As a resident of Sitka, in southeast Alaska, I’ve worked in the local commercial fishing industry on and off for the past 17 years. This summer I’ll go out on the boat once more, in search of salmon, which have become one of the drivers of the region’s economic recovery.
This year, though, the fishing fleet in southeast Alaska will work under the shadow of an announcement by the United States Forest Service that it intends to approve the Big Thorne timber sale, which would allow the logging industry to harvest about 6,200 acres of remnant old-growth trees in Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest remaining temperate rain forest. It would be the most destructive old-growth cut in the forest in the past 20 years.
The salmon need those trees to spawn. This means we need those trees.
Here’s how a salmon forest works. In a healthy system, the old-growth western hemlock and Sitka spruce provide a moderating influence for the stream environment; large trees along the banks help cool water in the summer and warm it in the winter. The forested hillsides absorb rainfall and snow melt, ensuring a steady flow of current for the hatching and spawning fish.
But when timber companies arrive, punching in their roads and clear-cutting, gone are the trees and root wads that create a diverse stream environment. Now the water runs in flash floods down the bare hillsides, washing away the fish eggs and silting up the spawning grounds.
It’s sad, and it’s bad business. Fishing — and tourism — are directly responsible for the recovering economy in southeast Alaska. Jobs and people trickled away for 10 years, from 1997 to 2007. But in the past two years alone, 1,800 new jobs were created, largely because of good fishing. Population in the southeast is at an all-time high, with more than 74,000 residents, and employment increased by 10 percent over the two-year period from 2010 to 2012.
Last year, the salmon harvest set a record at 272 million fish. (Juiced up on coffee and peanut butter bars, my skipper and I caught about 25,000 of these.) That’s good business, and the fishery, managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has proved sustainable.
But the Forest Service, buffeted by lobbying pressures and subject to a 1990 Congressional mandate to seek to meet demand for Tongass timber, is stuck in an outdated “get out the cut” mind-set that made sense back when timber was southeast Alaska’s economic backbone. The era of clear-cutting old-growth stands, however, is over. Once accounting for some 3,500 jobs, timber now provides fewer than 300 jobs a year. This includes sawmills, logging, logging support and wood-product manufacturing. At one point, pulp mills and sawmills hummed away throughout southeast Alaska. Now only one major sawmill remains.
Today, the Tongass National Forest — at 17 million acres the largest national forest in the country — produces exponentially more value in fish than it does in timber. Salmon alone generate nearly a billion dollars. As for logging, it actually costs taxpayers more than $20 million annually for timber programs and logging roads, even after timber sales receipts are taken into account.
To be clear, I’m not anti-logging. The harvesting of young growth and second growth could play an important role in Southeast’s recovery. But when the Forest Service makes a timber sale, it’s geared toward larger, out-of-town companies that can exit the state quickly. Small-scale local operations can’t afford the large tracts the Forest Service makes available, nor do they have the equipment to complete the cut by the required deadline.
In more depressing news for the local economy, in February the Forest Service released a newsletter that concluded that as a result of a 42 percent cut in funding in the past five years, it can “no longer maintain” the current recreation and trail infrastructure and must reduce its inventory.
There goes the tourism.
The Forest Service itself has identified more than $100 million in unmet “watershed restoration work” (Forest Service-speak for “we really jammed this stream up good and should probably do something about it”). The agency has estimated that it will take more than 50 years to redress the problems logging in the Tongass has already caused wild salmon.
Here’s a crazy idea: Instead of prioritizing large-scale timber sales, what if the Forest Service protected the Tongass? What if it joined up with local groups like the Sitka Conservation Society and became a willing partner in aggressive stream restoration and cabin and trail maintenance? Salmon would have their spawning grounds, and tourists who come to Alaska to see one of the last wild places on earth wouldn’t find in its place a moonscape.
In a few weeks I’ll pack my dry-bag with my fishing bibs and ratty Carhartts and sweatshirt with the cuffs lopped off, whistle the dog onto a salmon troller named Saturday and head out with my skipper into the open waters. Word is it’s already shaping up to be a good summer.
But if we get down to Prince of Wales Island, near those 6,200 acres of spruce and hemlock slated to be cut, I’ll want to spend an afternoon following those majestic salmon upstream, right up to where they lay their eggs, in the shadows of those ancient trees. And I’ll be thinking about the narrator in Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” observing fish in a stream: “On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.”
I hope the Forest Service chooses to become a partner in Southeast Alaska’s economic and ecological restoration, instead of its enemy, while things still can be made right.
This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Times on May 21, 2104.