Here in Southeast Alaska we’re fortunate to have a 17-million-acre backyard (the Tongass National Forest) that contains some of the world’s most productive freshwater systems for salmon and trout. Unlike most places where wild salmon once thrived but are now lost or in severe decline, we still enjoy abundant, and sometimes, chart-topping, wild salmon runs. Last summer is a case in point. In 2011, Southeast experienced a record commercial salmon harvest topping $200 million, besting even Bristol Bay. Salmon and trout are a billion-dollar industry here employing more than 7,000 people– or one in 10 residents.
Despite our bounty, there’s work to be done to ensure that Southeast Alaska continues to have healthy wild salmon well into the future. The Forest Service estimates it needs $100 million to fix watersheds that were damaged by past timber harvest and associated roads. The agency has established that some 37 percent of all salmon-producing watersheds on the Tongass have been impacted by past logging. Over 5,000 miles of logging roads have been built here and Forest Service estimates suggest at least 55 percent of culverts and 35 percent of fish stream crossing on permanent roads do not allow adequate fish passage. Fixing these impaired crossings makes up a critical portion of the restoration work needed on the Tongass.
Restoration is a key component of the Forest Service’s transition policy — announced in May 2010 — that will move the agency focus to an economic future built around jobs in second growth forestry, fishing, tourism, mariculture, renewable energy and other sectors. Over the past two years, the Forest Service has invested over $10 million to improve degraded salmon habitat in the Tongass. The Forest Service Investment Strategy for Rural Communities in Southeast Alaska report, released last November, states that further “investment in watershed restoration will create immediate jobs in restoration, such as heavy equipment operation, and is expected to increase salmon productivity.” More fish boosts opportunity for commercial, sport, and subsistence harvest as well as additional fishing industry jobs.
Despite the demonstrated need and the stated commitment of the Forest Service to restore Tongass watersheds, some say there’s nothing to restore – that watersheds will heal on their own. In some places that may be true but why wait the couple hundred years that would take? Why not accelerate the process, improve fisheries and wildlife habitat and employ people in the woods doing restoration now? .
According to a December 2008 report by the McDowell Group, $8.4 million was spent in 2007 to restore damaged watersheds in Southeast Alaska. This included $5 million in contracts from the U.S. Forest Service and private landowners and $3.4 million in payroll by the Forest Service, private landowners and non-governmental agencies. In 2007, between 157 and 191 restoration jobs were created. The estimate for indirect spending totaled $10.7 million. The McDowell Group found for each $1 million spent on restoration, an estimated 20 to 22 jobs are created.
Although the ecological benefits of restoration are more difficult to quantify than jobs or revenue, they too are hard to deny. Opening blocked culverts creates access to more spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and trout and bolsters fish production. Thinning overly dense second-growth trees enhances both the emergence of understory plants important to deer and speeds the growth of large trees which provide shade and eventually large wood in streams which is beneficial to fish. These benefits aren’t generally realized overnight but restoration sets the stage for them to occur much more quickly than simply letting natural processes make the repairs.
There are watersheds in need of restoration throughout the region—near both small and large communities and on both public and private lands. Each one of these places represents an opportunity to put people to work in the woods, improve fish and wildlife habitat and to help insure we have abundant options for hunting, fishing and recreation. The bottom line is a fully funded Forest Service restoration program is a great investment that will pay dividends now and in the future.
• Kaelke, of Juneau, is the Southeast Alaska project director for Trout Unlimited.