My turn: Tongass is a salmon forest first

When visitors from around the world enjoy a cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage, they are experiencing the Tongass National Forest as a scenic wonder.

I live in Sitka, and when I look at the Tongass, I see salmon because I’m a salmon fisherman, and the Tongass is first and foremost a salmon forest. It is one of nature’s great salmon-producing factories.

Though the Tongass has just 5 percent of Alaska’s land area, it produces almost 30 percent of the state’s wild salmon.

Add up all the commercial salmon fishing, all the sport fishing for salmon and trout, all the salmon that Alaskans take to feed their families, and you learn that the fish coming from the Tongass drive almost $1 billion of economic activity in Southeast Alaska’s economy every year.

The Tongass could produce even more salmon if vast areas of the old-growth forest had not been mowed down. Logging operations that supported two giant pulp mills chewed up streams, caused erosion, and spoiled miles and miles of good fish habitat.

I’m familiar with places on Prince of Wales Island that have been so hammered for so long, local coho runs are finding it difficult to survive. We used to have really good fisheries in places like Clarence Strait, Sumner Strait, and Point Baker. Those areas have been really hurt by clear cutting huge areas of old-growth forest.

These days, the Forest Service says it recognizes the need to change the way it manages the Tongass. It will move away from old growth logging, and try to shift logging into second-growth areas. As that shift takes place, the agency wants to maintain jobs by doing a lot of work to repair past damage inflicted by old-style logging.

That kind of talk is good news, but the Forest Service is still pushing big timber sales in old-growth forest. The agency spends millions and millions of dollars every year preparing timber sales nobody buys. These days, the good timber that’s left is too remote and too expensive to cut and still make a profit in the face of cheap competition around the world.

Still, I’m encouraged to see a growing number of restoration projects — like the public-private partnership that will restore the Sitkoh River this season. There’s plenty of that work to be done throughout the Tongass.

Culverts that block fish passage need to be fixed or removed. Old logging roads that cause erosion need to be closed and replanted. Workers can thin dense undergrowth along streams, to improve habitat. And contractors can be hired to put some downed trees back in those streams, to break up the flow of water that fish, especially coho, need to survive.

Today’s modest timber industry can survive too. The Forest Service should put its timber money into accelerating the shift to second-growth wood production. Second growth is smaller, but it can be a good source of dimensional lumber.

When we talk about the old growth forests of the Tongass, though, the real economic future is not logging, it’s salmon. When you are cutting down old growth, you withdraw capital from the bank — and you’re not earning interest any more. Leaving the forest standing pays steady dividends — every year, salmon return to the forested streams and rivers throughout the Tongass.

The West Chichagof-Yakobi wilderness area near Sitka, for example, produces an awful lot of my annual income. To me, that wilderness is not a playground for adventure travelers, it is a breadbasket that helps feed my family.

I commend the Forest Service for pursuing more and more restoration projects. They’re on the right track doing more thinning of second-growth areas. I just wish the agency would give up on trying to resurrect the old industrial-scale timber industry by offering big sales of old-growth. Protecting the old-growth in the Tongass is a sound investment in the future of one of the region’s biggest industries, salmon.

• Severson is a salmon troller who lives in Sitka.

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