Alaska's Tongass National Forest: Where old-growth forests are the key to the future

Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is an amazing landscape of rainforest-covered mountains and islands that provide habitat for salmon, bear, deer, wolves, and the Alaska people who have spent decades seeing the forest as a source of income from logging. But what if they were mortgaging their future all along?

A new report commissioned by The Wilderness Society found that in the Staney Creek watershed on Prince of Wales Island, the environmental degradation caused by the clearcutting of old-growth forests likely has caused a 60 percent decline in the number of adult coho salmon that return there to spawn. Simply put, old-growth trees keep creeks and rivers healthy. Trees provide shade, support banks, prevent erosion and, as they grow old and fall into streams, control the flow of water and provide fish habitat.

Damaging habitat and causing a drop in salmon populations is bad for the economy in a region where salmon fishing provides 10 percent of jobs, and many people depend on salmon to support their subsistence way of life. By contrast, the timber industry provides less than one percent of local jobs.

What has happened to Staney Creek has likely happened to many watersheds in the Tongass National Forest over decades of logging, and is probably still happening to other areas as commercial harvests of old-growth forests continue. Because it takes centuries for old-growth conditions to develop, logging is mortgaging the future of the Tongass by harming the resources that best support local economies.

“Old-growth logging on the Tongass has come with significant cumulative impacts to critical ecosystem services such as fish and wildlife habitat, carbon storage and beautiful vistas,” said Evan Hjerpe, a Wilderness Society economist who studies Tongass forest management. “This study highlights the need to shift management funds away from old-growth logging toward the protection of intact watersheds and the restoration of degraded watersheds.”

In other words, in addition to seeing the forest for the trees, it would be wise to also see the forest for its salmon; especially if you’re an Alaskan who wants your children and grandchildren to have opportunities to work in a prosperous fishing industry, harvest their own food from the forest, or just know that there are places in the world where nature still thrives.

By producing sound science, The Wilderness Society is working to give the U.S. Forest Service and the residents of Southeast Alaska information they can use to make the best possible decisions about how to manage amazing landscapes like the Tongass and, hopefully give the region a brighter and more sustainable future.