Considering the current state and present threats to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one could imagine a polar bear clinging to a melting iceberg or an urban zoo that inhabits endangered species in pretend natural environments. One could then try to imagine such a future for the fish, plants, birds, animals, and people who cling to the Tongass National Forest before realizing the richness of this land cannot fit on any iceberg or in any zoo.
The Tongass National Forest is truly a natural national treasure. Trout are joined by all five species of Pacific salmon. An outdoors-enthusiast’s paradise, the natural landscape includes coastlines, mountains, rainforest, rivers, and waterfalls that nurture wolves, brown and black bears, bald eagles, and other treasured creatures.
This intact temperate rainforest is considered America’s Salmon Forest for its vast protected lands, free of migration-impeding structures such as dams and abundant with free-flowing streams, protected stillwaters, and river-neighboring land that is free of the pollution, erosion, overfishing, and other stresses that negatively impact many of the rivers of the lower forty-eight. In a world where nearly every salmon habitat has been destroyed or populations have been so decimated that they are threatened or populations are hardly recognizable, the Tongass National Forest is home to a strong, however threatened, salmon population that reminds anglers of what the Pacific Coast once was.
Just over 100 years ago, the United States recognized the value of preserving this land and protected it as a national forest. In the meantime, unprotected lands along the Western U.S. have encountered worst-case scenarios that have forever changed the state of Pacific salmon. The San Francisco Bay Area was once home to one of the largest brown bear habitats in the lower-forty eight as well as lush salmon runs, both of which are no more. The brown bear on the California flag is merely a reminder of what human failures have done to the state. Like ice melting in polar bear habitat, America’s treasured lands and salmon habitats are dwindling away like intense heat on already melting ice. At the Tongass National Forest, 65 percent of the salmon and trout habitat is not protected. As history shows, it is therefore only a matter of little time before these habitats are obliterated.
The Tongass is named in honor of the Tongass group of Alaskan natives that have inhabited the land for over 10,000 years and have treasured the land for just as long for a range of reasons. Just as how wild salmon sustain bear populations and the absence salmon bring the absence of bears, salmon also sustain cultures. Those who call the Tongass home regard the native salmon as a primary symbol and aspect of their culture, economy, and home. Surely the economic need of healthy salmon runs is crucially important. Considering fishing alone, Trout Unlimited has found that trout and salmon anglers at the Tongass National Forest annually generate approximately $1 billion and 7,300 jobs.
Threatening the salmon, trout, culture, and economy of the region is a familiar foe: progress. Often masked in the form of “new jobs” and “development,” what is under the mask is always the same: a loss of natural treasures, ecosystems, fish, animals, and local economies. In most cases, local peoples who once thrived on local economies are instead dependent on the businesses that have replaced what they once had. This is rarely, if ever, reversed.
Salmon are a creature whose magnificent migrations are a symbol of the greatness of nature. Likewise, their catastrophic demise symbolizes the human response to progress, development, and greed. It is imperative to protect this region if salmon are to remain and the 75,000 people native to the region are to retain their culture and economy. As John Muir famously stated, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The protection of the Tongass National Forest is necessary for all of us. We cannot allow the further demise of Pacific salmon and trout.