- By: Nadia White
The cinnamon sow flipped rocks with a laconic, long-clawed paw, moving slowly through her options like a teenage boy vaguely disappointed with the contents of the refrigerator. Her year-old cub wandered in her path, picking up leftovers. It was still early in the Inside Passage summer and these were the first two grizzly bears I had seen while kayaking north, from Puget Sound, Washington to Southeast Alaska.
By the time I retreated in my kayak, the bears were sniffing my scent and I was looking for a new campsite. Farther north, huge piles of bear scat pocked meadows and floodplains saturated by creeks that drain Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The scat was thick with young grasses and the rough, undigested shells of the shoreline.
A day’s paddle outside Wrangell, Alaska, I watched a black bear with two cubs work the shore of a lagoon at dusk. I had lined my kayak to the center of that pond to keep it out of reach. At dawn, my boat sat high on the low-tide mud, easily accessible from any shore, but the bears had let it be. Later, I dragged the boat across boot-sucking muck, into a freshwater stream and down to meet the salty tide. Then I paddled the shore as a line of fishing boats streamed toward Wrangell where everyone, like the bears, was biding their time with the busiest kind of waiting.
Replacing props, provisioning boats, serving up beer, pacing the shore. Everything—bears, anglers, barkeeps and tourists—waited for the king salmon to arrive.
Unfortunately, the king run was late and limited, and the 2012 season closed around Wrangell almost as soon as it opened. Salvation arrived with the chum run, which brought returns well above average and a harvest that ranked sixth on the list since Alaska’s statehood. On the strength of chums, Southeast’s 37-million commercial salmon harvest lead the state with a value of $153.2 million (but down from $206.6 million in 2011).
At 17 million acres, the Tongass is one of the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforests. It is a forest built on fish. Each year, millions of salmon return to spawn and die in the creeks and rivers that drain its slopes. In death, as in life, the fish feed the bears and eagles of the region. And their decaying flesh, flung or washed or dropped ashore, infuses the forest with the nutrients of the sea.
The relationship between the fish and the forest is complex, but anglers see it clearly: Healthy forests increase the odds of landing strong, healthy fish.
Trout Unlimited sees that, too, and has launched a massive new campaign to protect 1.9 million acres of the most productive salmon and trout watersheds that are currently open for development on the Tongass.
TU’s “Tongass 77” proposal would protect 77 watersheds from road building or logging from headwaters to salt water. Still in its infancy, the new campaign calls on Congress to implement the first broad conservation measures on the Tongass since 1990, when the Tongass Timber Reform Act reined in rampant timber harvest.
“There’s a lot at stake in terms of habitat,” said Chris Hunt, national communications director for Trout Unlimited. “And, if you’re an angler, that means opportunity.
“The Tongass is just as important to the saltwater guys who troll or mooch for salmon as it is for the recreationalist fishing streams in the rainforest,” Hunt said. “The habitat is what makes that system work.”
Habitat protection is at the heart of TU’s proposal. The 77 watersheds singled out were selected using data from a broad ecological assessment completed by the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. In June, a coalition of more than 230 scientists endorsed the proposal.
“Protecting the ecological integrity of key Tongass watersheds from further habitat degradation is crucial to the continuation of Southeast Alaska’s salmon success story and to sustaining the productivity and resilience of this important rainforest ecosystem,” the scientists said in an open letter to Congress.
Although yields have fallen, the Tongass continues to provide a robust fishery and produces roughly 28 percent of Alaska’s annual salmon catch. But scientists say the Tongass faces “substantial threats,” including development and climate change.
According to the letter to Congress, “Timber and mining development, road building, more than 40 proposed and existing energy projects and several initiatives to privatize large swaths of the Tongass are currently in the works. These development activities have the potential to significantly impact the spawning and rearing habitat of Tongass salmon and trout as well as other species affiliated with old-growth forest habitats.”
The Tongass 77 proposal would protect untrammeled terrain before it needs restoration. Except for a handful of streams, the watersheds in the plan are currently unaffected by roads or development, yet remain unprotected.
Watershed protection is a sweeping idea. In addition to salmon, TU looked for biodiversity on each parcel, considering the presence of deer, bears and even marbled murrelets, said Mark Kaelke, TU’s Southeast Alaska project director. The murrelets are birds that nest in old growth, and their presence reflects the health and age of the forest. The inventory also counted the number of old trees and the health of estuaries at the edge of floodplains.
Biological diversity provides an opportunity for TU to ask a broad range of forest users to support the proposal. Although government protection on behalf of the environment can be a tough sell in Alaska, outfitters and guides, hunters and gear makers are joining commercial and sportfishermen in backing the bill.
In Juneau, gillnetter Jev Shelton says fishing communities traditionally suspicious of government intervention are gaining enthusiasm for the proposal.
“I think there’s a need for realism on the part of the advocates of what’s politically feasible and what’s not,” he said, cautioning those who say the proposal should be bigger. “This is a chance to get a significant increment pinned down while we can. I think there’s an increased appreciation for that among the fishing fleet.”
In March, commercial fishermen, charter opperaters and guides joined Trout Unlimited in Washington, D.C. and lobbied the Alaska delegation for support of the bill. The Tongass 77 proposal does not have a congressional sponsor. While both of Alaska’s senators have been briefed on the idea, they say an existing Tongass bill will have to move through the Senate before they consider taking on another.
That existing bill would transfer 70,000 acres of Tongass National Forest land to an Alaska native corporation called Sealaska. It would allow logging under state regulations, rather than more restrictive federal rules, and while it would protect six of the watersheds singled out in the Tongass 77 proposal, TU opposes the bill, saying it establishes a precedent for transferring forest land to a native corporation.
In Juneau, the state has proposed converting two million acres of the Tongass to state ownership for a timber trust. TU opposes that as well.
“There’s no end to the individuals who are looking for their slice of the pie in Southeast Alaska,” said Austin Williams, who tracks forest policy in Alaska for TU.
Back in Southeast, the fleet is once again engaged in the busiest kind of waiting. Shelton is mending his nets, and putting float and weight lines onto new ones. Next, he’ll haul his boat out of the water, change the zinc and paint the hull.
It’s the kind of busy that keeps Southeast afloat. As the salmon return each spring, they create an economy worth almost $1 billion. One in 10 jobs in Southeast is tied to salmon in some way. If TU gets its way, the Tongass 77 proposal will protect that economy and help ensure that the Tongass rainforest’s salmon keep coming home. w
Trout Unlimited’s “Tongass 77”
A new campaign could preserve Alaska’s best unprotected salmon habitat.
by Nadia White