My Turn: Alaska's fish need to have habitat protected

Posted: Sunday, June 09, 2002

Too often, those of us of us who love to catch fish - commercial, sport and subsistence users, focus on our differences rather than searching for common ground. Now, all of us who care about salmon, trout and steelhead, have an issue we all can agree upon - habitat protection.

Last spring a federal judge ordered the Forest Service to review all 115 Tongass National Forest roadless areas for their potential to be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Many of these areas contain low-lying, high-elevation, old-growth forest - the high quality fish-spawning-and-rearing habitat that grows more scarce with each new timber sale on the Tongass. On May 17, the Forest Service released the "Tongass Land Management Plan Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement: Roadless Area Evaluation for Wilderness Recommendations."

Don't let the title fool you, when it comes to coldwater fisheries this is important stuff. Incredibly, the Forest Service-preferred alternative provides no new protection for Tongass fish habitat. That, in combination with the administration's leadership paralysis on the imperative of protecting other inventoried roadless areas, should unite anglers of all stripes in common cause.

Whether you're a commercial fisherman, subsistence user, recreational fisherman, or guide, the quality and future of your pursuit boils down to one common denominator: Habitat. At the moment, there is habitat aplenty on the Tongass. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has identified more than 2,000 anadromous fish-bearing streams. These streams account for roughly 1 million sport-caught fish, 160 million pounds of commercially caught salmon, and 1.2 million pounds of subsistence-caught salmon for the Southeast Alaska region annually.

These staggering numbers represent an asset to be managed conservatively, with an eye on the future. It is this simple: Without intact, wild streams and watersheds, eventually there will be far fewer fish to fight over.

Without further protective measures, commercial and recreational fishing opportunities in the Tongass will continue to be compromised by a spaghetti-like forest road system built to log timber at a loss to taxpayers. Already, the Tongass is criss-crossed with over 4,500 miles of logging road. It's well known that failing culverts block passage of migrating salmon and eroding roadbeds silt in spawning areas. A recent joint Forest Service and Fish & Game study reviewed the condition of roads in the Tongass, and found that "66 percent of the culverts across salmon and steelhead streams are assumed not to be adequate for fish passage. Eighty-five percent of the culverts across resident fish streams are assumed not to be adequate for fish passage."

We haven't yet cleaned up after the mess roads have already made in the Tongass. Why would we, the citizen-owners of these lands, allow more miles to be built before the old damage is attended to?

In addition to the economic value of the Tongass' fishery there is the wilderness value to consider. Watersheds where you're more likely to run into a bear or wolf than another human make even a slow day of fishing a great one. Like the fish born of these wild places, they are in themselves a treasure. Like anything of value, the treasure of a truly wild day of fishing is getting harder to come by. By protecting some of these areas we can guarantee our children will have places to fish that are still truly wild.

The Forest Service's inaction on protecting roadless areas begs a few questions. Is it an alternative preferred by the fisherman of Alaska, and those that come to visit and spend money in our local economies? Are we willing to see quality fishing and wilderness experiences on public lands forfeited to taxpayer-subsidized timber conglomerates? Are we content to fight among ourselves for our fisheries resources when we could be fighting to ensure there will be enough fish for all of us?

You can send comments before Aug. 16 to:

USDA FS Tongass NF, Content Analysis Team, P.O. Box 9079, Missoula, MT 59807

Fax: (406)329-3556

Brad Elfers is the vice president of the Juneau chapter of Trout Unlimited and a fly fishing retailer. Chris Wood is director of watershed programs for Trout Unlimited.

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