City and Organized Village of Saxman, Organized Village of Kake, and a growing number of others are on record with statements of concern. It’s time for our voices to be heard in Washington, D.C.
Rob Sanderson, Jr. is the Second Vice President of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council.
The Juneau Empire recently published a guest editorial on the Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
The controversial old-growth sale is on hold pending a review of how the proposed logging would potentially impact wolf, deer and bear populations on the island.
Big Thorne is the largest timber sale on the Tongass since the era of industrial logging on the Tongass when two large pulp mills and several medium-sized sawmills operated in Southeast Alaska. Most of the mills closed in the 1990s and the U.S. Forest Service, which largely manages the 17-million-acre Tongass, has pledged to transition away from old-growth logging. But it’s been slow in doing so.
The Big Thorne sale would produce up to 150 million board feet of timber. It would involve logging more than 6,000 acres of old growth and more than 2,000 acres of second-growth forest in a part of the Tongass that has already experienced heavy timber harvest.
Big Thorne has been criticized by conservation, fishing and sportsmens groups, including Trout Unlimited.
”Big Thorne, as it stands now, is a huge step backwards for the Tongass. Southeast Alaska’s economy revolves around fishing and tourism and this large timber sale directly threatens the jobs and revenue those industries produce. It makes no sense from an economic or ecological standpoint,” said Austin Williams, Trout Unlimited’s Forest Program Manager.
Read the Empire editorial by Emily Mount, a naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic and former Glacier Bay National Park ranger.
By David Clark and Brad Elfers
Sen. Mark Begich is in town this weekend, and we hope he’s reading the Juneau Empire. Fishermen have a lot at stake in Southeast Alaska, and growing numbers of us are greatly concerned about mining activity on the Canadian side of the border, upstream of our major fisheries.
Southeast is among the world’s best places for fishing, whether sport, commercial, subsistence or personal use. The fish we target are healthy, abundant and within close reach.
The 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest is a rugged nursery that sustains our fisheries, and for the third year in a row Southeast has been Alaska’s most lucrative region for commercial salmon fishing. On an annual basis, salmon contribute about $1 billion to the local economy and provide jobs for over 7,000 people, with sport, charter and personal use fishing accounting for about a third of the dollar value and employment.
In 2013, the Southeast commercial harvest exceeded 100 million salmon for the first time, and the catch value was nearly $220 million at the docks. As you can see, we have a lot to lose from ill effects of upstream activity in northern British Columbia. We need our Congressional delegates to engage on this issue.
Construction of the Northwest Transmission Line has enabled a dozen or so industrial-sized mining projects to move forward in the headwaters of major salmon-producing rivers that flow into Southeast Alaska. These developments are located on transboundary rivers that we depend upon for salmon. These Canadian mines would employ few, if any, Alaskans and have the potential to degrade the water quality and spawning habitat of these rivers.
Here is a glimpse of the cross-border activity our waterways would be subjected to:
• The proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) gold-copper mine located in the headwaters of the Unuk River which flows into Southeast Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument. This mine plan calls for three large open pits, an underground mine, an enormous tailings dump and large waste rock containments that will fill two valleys and contain billions of tons of acid-generating rock.
• The reopening of the Tulsequah Chief mine, located on the Tulsequah River just upstream of its confluence with the Taku River. The Taku is Southeast Alaska’s biggest salmon producer.
• The proposed Galore Creek mine, located on Galore Creek, which flows into the Scud River, a salmon-producing tributary of the Stikine River. Emptying out at Wrangell, the Stikine is a huge salmon-producing river for Alaskans. Tailings from Galore Creek would be submerged in Round Lake, which drains into the Iskut River, the Stikine’s major tributary.
• The proposed Schaft Creek mine located between Schaft Creek and Mess Creek, a tributary of the Stikine River. Mining the deposit would generate 100 million tons of waste rock in an area with extremely high seasonal water flow.
• The Red Chris mine near the headwater lakes of the Iskut River. Several hundred million tons of tailings and waste rock would be submerged in Black Lake, which drains into the Iskut River.
Each of these developments has the potential to release acid mine drainage, which can kill fish. At this point, there is little dialogue occurring between Canada and the United States, there is little policy in place to protect Alaskan waters and we are not being consulted as these B.C. mines move forward. We look to our elected leaders to use their leverage and negotiate protections for our livelihoods and the cornerstone of our economy.
Our Alaska congressional delegation has a critical role to play in this matter and we need Sen. Begich, Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Young to raise the alarm with the U.S. State Department. High-level officials need to initiate talks with Canada and use whatever means possible to ensure Alaska’s interests are protected.
Canadian concerns end at the border, but the rivers know no borders and neither do the fish. If you value fish, please help spread the word and urge our congressional delegates to take action.
This guest editorial originally appeared in the Juneau Empire on March 2, 2014.
David Clark lives in Juneau, is the founder of the Commercial Fishing Film Festival and has commercially fished in Southeast Alaska for 17 years. Brad Elfers has owned Alaska Fly Fishing Goods in Juneau for over 15 years