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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By Austin Williams
When you think about your favorite remote fishing or hunting trip, a wild landscape where large trout, wild salmon or big game are plentiful, or breathtaking scenery where you can get away from it all, the odds are good you’re thinking of a roadless area.
Roadless areas are strongholds for vulnerable fish and wildlife, sources of clean drinking water, and contain many sacred sites and traditional use areas. As we come to better understand the role of mature forests in sequestering and storing carbon, it’s clear roadless areas also are essential to mitigating impacts from climate change.
The Roadless Area Conservation Act can Safeguard Cherished Lands
On the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service first enacting the Roadless Rule, Senator Cantwell and Representatives Gallego and DeGette have announced they are introducing the Roadless Area Conservation Act. If passed, this legislation would solidify safeguards for more than 58 million acres of our national forests by preventing unsustainable old-growth logging and costly logging road construction. Collaboratively developed state-based solutions for roadless area management in Idaho and Colorado would remain, while the wildly unpopular Alaska exemption would be reversed.
The bill allows fishing and hunting, outdoor recreation, forest health projects and wildfire fighting, energy development, and even certain off-highway vehicle use. Trout Unlimited is excited to support this important and much-needed legislation.
Communities, Fish & Wildlife on the Tongass Stand to Benefit
In southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the roadless rule.
For decades prior to its enactment, unsustainable clear-cut logging mowed through ancient old-growth forest at an alarming and unsustainable pace. Sprawling clear-cuts spanned entire landscapes, from the ridgetops to river bottoms, with logging roads haphazardly crisscrossing the landscape. Salmon and salmon streams were an afterthought, if not completely taken for granted.
To this day, we’re still struggling to clean up the mess on the Tongass. Poorly built logging roads divert entire streams and block salmon migration, clearcuts extend onto perilously steep slopes and cause landslides that smother salmon spawning areas, previously logged forest grows back so dense and stunted it no longer supports wildlife, and agency budgets are stretched to the breaking point trying to keep up with the cost of maintaining more than 5,000 miles of dilapidated logging roads. Today, roads on the Tongass contain more than 1,100 bridges or culverts that fail to meet state or federal standards and block salmon from migrating to 250 miles of stream—with very little funding available to fix the problems.
While the Roadless Rule has succeeded in preventing timber sales from extending into new and previously undisturbed roadless areas on the Tongass, old-growth logging still occurs with frequent and costly consequences.
Change is Needed Now
Just last year, the Forest Service tried to hold its largest old-growth timber sale in decades (23,000 acres) before a court ruled the sale illegal. In November, the Trump Administration took things even further and repealed the Roadless Rule entirely on the Tongass, removing protections for more than 9 million acres despite an astonishing 96% of public comment opposing the change, along with local Tribes, affected businesses, and hunters and anglers. Even when viewed purely through an economic lens, repealing the Roadless Rule and perpetuating costly and highly-subsidized logging on the Tongass is bad for business.
With so much at stake, and on such a momentous anniversary of the Roadless Rule, please take a moment to appreciate the wild and undisturbed roadless areas on our national forests.
And a special thanks to Senator Cantwell, Representatives Gallego and DeGette, and the many other cosponsors in Congress of the Roadless Area Conservation Act for helping reinstate roadless area protections on the Tongass, solidify their protections throughout the rest of the country, and for ensuring our legacy of safeguarding our public lands remains strong.