By Austin Williams
After pledging in 2010 to bring about an end to old-growth logging on the Tongass National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service has failed to find first gear, and may have ground the shifter into reverse. Last week, despite staunch public opposition, the Forest Service approved the largest old-growth timber sale on the Tongass in more than twenty years. It plans to cut nearly 150 million board-feet of timber from more than 6,000 acres of old-growth and 2,000 acres of second growth on southeast Alaska’s famed Prince of Wales Island—home to some of the best wild salmon and steelhead runs in the world.
I first came to Alaska in 2003 to work for the U.S. Forest Service on Prince of Wales Island. As a recent college graduate more interested in chasing fish and drinking beer than most anything else, Thorne Bay was a great place to call home. What island life lacked in cheap beer it more than made up for in wild salmon, steelhead, cutthroat and Dolly Varden.
I’d get up around 4:00 each morning, chase fish for a few hours before showing up to work at 8:00, tromp around the woods all day doing stream surveys, fish or tie flies in the evening, then rinse and repeat for the next day. Life was good. I caught a ton of fish, drank my share of overpriced PBR, and helped lay the groundwork for the first comprehensive watershed restoration project on the Tongass National Forest: Sal Creek.
The Tongass, which is our largest national forest and encompasses 80% of the landbase in southeast Alaska, produces a TON of salmon. More than 15,700 miles of streams and 4,100 lakes and ponds on the Tongass produce hundreds of millions of wild salmon annually. These salmon support the most valuable commercial salmon fishery in Alaska, help attract more than a million out-of-state tourists each year, and make the region a great place to explore with a fly rod.
Of course, the Tongass, and Prince of Wales Island in particular, has also been the site of some of the most intensive logging in North America. For decades following World War II through the 1990’s, many of the largest, most valuable trees in the Tongass were chewed up into pulp by two large mills. These pulp mills benefited from 50-year contracts that required the Forest Service to supply hundreds of millions of board-feet annually. As you can imagine, logging on this scale had some very significant impacts to salmon streams—and putting these streams back in working order has been a major challenge ever since.
In Sal Creek on the northeast coast of Prince of Wales Island, logging in the 1960s and 1970s had cut down nearly every tree of any size in the entire floodplane and most nearby slopes. Roads crisscrossed back and forth across Sal Creek and its tributaries, and rarely provided adequate accommodation for salmon migration. Not long before I arrived, a landslide from one of these roads ripped apart the headwaters dumping who-knows-how-much dirt and debris into the stream. Things were a mess.
Then, as part of a multi-year partnership between TU and the Forest Service, TU-secured funding became available to design and implement a comprehensive restoration project in Sal Creek. Large logs and root wads, the like of which had long been removed from the stream, were introduced back into the creek at strategic locations to improve salmon spawning and rearing habitat. Highly eroded stream banks were stabilized. Unnaturally long, high-gradient riffles were recontoured into productive riffle-pool habitat. Roads were decommissioned. Today, the benefits of these restoration efforts are apparent as coho, pink and chum salmon return to Sal Creek each year in increased numbers. Coastal cutthroat and Dolly Varden also appear in greater populations.
While work in Sal Creek set the stage for numerous other watershed restoration projects throughout the Tongass, and tremendous strides have been made in Southeast Alaska over the past decade, the story isn’t all rosy.
Just last week, despite significant public outcry over impacts to fish and wildlife and escalating costs, the Forest Service announced it is moving forward with its largest timber sale on the Tongass in more than twenty years. The Big Thorne timber sale, which authorizes the logging of more than 6,000 acres of the last remaining old-growth forest on Prince of Wales Island, sits squarely around Sal Creek and its neighboring watersheds. In addition to further increasing the backlog of unmet restoration needs, currently estimated by the Forest Service at more than $100 million, the Big Thorne timber sale will also undercut the region’s two largest sources of employment, salmon fishing and tourism, and cost taxpayers many millions of dollars.
Sal Creek, which is partly protected from the Big Thorne timber sale simply because the Forest Service already logged all the valuable trees out of the watershed decades ago, should serve as a lesson learned—an example of how to recognize, fix and move beyond the errors of our past. Unfortunately, the Forest Service in this instance remains high centered on timber and unable to see what everyone else in the region already knows: that southeast Alaska salmon are too special and too valuable to sacrifice.