My Turn: Castle River deserves protection

Posted: Friday, April 10, 2009

Pollution, dams and development have decimated salmon runs on the West Coast of the United States and Canada. In contrast, Alaska still boasts healthy numbers of salmon, steelhead and trout.

But a Southeast Alaska river, noteworthy for its super-sized production of these high-value species, is under threat from the federal government and Trout Unlimited believes it deserves permanent protection.

Located 16 air miles southwest of Petersburg on Kupreanof Island, the Castle River produces tens of thousands of coho, sockeye, pink and chum every year, not to mention a plethora of cutthroat and rainbow trout, steelhead, and Dolly Varden char.

The Castle River drainage draws scores of visitors and locals alike because of its raw beauty, fish bounty and vast assortment of moose, bear, deer, waterfowl and other species. The U.S. Forest Service maintains two public-use cabins along the Castle River and describes the area as "exceptional" for hunting and fishing.

Indeed, together with its tributaries, the Castle River provides more than 30 miles of world-class fishing. State fishery regulators have classified the Castle River as a "Class I" system, meaning it's worthy of being placed off-limits from development activities, such as logging. But despite its widely recognized value, the river faces threats by its very own landlord.

The Castle runs through federal land and the agency that largely manages it - the Forest Service - wants to punch 25 miles of new road into Central Kupreanof Island to open up more places for clear-cut logging. These logging corridors would allow access to 70 million board feet of old growth timber from the Tongass National Forest. And the roads would cross fish-bearing streams in 139 places. Fish crossings, such as culverts and bridges, are notoriously bad for fish because they can clog or crumble, especially if they're not well maintained.

It's ironic that the Forest Service is proposing to build roads and level timber in Central Kupreanof's critical fish-producing watersheds. Back in 1997, a panel of the Forest Service's own fishery experts found that Kupreanof Island already had enough logging roads and stream crossings to warrant concern for maintaining existing fish habitat (the full report can be found at www.fs.fed.us/pnw/tlmp_app/050797a.pdf).

In the view of Trout Unlimited, the Forest Service has not adequately considered how 25 miles of new road, on top of the 35 miles of existing logging roads, will affect the island's rivers and streams that produce its legendary salmon runs and other fish. In fact, we argue that an area this rich in fish production should not be targeted for timber harvest.

Conservative estimates indicate commercial and sport fishing together account for roughly 20 percent of the total economy of Southeast Alaska. Salmon and the prices they fetch remain healthy and are one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy regional economy.

Bottom line: The Forest Service should stop planning timber sales in critical fish habitat and instead protect these valuable resources and the jobs and lifestyles they support.

• Tim Bristol is the director of Trout Unlimited in Juneau.



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