Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This Land is Your Land...

The vintage DeHavilland Beaver skittered away into the slate-gray Southeast Alaskan sky, leaving us with a short hike around a small isthmus to the mouth of the remote creek. The drum beat of the tell-tale rotary engine grew distant and faded altogether as we geared up and readied for the walk along the shoreline to the mouth of the unnamed sweetwater stream coursing out of the rainforest. In the salt, staging pink salmon frolicked and jumped from the water, their short lives arriving at the beginning of the end.

Here, a short plane ride from busy Juneau (there were five massive cruise ships at the dock and thousands of tourists milling about downtown when we took off from the airport) and yet hopelessly out of touch with civilization, we landed on our very own piece of real estate. Mine. Theirs. Yours.


Alaska's Tongass National Forest--all 17 million acres of it--belongs to each and every American by right of birth. It's bounded by the sea on the west and Canada on the east, and it has about 300 million owners, only a few of whom will ever have bother to set foot beneath its lush, green canopy. It's like owning a small share of West Virginia ... only this land is virtually pristine... untouched... untarnished... unspoiled.

No offense to West Virginia, of course. All of the Tongass' mountaintops remain intact and hopefully will for generations to come.

But I don't take that for granted. The Tongass is a giant fish factory that literally spills over every summer and fall with all five species of Pacific salmon, as well as Dolly Varden, an ocean-going and charismatic char, steelhead, sea-run cutthroats and even small populations of rainbow trout. It's salty depths are littered with prized table-fare like halibut and rockfish, and lightning-fast salmon sharks chase kings and cohos in the green waters of the Inside Passage.

It's this fishy recipe that hangs in the balance. And Trout Unlimited is out to protect that balance... to keep the Tongass healthy and functional... to keep it like it is. 

Years ago, swaths of the Tongass were razed during clear-cutting operations that targeted the
rainforest's unique old-growth timber. Some islands in the Tongass--like Prince of Wales, for instance--are still targeted for timber sales, despite the shaky economics of the industry these days, and the potential impacts these sales can have on the vibrant and economically vital commercial and recreational fishing industries in Southeast. In the Tongass, it's all about water--salmon need clean, cold water in which to spawn, and irresponsible timber harvests, and the construction of the infrastructure that goes with them, have impacted streams to point where spawning and rearing habitat for salmon is literally smothered by sediment. 

TU is approaching this challenge from a very pragmatic perspective. The organization has identified 77 intact watersheds in the Tongass that, if left as they are today, will produce salmon and trout for generations. It's proactive conservation--the kind of work that can ensure a future for both commercial and recreational fishers while allowing for the responsible harvest of timber where such activity is economically, environmentally and culturally feasible. 

As we rounded the point and hopped on a bear trail leading upstream into the rainforest, we noticed the little creek was choked with pink salmon. And there, lurking beneath the four-pound salmon were wily Dollies, awaiting the bounty that would surely come their way when the short-lived humpies, fresh from the salt, got down to the business of spawning. The Dollies are opportunistic feeders, and any unlucky salmon egg that works loose from the gravel will likely find its way into the belly of  one of these voracious and aggressive char. 

In the mud along the stream, fresh brown bear tracks told of the hours just past, when these big omnivores likely chased these very salmon around this very stream as the fish surged upstream on the last high tide. Above, the annoyed chirps of a dozen bald eagles reminded us that we're the visiting anglers, and that everything in this forest lives and dies with the fish at our feet. 

And the same could be said for Southeast Alaska. Communities ranging from Juneau and Wrangell to Petersburg and Ketchikan all depend on the annual returns of salmon to the rivers and streams of the forest. Left alone and managed wisely by science-based regulations, salmon will return year after year to these waters, and we'll have the chance to catch them ... and eat them. 

So long as their spawning and rearing waters stay intact, that is. You can help decide its fate by staying apprised of TU's work on the Tongass 77 campaign and the effort to keep the Tongass whole. 

A little help? Remember... it's your land, too.

Special thanks to RIO Products, Fishpond and Tenkara USA for helping TU shed some light on this important issue this summer. 


  1. I'm going to have to make that trip soon. Maybe next year.

  2. I read about this in the latest issue of TROUT! Kudos to you for gaining this opportunity and wow what a blog post here! Keep on doing what you're doing because you're doing it right.