by Marian Giannulis
For decades America’s largest national forest has been subjected to industrial clear-cut logging that has left its bountiful salmon runs, large deer and bear populations and incredible scenery at risk. The Tongass National Forest is part of the largest temperate rainforest on earth and is the only national forest where clear cut logging of old growth forest still takes places on an industrial scale. This outdated and highly-subsidized practice has finally come to an end with Thursday’s announcement of the U.S. Forest Services’ new “Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy.”
A key component of the new strategy is to align management of the Tongass with the economic and ecological realities of the region, where fishing, guiding and tourism have been the dominant sources of employment for decades. To do this, the Forest Service is ending large-scale old growth timber sales on the Tongass and focusing, instead, on forest restoration, recreation and resilience, including for climate, wildlife habit and watershed improvement. This is a welcome change for one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet.
Another integral piece of the strategy is to initiate a rulemaking this summer that will propose restoring 2001 Roadless Rule protections. An October 2020, decision exempted the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, which opened the door to expanded industrial old-growth logging and construction of new logging roads on more than 9 million acres of the forest. This exemption left critical fish and wildlife habitat vulnerable.
Reinstating the roadless rule and refocusing agency resources on restoration and recreation is a win for Alaska’s people as well as its fish and wildlife. Alaskans share a vision for the future where the salmon runs are robust, the wildlife populations are high, and the tourism and fishing industry continue to drive the economy of Southeast Alaska. Alaskans are now one step closer to this vision. A healthy forest is integral to the local economy, where fishing and tourism support 1 in 4 of the region’s jobs and contribute $2 billion annually to the local economy. These jobs depend on the flourishing fish and wildlife and awe-inspiring landscapes that are quintessential to the Tongass.
The Tongass is one of the few places in the world where wild salmon and trout still thrive. The old-growth and mature forest throughout the Tongass is globally significant for mitigating effects of climate change and providing healthy, productive rivers, wild fish, food, jobs, and recreation that people throughout Alaska and the rest of the country depend on. This announcement puts the Tongass on the right track to ensure these valuable resources are around for generations to come.
This blog post was originally shared on the Trout Unlimited webpage, and written by Marian Giannulis, the Trout Unlimited Alaska Communications and Engagement Director.
By Austin Williams
Few decisions have been as short-sighted as last year’s repeal of the Roadless Rule on Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which helps explain why 96 percent of all public comment opposed the repeal.
When large-scale logging first took hold in the region in the 1950s, many people thought the towering Sitka spruce and ancient red and yellow cedar of the Tongass were inexhaustible, and few people understood the impact industrialized clear-cut logging would have on the region’s fish, wildlife and, of course, its people. But, today, we know we can only take so much from the forest and that unchecked old-growth logging takes too heavy a toll.
Recognizing this, in 2013, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack directed the U.S. Forest Service to phase out unsustainable old-growth logging on the Tongass and to manage the forest with its fish, wildlife, recreation and carbon-capturing values at the forefront.
Today, Trout Unlimited is joining dozens of fishing, hunting and outdoor businesses in calling on Secretary Vilsack to keep that promise.
We now know that the real value in the Tongass is not derived from cutting down its trees, but in its abundant fish and wildlife, its scenic beauty, its potential to store and capture carbon that helps offset the effects of climate change, and in the opportunities and cultural values a healthy forest provides for local communities.
Without streamside vegetation to provide shade and help moderate streamflow, high summer temperatures cause fish kills with alarming scale and frequency. Clear-cut logging and logging roads destabilize steep hillsides and too often result in landslides during the rainy season—such as those that ravaged southeast Alaska last fall.
Although the logging industry was once a major source of economic activity in Southeast Alaska, logging and milling now account for less than 1 percent of local jobs, a level maintained only because of significant government subsidy. Fishing and tourism, by comparison, generate 26 percent of local jobs and have become the dominant sources of income and employment in the region.
The Southeast Alaska Fish Habitat Partnership strives to support cooperative fish habitat conservation and management in Southeast Alaska. In the past, most fish habitat conservation and restoration efforts in the region have been conducted unilaterally by large government organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service or through small collaborative efforts with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working with agency partners. The Partnership brings people together to do more good work for the region’s fisheries.
Trout Unlimited is a proud supporter of the Southeast Alaska Fish Habitat Partnership, and the critical role they play in bringing together local communities, governments, tribes, landowners, businesses, and non-profits throughout the region to help fish habitat.
Debbie has played a key role in forming the partnership and facilitating some really fantastic programs under Debbie’s five years of leadership. SEAKFHP has successfully organized and helped fund projects throughout Southeast Alaska, organized film festivals, meetings, and highlighted aquatic conservation stories.
Birds chirping, skunk cabbage blossoming and snow melting are all positive signs that spring is emerging in Southeast Alaska. After the long winter, getting out on the water is sweeter than ever right now.
The return of spring, and fish, is an annual reminder of why we work hard to conserve important freshwater habitat in the Tongass throughout the year. Despite a challenging year, our team hasn't let up and I'd like to share what TU’s American Salmon Forest team has been up to in Southeast Alaska.
Please let Kayla know if you have any questions about our work on any of the areas below.
