JUNEAU — More than 200 scientists have signed onto a letter asking Congress to enact legislation protecting 1.9 million acres of salmon habitat in this country’s largest national forest.
The proposal is billed at the “Tongass 77,” referring to the number of watersheds in the Tongass National Forest that would be protected from activities like logging, mine development and road-building. There is currently no such bill pending in Congress but the roughly 230 scientists who signed the letter, dated Monday, as well as other activists, hope the plan will be picked up and sponsored as a bill.
John Schoen, science adviser emeritus for Audubon Alaska and a former state Fish and Game biologist, told reporters via conference call that there are administrative actions the U.S. Forest Service could take but those are temporary and the preference instead is to have a long-term solution. Supporters of the plan also see watershed-wide protections — rather than buffer zones or restrictions near streams or stream segments — as more meaningful.
Heather Hardcastle, commercial fisheries outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited in Alaska, said the goal behind the plan is not to “lock up” any more of the Tongass from other activities but to secure a designation for the lands that is “pro-fish and wildlife.”
The Tongass covers much of southeast Alaska and is billed as the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. According to the Forest Service, nearly 80 percent of the commercial salmon harvested from the region annually comes from the Tongass, and the forest produces on average 28 percent of Alaska’s annual commercial salmon catch.
“Tongass salmon and wildlife are likely to be adversely affected by future development activities and climate change without additional protection,” the letter states. “Timber and mining development, road building, more than 40 proposed and existing energy projects and several initiatives to privatize large swaths of the Tongass are currently in the works. These development activities have the potential to significantly impact the spawning and rearing habitat of Tongass salmon and trout as well as other species affiliated with old-growth forest habitats.”
Hardcastle, also a commercial gillnetter, said examples of privatization include the proposed Sealaska lands bill making its way through Congress and efforts under way from a state timber task force.
Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said Murkowski’s Sealaska bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich, contains the kind of protections the scientists and others are seeking for six watersheds. But Hardcastle said it doesn’t go far enough. She also said another four other watersheds among the “Tongass 77” overlap with areas that could be could be selected for timber harvest.
Rep. Don Young, in a statement, said the “Tongass 77” proposal is “a fine fundraising tool, but is hardly legitimate public policy with any chance of seeing the light of day in Congress while I’m here.”
“The majority of Southeast Alaska is already locked up via national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas and restricted land use designations,” said Young, who also is sponsoring a version of the Sealaska bill. He called the “Tongass 77” plan unreasonable and said it “further demonstrates that enough is never enough for these groups.”
A spokeswoman for Begich said Monday morning that his office had not received the letter.
Wayne Owen, director of wildlife, fisheries and watershed for the Alaska region of the Forest Service, said all streams on the Tongass have what the agency considers an adequate degree of protection. The Forest Service is in the midst of its five-year management review of the Tongass, with the public comment period, which began in January, closing at the end of this month.
Owen said forest managers are “very open and very interested in all the input they can get so they can understand what the public wants to see more of, how the public feels like the Tongass plan is working and where it might be improved.”
Tongass National Forest: http://1.usa.gov/17D6nPn
For more on the ‘Tongass 77’ proposal: http://americansalmonforest.org/