Editor’s note: Conservationist blogger Hal Herring spent five days exploring and fishing Alaska’s Tongass National Forest earlier this month. This is the third of five reports.
From the air, the Tongass National Forest is revealed in a way that is hidden from the sea or the forest. We are flying east out of Juneau and up the Taku River, named for the Alaska Native group that once controlled trade here from the hinterlands all the way to the sea. Below the floatplane is some of the most abrupt and difficult country I’ve ever seen–from the saltwater the 2600-foot mountains rise sharp, impossibly steep, the timberlines low on their flanks. Yellow alpine grasses surround pothole lakes and tarns.
Everywhere there is water–150 to 200 inches of rain falls here every year. Remnant snow fields, drain in lacy curtains of whitewater down narrow chutes and falls. The forest a solid canopy; a high-latitude, somewhat refrigerated rain forest. The plane crests a long set of peaks and below us the vast glaciers unfold, miles and miles of jumbled, deeply fissured ice, white and pale blue and, yes, somewhat terrifying. These are the southernmost icefields in North America, and the river that divides them–the Taku–claims the world’s largest run of Coho (silver) salmon, a run that shares space with the estimated 2 million salmon that spawn here every year: kings, sockeye, chums, and pinks (humpies).
Every native fish species of Southeast Alaska thrives here with the salmon–steelhead, Dolly Vardens, bull trout, rainbows, grayling, whitefish, and the region’s largest population of cutthroat trout. The estuary formed by all this water is almost 7000 square miles in extent, and it is the nursery for the shrimp, crab and halibut that provide yet another fishery at the river’s mouth. From the sky on this late July afternoon, the Taku is a braided maze of mud and shoal and piles of dead trees, the water in parts brown with mud and milky green with the tons of pure stone powdered by the implacable ice. Where a part of the glacier’s wall has collapsed near the river, a sapphire-colored ellipse is revealed, the very color of the deepest ocean, to which the ice is going now and from which the ice came, all those thousands of years ago.
Down below, in all that water, a lot of people make their living on the resources produced by this largest unprotected piece of roadless country in the U.S. Among them is Heather Hardcastle, who works with her husband Kirk running Taku River Reds, a family-owned commercial gillnetting business that specializes in supplying top-quality salmon to some of the finest restaurants in the U.S. Heather graduated Willamette University iwith degrees in biology and chemistry, studied coastal environmental management in the graduate program at Duke University, lived on Maui, and then returned home to the Tongass, to the boats and the fishing that are her earliest memories. In addition to commercial fishing, she works most of the year for Trout Unlimited as a liaison to the commercial fishing industry, and full-time as a mother to a wildly active toddling daughter named Tele. Heather and Kirk work the Taku, and south to the Snettisham Peninsula. Two of the creeks that are included in the Tongass 77 campaign feed their home waters–The Whiting and Speel Rivers.
“That’s where some of our big sockeye catches come from,” says Heather. “And those rivers are big producers of everything that’s native. Up here, we fish almost to the face of the Taku Glacier.” __
Asked how the commercial fishing industry views TU’s efforts to establish more protections for the Tongass forest, Heather says the mood is changing fast. “There are still a lot of commercial fishermen who don’t like to be called conservationists, much less environmentalists. Because we are extractors, too, and we never wanted to infringe on our neighbors in other extractive industries. But it has become more clear every year that the highest and best use of these watersheds here is as a salmon production area, which is the most stable economic engine in Alaska. We’re in a unique place–we don’t have to fix anything to keep that engine going, all we have to do is keep it like it is.”
There’s a divide, still, in how new protections for the forest are viewed, she explains, and much of that is economic, too. “For fisherman that spend time in the lower 48, this seems pretty straightforward–they’ve seen what happened to the rest of the salmon-producing areas. It’s a harder sell to some of the older guys who’ve spent their lives right around here. And, by the way, for all of us who are in this industry to support our families, who have invested in boats and gear and are carrying all that debt, well, that’s a big incentive to keep this place producing–we know exactly what has happened to the fisheries in other places, and what that would do to us.”
Southeast Alaskan fishermen have changed with the times, too, said Heather, with the divide between commercial interests and recreational fishermen narrowing. “So many commercial fishermen are sportfishermen now, too, and most of the local sportfishermen are getting permits for small-scale harvest for their own food. We’re all here for the same reason, doing a lot of the same things.”
The Tongass 77 campaign recognizes some fairly basic requirements to keep the salmon economic engine roaring: streams with clean spawning gravels free from silt and mud, and an abundance of freshwater. The intact forest, as it exists right now, provides those services. Old-growth timber shades streams and holds snow that would otherwise melt off in a rush, while anchoring the earth that would erode to clog the gravels. A rainforest is just that, a dense forest that grows in a place that receives epic amounts of rain that can nourish or destroy.
You can make a choice to sell off timber, or create mines, or dredge new routes for commerce, or dam rivers in such a place, but you are making a trade, and it is a trade that has already been made, with little debate, across the vast majority of the American landscape. In some cases–Sacramento, Seattle–that trade makes sense, at least in the short term. Here in the Tongass National Forest, there’s an opportunity to actually evaluate the trade before we make it, and determine what economy really is–money-losing timber sales (it costs the U.S. taxpayer an estimated $100 per tree to log here, with most of the raw materials going to South Korea and other Asian ports) in a remote region, a kind of Soviet-style state-supported economy that supplies jobs and creates isolated artificial population centers while sacrificing the inherently stable economy provided by the fish and by smaller-scale logging and milling operations that keep more cash on American soil. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service itself, so long the champion of massive logging here, has announced a departure from the wholesale clearcutting that was the norm from the 1940s when the Tongass produced 2 billion board feet of timber, through the 1960s when it produced 10 billion board feet and was expected to produce 450 million board feet for eternity to support the industry’s plans for the region. Such numbers come at a cost, and waters and fisheries of southeast Alaska have paid it, and continue to do so.
There are no desires–none–to stop economic development on the Tongass National Forest. Even as the USDA announces a new direction for managing the forest–shifting logging operations to younger, second growth stands closer to mills and towns–last month the U.S. Forest Service announced the sale of 148.9 million board feet of old growth timber from 6,186 acres near Thorne Bay, on Prince of Wales Island.
Logging will be a part of the culture and the economy here forever. But if a powerful fishing economy is to be part of it, too, some areas will have to remain as they are now. “We have the numbers and the diversity of fish here because of the forest,” said Heather Hardcastle, “For a long time, people thought that logging would not affect the fishery if, say, you left some timber standing, if you had the buffers in place along the watersheds. But the reality is that the system is more complex than that. Some areas need to be recognized for what they produce best, and this is one of them. You could call it a salmon economic zone maybe, but the truth is, it is more valuable as salmon habitat than anything else it could produce.”