The Tongass: The National Salmon Forest
by: Sitka Conservation Society: Andrianna Natsoulas Posted on: April 29, 2012
By Andrianna Natsoulas, Communications Consultant, Sitka Conservation Society
Editor’s Note: Welcoming our first article from Alaska! The Tongass Forest is the largest National Forest in the USA. This piece introduces us to the significance and history of the park and pushes us to question what constitutes a rational budget for a National Park.
Alaska: The Last Frontier is a nickname for the most unspoilt state in the Union. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt declared the Tongass Forest in Southeast Alaska the first conservation forest in a U.S. territory or state. Fifty years later when Alaska became a state, the Tongass officially became the largest national forest, stretching over 17 million acres, most of which is a temperate rainforest rife with life.
The Tongass has been the cornerstone for the native people of the region – the Tlingit and Haida have lived on the land for over 10,000 years. They depended on the marine resources, many of which originated in the cool streams and river mouths of the Tongass. They also gathered berries, mushrooms and plants from the rainforest. The wood they cut by hand created buildings, canoes, tools and totem poles. To this day, the Tongass still plays a key role in their cultures.
When Russian explorers set foot in Southeast Alaska in the early 19th century, they focused on sea otter pelts for markets in Europe and Asia. Only once the sea otter populations were nearly decimated, did the Russians turn to timber. But, all of the logging was done by hand; industrialization of the industry was kept at bay for another 150 years.
At the beginning of the 1950’s, before Alaska became a state, technology allowed large-scale logging in the Tongass to soar with eyes on foreign markets. At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service signed a contract with two logging companies – the Ketchikan Pulp Company and the Alaska Lumber & Pulp Company – to ensure consistent buyers for Alaska territory, Tongass, timber. The Ketchikan Pulp Company was established to manufacture rayon and cellophane, while the Alaska Lumber & Pulp Company was created to export timber to rebuild war-torn Japan after WWII.
And there began the Tongass logging boom. Soon, those two companies collaborated in price fixing. They drove the timber price down, causing small timber companies to go out of business, creating a monopoly for themselves. Not only did they clear cut old growth forests, causing erosion and watershed destruction, but the pulp mills also contaminated the air with sulfur dioxide and the estuaries with toxic waste.
As environmental consciousness grew with the creation of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and implementation of Anti-Trust legislation to guard against monopolies, the two companies went through rocky waters. Global markets opened, relying on cheap labor that lowered the price of timber and introducing petroleum based rayon to replace wood-based rayon. Plus, forty years after their debuts, the facilities were in need of costly renovations. In 1993, The Alaska Pulp Company shut its mill and the Ketchikan Pulp Company followed suit in 1997. The days of rampant logging were over.
The Tongass National Forest is no longer a timber forest. It is now a salmon forest. Over 200 plant and animal species depend on the Tongass for survival and of those, nearly 50 animals feed directly on salmon. Bald eagles eagerly swoop into the rivers to snatch a fish shimmering near the surface, while brown bears patiently gaze into the streams, reach their paw into the cool waters and catch a salmon swimming past.
A flourishing fishing industry also relies on the Tongass for healthy salmon and trout runs. Wild Alaskan salmon find their way into markets and restaurants across the country. If you have ever wandered though Pike’s Place market in Seattle, you may have seen fish flying through the air while the fishmongers sing out. Most likely, the fish was a salmon and it came from the waters of Southeast Alaska. If you had the chance to try some wild Alaskan salmon, you can say with certainty that the Tongass is best at producing salmon.
In order to maintain these healthy salmon populations, the Tongass must be restored. Damages caused during the timber heydays have not yet been mended. Approximately 500 miles of streamside habitat was logged – in most cases leading to the loss of critical spawning and rearing habitat for salmon. Unmaintained roads and trails block fish passage to upstream habitat. There is a solution: stream restoration projects that replace or remove bridges and culverts, and allow for safe salmon passage.
Unfortunately, the Forest Service still invests $25 million a year in timber and road building in the Tongass, yet only $1.5 million in watershed restoration and salmon and trout habitat conservation. The timber and road building industries employ nearly 300 people, while the salmon and trout industries employ over 7,000 people. Those numbers do not match up, but Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is solving that.
SCS partners with community members to influence policy makers to ensure the Tongass has the necessary funding to develop and implement essential watershed restoration projects. One aim is for the Tongass to have a more rational budget with the majority of funds put towards salmon habitat management and restoration, rather than disproportionately spent on an outdated timber program. Simultaneously, SCS is proactive and leverages funds to pay for habitat restoration, as well as develops and implements collaborative salmon habitat and watershed restoration projects. For example, area high school students worked on the Starrigaven Watershed project, while the Sitkoh River restoration project has been a collaborative process with the local Forest Service.
Sitka Conservation Society has been working to protect the temperate rainforest of southeast Alaska and support the development of sustainable communities in the Tongass since 1967. It is based in the small coastal town of Sitka, Alaska, located on the west coast of Baranof Island in the heart of the Tongass. SCS works with the next generation in mind and strives to develop a resilient community with sustainably managed natural resources that can continue to provide for future generations.
You can help too. Visit Sitka Conservation Society’s (www.sitkawild.org) website and take action!
Reference: Mackovjak, J. (2010) Tongass Timber. Durham, NC: Forest History Society.
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