Lee Allen
A scene from Tongass National Forest, where numerous initiatives are under way to restore wildlife habitats.

Tongass National Forest, Nation's Largest, Is on the Rebound

Lee Allen

Mention Alaska and images immediately jump to mind of woods and waters filled with wonder. 

Wildness, as the naturalist John Muir observed, is the one thing that sets Alaska apart. This far-flung state’s allure to tourists is not what so-called Western civilization has done here, but what it has not. Indigenous Peoples have inhabited these lands for centuries, with Tlingit hunter-gatherer culture going back hundreds of not thousands of years. They fished and foraged and led the way for a growing American Indian/Alaskan Native population.

Even today, eagles soar overhead, black bear and Sitka deer call the nation’s largest boreal forest home, and marine life is still abundant. A third of Alaskan Native households still participate in a local hunting-fishing-gathering subsistence economy. Underlying that, though, is the degradation of habitat from centuries of logging. Over the past several years, many efforts have been undertaken to reverse that damage.

And what more logical place to start but but in the nation’s largest woodland, the magnificent 16.9-million-acre Tongass National Forest? Designated more than a hundred years ago, this pristine wilderness is rife with centuries-old tree growth. Initially the remoteness of the forest protected it, with just a few independent hand-loggers who cherry-picked shoreline trees. But things changed in the 1940s, when Congress authorized a timber-first policy that granted logging higher priority than such things as fishing. And with that change, massive old-growth trees came crashing down.

Sustainability was not a word often used in connection with mid-20th-century logging. Timber companies logged trees from one end of Prince of 145-mile-long Prince of Wales Island to the other, cutting thousands upon thousands of acres. The half-century of desecration went on until this century appeared, the sustainability light went on, and timber management practices changed.

“Streams had been breached and roads built to haul out logs, destruction that completely altered natural terrain in the bottomland,” said Forest Service Engineer Bob Gubernick. “Now is our chance to mop up and fix what was damaged or destroyed earlier.”

Now the restoration is under way. There is lots to do, especially on Prince of Wales Island, whose 1,600 miles of salmon-spawning stream habitat were heavily affected by past timber extraction. Salmon and trout represent a billion dollar industry in Southeast Alaska alone through commercial, sport, personal, and subsistence fisheries.

A number of groups are working hard to ensure that old mistakes get remedied and new ones aren’t made. Trout Unlimited has taken a lead on the long term, involving forest streams and rivers used for spawning.

“The Tongass Forest is THE salmon forest, a huge fish factory, and if managed correctly, it will continue to thrive for future generations,” said Trout Unlimited Alaska spokeswoman Paula Dobbyn. Fish and Game officials project that 132 million salmon will be caught throughout the state in 2014, with a huge portion harvested from waters surrounding Tongass trees. And a healthy forest ensures a healthy fish population.

“Two-thirds of Tongass salmon and trout habitat is not congressionally protected at watershed scale—it’s still open to development activities that could harm fish,” said Tim Bristol, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska program director. “Our concern, beyond that of the environment, revolves around a healthy fisheries industry and it’s time for Congress to better protect that forest’s richest resource—wild salmon.”

One way to accomplish this is something called the Tongass 77 initiative, which seeks leglslative protection for the 77 highest-value watersheds on 1.9 million acres currently open to development, an action that would “ensure extraordinary salmon/trout values of these watersheds into perpetuity,” according to the Tongass Timber Reform Act.

“It’s way easier to preserve an intact watershed than try to fix a broken one,” said Brad Elfers, owner of Alaska Fly Fishing Goods in Juneau.

Much of what has already been mauled or mismanaged is being considered for fixer-upper projects like the U.S. Forest Service multi-year Harris River/Fubar Creek riparian recovery effort. In the last two years, under the mantle of a restoration transition policy, Forest Service figures show a $10 million investment to improve degraded habitat—a good start, although estimates are that it will take $100 million to fix watersheds damaged by past logging activity.

Other notable rehab projects have taken place on Ratz Creek with the building of a $500,000 fish passage ladder to allow silver and red salmon access to upstream spawning grounds; watershed improvements at Staney Creek and the Harris River, and Forest Service/Nature Conservancy restoration efforts in several core areas of biological value.

Elsewhere, groups like the Wilderness Society are helping transition the Tongass into a more sustainable future by forest management that supports and protects fishing, tourism and recreation in Alaska’s southeast panhandle, while the Nature Conservancy is concentrating on land use surrounding salmon waters as part of its Campaign for a Sustainable Planet.

The National Forest Foundation (made up of citizen stewards working to ensure the health of forests in the future) is another major player.

“There are millions of acres in need of long-term restorative action,” said foundation spokeswoman Lisa McLaughlin. “For decades, the value of forests was measured in board feet logging terms. Today we’ve come full circle and realize the economics of healthy forest ecosystems permeate our lives much deeper than the products they generate.”

Lots of people working on lots of projects—sometimes singularly, sometimes in concert—but all with a similar mission of repairing the past to ensure a healthy future.

“Numerical successes are sometimes a guesstimate and when it comes to improvement of habitat, returns are, to some degree, difficult to put specific numbers on,” said Michael Kampnich of The Nature Conservancy, summing up the many efforts and their benefits. “Intuitively, however, when you help by improving natural elements that were screwed up in the past, you know darn well that if you fix it, things will get better.”