At the end of 2020, the U.S. Forest Service announced its decision to remove protections for more than 9 million acres of roadless areas on the Tongass, despite 96% of public comments, Tribes, and local businesses all supporting the roadless rule. However, we are hopeful that science and public interest will prevail and we will have another chance for our voices to be heard. Recently-confirmed Secretary, Tom Vilsack, stated the Forest Service will do what’s needed to protect forests and is looking for “creative ways” to do that. We will continue working with the Forest Service to recognize the importance of the Tongass’ fish, wildlife, and backcountry roadless areas.
If you'd like to get more involved in our work to conserve public lands in the Tongass, we are always looking for volunteers to write letters to the editor, help us host (virtual) events, and much more. If you’re interested, contact Kayla.
In the meantime, keep sharing your Tongass photos on Instagram and tag us at @AmericanSalmonForest!
During the 2020 fishing season, our Fish Habitat Mapping Project added six new streams and nearly 9,000 linear feet of salmon and steelhead habitat to the State of Alaska’s Anadromous Waters Catalog. Additionally, we documented four new fish species (steelhead, cutthroat, pink salmon, and Dolly Varden) within six streams and one lake where they weren’t previously thought to reside. This improved habitat protections for a grand total of more than 84,500 feet of salmon, steelhead and trout habitat. We plan to continue our work in 2021, and add more species and waters to the Anadromous Waters Catalog throughout the Tongass.
We recently hosted a virtual event, Subsurface. To hear more from the project lead Mark Hieronymus, you can listen to the recording here. For more information on how you can get involved, check out our community science page, or contact to Mark with questions.
The Tongass National Forest is a haven, providing cold, clean water and refuge for fish and wildlife throughout Southeast Alaska. The forest stores hundreds of millions of tons of carbon in its trees and soils. Logging mature and old-growth timber reduces this storage capacity, speeding up the effects of climate change. Climate change harms fish and wildlife habitat by changing water temperatures, increasing the severity of drought and floods, increasing erosion, and contributing to more severe weather conditions. All of this adds to the stresses put on fish and wildlife by other activities, such as logging roads, and can put once-healthy populations at risk and push already-struggling populations closer to the brink. Learn more about climate on the Tongass here.
Take action to stop industrial clear-cut logging of old-growth forest and help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Joel Jackson, the Tribal President of the Organized Village of Kake, wrote an opinion piece on the importance of the Tongass to the Keex Kwaan people's way of life. Joel recounted data released by Wild Heritage depicting the impacts of logging in the Tongass and the critical role the forest plays in helping the U.S. achieve our goals to reduce carbon emissions. Jackson states, “protection for the Tongass is not only integral to our way of life, it is also critical to meeting the world’s climate mitigation challenges.”
In a recent New York Times article for The World Through a Lens, Colin Arisman shares beautiful images and thoughts from the Alaska coast and how the area is economically and culturally dependent on fishing. “Each summer, millions of salmon — after maturing in the ocean — begin their journey back to the rivers in which they were spawned. Fishermen, along with whales, eagles and bears, share in the abundance.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been producing a weekly Fish of the Week! podcast, and TU staff, Mark Hieronymus, (along with retired fish biologist, Roger Harding) joined this week's conversation about Oncorhynchus mykiss, AKA the Rainbow Trout and Steelhead! Listen here.
Nationwide, fish-habitat projects taken on by groups called Fish Habitat Partnerships are changing communities for the better through research, restoration, protection, and education. Fish Habitat Partnerships bring nontraditional partners together to ensure resilient and vibrant fish habitat and communities. In the Tongass, we are lucky to have the Southeast Alaska Fish Habitat Partnership doing this important work. Read this great article through Fish Alaska Magazine highlighting the accomplishments of the Fish Habitat Partnerships throughout Alaska.
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Atop the list of exciting projects in store for Alaska are trail, cabin and campground projects. These recreation infrastructure projects are all desperately needed on the Tongass. A sample of what’s included for National Forests in Alaska include: Yakutat Cabin Maintenance, Juneau Ranger District Strike Team, Pack Creek Trail Reconstruction and Thayer Lake Shelter Repairs, and the El Cap Recreation Area improvements.
For Southeast Alaskans, marine access and transportation for guiding, fishing, hunting, subsistence, and getting to and from other communities is essential. GAOA funding will be used to address deferred maintenance issues on multiple docks and marine facilities, gangways, pads and piers throughout the Southeast Alaska region.
As you know, an alarmingly large number of the culverts and bridges on the Tongass fail to meet applicable standards for fish passage. More than 30% of all instances where forest roads cross fish streams on the Tongass—1,120 instances in total--fail to meet applicable standards for fish migration and disturb fish access to nearly 250 miles of salmon and trout streams! Poorly maintained or degraded forest roads make travel difficult or dangerous, increase erosion and degrade nearby streams, block fish passage and migration, and are expensive to maintain. This is one of the main reasons we are excited about road improvements being added to the priority with new GAOA funding.
It’s no surprise that outdoor recreation and recreation access is on the rise and continues to be one of the most important public services provided by the Forest Service. We are excited about the variety of maintenance and infrastructure projects that are planned for the Tongass.