Sitka couple accepts honor for Tongass conservation group

Posted: Friday, October 22, 2010

Two founding members of the Sitka Conservation Society accepted the Bob Marshall Champions of Wilderness Award on Oct. 14 for the organization's efforts to protect portions of the Tongass National Forest.

Now in their 80s, Chuck and Alice Johnstone were a couple that founded the SCS in 1967 to protect the nation's largest national forest, the Tongass, which also contains nearly half of the world's remaining intact coastal temperate rainforest. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell presented the award at this month's ceremony.

"We're thrilled. It is a wonderful milestone in Sitka and within the Forest Service," Alice Johnstone said. "Forty years ago, when we started our work, we never dreamed we'd see a day like this, when the Forest Service and our group would be standing together to celebrate the beauty and wilderness of the Tongass National Forest."

The couple was chosen to accept the award because they are the oldest living members of the club still living in Sitka, Alic said.said But, she said, the award goes to all the members who worked hard during that time to establish protected areas of rain forest.

In the late 1960s, SCS launched Alaska's first citizen-initiated wilderness campaign. Their citizens' proposal called for the protection of unique coastal habitat on Yakobi and Chichagof Islands along the Tongass' outer coast. At the time, the area was threatened by taxpayer-subsidized clearcutting of old-growth forest, which served to feed the Alaska Pulp Company in Sitka. This was one of two industrial pulp mills that operated under 50-year contracts until the late 1990s.

When the wilderness proposal was launched and advanced, the Johnstones and other members of SCS represented a determined and vocal minority in Sitka. According to Johnstone, the proposal faced opposition from the Forest Service and Alaska's politically powerful timber industry who were worried that it might restrict the supply of old growth trees for the mill.

After more than a decade-long campaign, SCS and the Johnstones succeeded when the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area was designated as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

"This honor is an accumulation of a life's work for them," said SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms. "Back then, no one was thinking about this kind of thing. They were grassroots people and looked at their natural environment as something to preserve."

Protecting these wild areas is important today and will remain important for future generations, he said.

"The past has proven the value of congressionally protecting some parts of the Tongass. Wilderness shelters our valuable salmon watersheds which produce millions of fish every year," Thoms said. "Not only do Alaskans use and depend on these lands, but also people from around the world come to Alaska to visit and experience them."

Today, SCS is working with the Forest Service and the community to be effective stewards of the Yakobi-West Chichagof Wilderness Area. The original citizen's proposal for Wilderness encompassed an area that was roughly 50 miles long by 10 miles wide and totaled close to 400,000 acres. The final Wilderness designation was pared down to 264,000 acres.

And although the Johnstones are not as active in the conservation society as they have been in the past, they still support the group financially, Alice Johnstone said, and they get out into Mother Nature as often as possible.

"My favorite trail is right here in Sitka," she said. "It's the new Beaver Lake trail and goes from Herring Cover up to Beaver Lake. It's just gorgeous."

Yesterday, they went out and picked cranberries.

The Bob Marshall Champions of Wilderness Award exists in honor of Bob Marshall who was a legendary figure in the early wilderness preservation movement, who worked for the Forest Service in the 1930s and helped found The Wilderness Society.

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