It doesn’t seem that long ago, but 13 years ago this month I took my first and, so far, only trip to Alaska. I was on a press junket partially sponsored by Trout Unlimited, with the goal of getting more outdoor writers acquainted with the marvels of the Tongass National Forest.
We went to Prince of Wales Island, one of the nation’s largest islands, and an important part of the Tongass National Forest.
It’s a magical place in many ways, part of the world’s largest temperate rain forest, where it normally gets some 200 inches of precipitation every year. It’s home to large tracts of old-growth forests, with centuries-old cedars and other conifers that tower to the skies, where walking into the forest is like entering a cathedral.
Considering that Trout Unlimited sponsored the trip, it’s not surprising that fishing was involved. With all that precipitation, there are lakes, streams and rivers on the island, and in September we were hoping to get in on a big silver salmon run. As it happened, the silvers were just beginning to show up, and I didn’t catch any. The streams were full of pink salmon, however, and we quickly learned the characteristic smell of dead and rotting spawned out salmon, and how salmon are an integral part of that salmon ecosystem.
Spawning salmon return to their natal rivers and after fulfilling their final destiny, the fish die. The dead and dying fish feed other fish, sea gulls, eagles, bears and other critters. After eating, birds and animals spread the salmon nutrients throughout the forest, nourishing that amazing system.
Logging has long been a part of the Tongass, though not without controversy. Big timber companies like to clear-cut big tracts of forest, not surprisingly. Clear cutting means big equipment crawling across hillsides, creating roads and devastation. That’s just a start.
In the rain forest, vegetation comes back in a hurry, but in the Tongass, it comes back in a tangle of brush and trees that’s dog hair thick. In fact, it’s impenetrable as far as wildlife is concerned. Eventually, like after a couple centuries, the new forest will again take on characteristics of an old growth forest, but in the meantime, as far as wildlife is concerned, it’s a desert.
Trout Unlimited doesn’t totally oppose logging. In the Tongass, big trees occasionally blow down in the forest, opening an area to sunshine and re-growth. Small logging projects that TU endorses mimic nature, without the environmental damage that big clear-cutting projects create.
I’m re-visiting this 2006 trip to Alaska because on August 27, President Trump instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt the Tongass National Forest from logging restrictions that have been in effect for the last 20 years.
It would also undercut a Clinton administration “roadless rule,” which has survived almost 20 years—until now.
Returning to big clear-cut logging in the Tongass threatens southeast Alaska’s environment, meaning the salmon ecosystem. According to a Washington Post report, the salmon industry generates some $986 million annually. Returning salmon bring nutrients that nourish the forests, while intact forests keep streams cool and trap sediment.
Chris Wood, the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, worked on the roadless rules while working at the Forest Service in the ‘90s. He told the Post that “the golden goose is the salmon, not the trees,” adding, “They need to keep the trees standing in order to keep the fish in the creeks.
In past years, government expenditures, such as for road building and other infrastructure costs, far exceeded revenues from timber sales. Thus big logging projects end up as financial boondoggles and a loss to taxpayers.
Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with the Trump Administration’s parade of bad policy decisions, even just those affecting environment and the outdoors. Recent cases in point include Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ordering NOAA administrators to clamp down on weather scientists, or the president’s recent order to push back Bush Administration legislation and Obama directives that began a phase-out of obsolete incandescent light bulbs.
It’s a challenge but it’s worth the effort.