by Heather Hardcastle
2013 is turning out to be a banner year for salmon in Southeast Alaska. This year’s staggering salmon returns are a reminder the Tongass is the country’s preeminent salmon forest. As Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell tours Southeast Alaska this week, I urge him to do all he can to ensure the nation’s largest national forest is managed with wild salmon as the highest priority.
As of today, more than a whopping 92 million salmon weighing almost 283 million pounds have been landed in Southeast this year. The vast majority of this year’s enormous salmon haul is wild pinks — close to 99 percent of which were born and reared in Tongass watersheds. Southeast fishermen have already surpassed the record 77 million pinks that were caught in 1999. Returns of wild sockeye and coho have also been extremely strong. In almost 35 years of fishing, our family has never caught as many wild sockeye as we did this year.
Prices for Alaska salmon remain quite good, as well. Although we won’t have the average 2013 ex-vessel value numbers for a while, it’s safe to say Southeast is on target to have its most lucrative commercial salmon season yet. In the last two years, Southeast was the most valuable commercial salmon fishing region in the state, with the total ex-vessel value exceeding $200 million in 2011.
I point out these numbers because they underscore how Tongass salmon drive an enormous economic engine and underpin every community in this region. Salmon produced in Tongass streams and lakes sustain hundreds of commercial fishing families like mine. It’s estimated more than one in 10 regional jobs are tied to salmon. These fish are a cultural icon, a focus of recreational and subsistence fishing, a mainstay of our diet, and a keystone species.
The Tongass produces almost one-third of Alaska’s overall salmon harvest from less than 5 percent of the land base. There’s a reason for this. By and large, this region still has healthy forest watersheds on which salmon rely to reproduce. Scientists, like former Forest Service fisheries biologist Mason Bryant, confirm what fishermen have long known: “The numerous intact watersheds throughout Southeast Alaska are a critical factor in maintaining sustainable salmon stocks in Southeast Alaska.”
The Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game deserve credit for the current state of Southeast salmon fisheries and health of the salmon forest. However, I — and at least several hundred local commercial fishermen like me — want the Forest Service to work to ensure the Tongass continues to produce diverse and abundant salmon runs far into the future.
Many of us are frustrated because the Forest Service and some Alaska leaders are not looking to the future at all, but instead looking to turn back the clock and ramp up large-scale logging in this region. As has been reported, the Forest Service just approved the Big Thorne timber sale for central Prince of Wales, which is by far the largest-volume timber sale the Tongass has seen since the mid-90s. Meanwhile, Senator Murkowski and the Parnell administration are pushing a proposal to carve out a 2 million-acre timber trust from the Tongass.
In all of this talk about the potential to resuscitate the timber industry on the Tongass, where is the discussion of how to maintain and build upon the incredible success of the forest’s salmon fishing industry?
I call on Mr. Tidwell to direct the Forest Service to invest in the “blue-chip” growth industries of the Tongass that employ some 17,000 people and pump at least $2 billion into the regional economy every year: fishing and tourism. Conserving intact salmon watersheds and working to restore impacted watersheds is a great place to start.
When we met Mr. Tidwell in Washington, D.C. four years ago, my dad explained,
“If you look through the lens of wild salmon, and ensure their needs are met before proceeding with any action, you can’t go wrong.”
I ask the Forest Service chief to remember these words as he leads the Forest Service and its management of the Tongass in the years ahead.’s
• Heather Hardcastle, M.E.M., is a lifelong Juneau resident, a co-owner of Taku River Reds, and an outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited.
This column by Heather Hardcastle appeared August 27, 2013, in the Juneau Empire.
Award-winning journalist, author and editor Hal Herring recently published a five-part series in Field & Stream about his journey to Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Herring spent five days fishing in the Tongass, a 17-million-acre temperate rainforest that is having a record salmon season this summer. As of today, more than 252-million salmon have been landed in Alaska so far this season, with more than 92-million harvested in Southeast Alaska alone. No wonder Herring calls the Tongass a “salmon forest” and advocates for watershed-scale conservation of the forest’s most valuable salmon habitat.
Herring joined several other writers, bloggers and photographers on a tour of the Tongass sponsored by Trout Unlimited, Fishpond, TenkaraUSA, and RIO Products
Check out the links below to Herring’s series.
Trout Unlimited has filed an administrative appeal with the U.S. Forest Service opposing the 149 million board foot Big Thorne timber sale proposed for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
Released on July 1, the proposed Big Thorne timber sale is located on heavily-logged Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska, an area with deer, wolf and salmon populations impacted from multiple decades of past logging. The Big Thorne sale would allow nearly 6,200 acres of old-growth and 2,299 acres of second-growth forest to be logged on the central part of the island. The area is sandwiched between existing clear-cuts. It is the largest timber sale in the Tongass National Forest since the region’s two large pulp mills closed in the 1990s.
“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, who filed the appeal.
Trout Unlimited, the nation’s oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation group, notes in its appeal that Big Thorne threatens not only deer and other wildlife but important salmon and trout watersheds that are vulnerable on Prince of Wales. A large amount of salmon-producing habitat in the Big Thorne area is still recovering from past logging and road building. It is less resilient to environmental stresses and more vulnerable to erosion caused by logging-related landslides and road crossings, the appeal notes.
The Forest Service, which largely manages the Tongass, describes the Big Thorne sale as necessary to help stabilize Southeast Alaska’s struggling timber industry as it transitions from old-growth manufacturing to second-growth production.
TU’s appeal points out that the Forest Service has grossly overestimated the market demand for Tongass timber. In the final environmental impact statement for the Big Thorne sale, the Forest Service erroneously concludes that 429 million board feet of timber is needed to provide enough volume for a three-year supply to industry. However, the current six-year average rate of Tongass timber harvest is 27.4 million board feet annually and there’s already 114 million board feet under contract. At the current harvest rate, it would take more than four years to log the existing volume of timber that’s already under contract even without any new timber supplied from the Big Thorne sale. In other words, the sale is completely of proportion with the industry’s existing needs and market demand.
Besides harming fish and wildlife habitat and adding unnecessary volume to the timber industry’s existing pipeline, Big Thorne would tarnish a significant swath of scenic landscape of the Tongass, an iconic temperate rainforest that draws over one-million visitors annually, fueling a $1 billion tourism industry. The agency has failed to recognize the negative economic effects Big Thorne could have on the tourism and fishing industries, according to the appeal.
“Fishing and tourism are the real breadwinners for Southeast Alaska. They employ nearly 20,000 people and contribute $2 billion dollars to the regional economy every year. Timber, by contrast, employs slightly over 100 people and costs American taxpayers in excess of $23 million. The Forest Service needs to abandon this sale or scale it down significantly and move forward with its transition plan,” said Williams, referring to the Forest Service’s May 2010 pledge to rapidly move away from old-growth logging in the Tongass.
Rather than continuing to push large-scale, old-growth logging in the Tongass, the Forest Service should invest in restoration of high-priority salmon watersheds and improve existing roads and stream crossings, the appeals states. It should also invest in projects designed to improve the recruitment of large woody debris.
“The Forest Service should switch gears and move forward with projects that benefit fishing and tourism. As far as logging goes, it should offer timber sales that emphasize young-growth units and micro-sales that are designed to minimize impacts to fish streams, riparian areas and sensitive wildlife habitat,” Williams said.
Read TU’s complete Big Thorne appeal here.