Tongass 77: Saving the Salmon Forest
Where the lone bridge crosses the creek, it looks like any number of small Alaska salmon streams. Our son, Austin, first took me there when he was working on the Tongass National Forest and I was lucky enough to make it back there each of the next several summers. In August the stream is stuffed full of pinks with a respectable sprinkling of massive, and strikingly marked chums. One year we were treated to silvers as well. I don’t think the stream is supposed to have silvers but I guess they didn’t read the regs. Black bears watch from what is usually a respectable distance. Bald eagles circle above. In my mind, this is classic Southeast Alaska.
Streams draining the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska produce huge runs of salmon and big trout populations. The numbers of fish that originate from the Tongass are staggering: roughly 24% of Alaska’s overall salmon catch, 30% of all salmon caught along the West Coast of the United States, and close to 13% of the salmon harvested along the Pacific Rim. Southeast Alaska salmon are a $1 billion industry and responsible for over 10% of the region’s jobs. At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest is huge, covering an area nearly 8 times that of Yellowstone National Park.
The Salmon Forest
The flow of water and fish between land and sea is so rapid in this region that the ecological distinctions between terrestrial and aquatic systems blur. Rainfall is truly impressive; topping 150 inches a year in many places. The outflowing water attracts millions of spawning salmon. Salmon runs can fill small streams overnight only to fill them again and again with each new freshet. As the salmon spawn and die their eggs and carcasses bring massive plugs of nutrients from the oceans into the forests. These nutrients work their way into algae, riparian grasses, and alders until the salmon and the forest seemingly are intertwined together as one for all eternity.
Despite its value as a natural salmon producer, there are plenty of threats poised to undo the recreational, commercial, and ecological benefits of the Tongass. There are several proposals that could privatize large portions of the Tongass, making them susceptible to intense resource development without the protections for salmon habitat afforded by federal regulations such as larger stream buffers. Additionally, several mine proposals and dozens of hydroelectric dam projects could degrade water quality and block spawning runs.
The Tongass 77
The science of salmon conservation has become increasingly clear. The best way to ensure the long term productivity of these big runs is to protect the best remaining watersheds where they occur. Right now, only about 35% of salmon and trout-producing watersheds on the Tongass are protected. Researchers from the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited have identified the best of the remaining unprotected watersheds. We call them The Tongass 77. These 77 high value watersheds comprise 1.9 million acres of truly irreplaceable fisheries habitat, where the highest and best use of the land is to protect watershed values for the production of salmon.
Back down in the lower 48, I work mostly on trying to restore trout and salmon habitat. It’s a long and expensive grind. We have some good successes now and again, but often we suffer from what scientists refer to as an “eroding benchmark.” That is, those working on restoration of a stream usually have forgotten, or maybe never personally knew, what that stream looked like before it was degraded; nor do they know what it was capable of producing in its natural condition. By the time we get around to trying to fix the broken aquatic system, it has been degrading for so long that it’s a mere fragment of its former self … and no one is around who remembers what that former self was like.
In Southeast Alaska, we still have streams and salmon populations at or very near their historic peaks. We don’t have to search out an elder to remember their heyday. We still have streams where it appears possible to walk on the backs of the salmon. No eroding baselines here. And in most places, no big restoration budget is needed either, just the foresight to manage the best remaining watersheds for the salmon. The Tongass 77. I can’t wait to get back.
Jack Williams, Ph.D.