New report: Tongass salmon left behind as transition stalls

Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is back in the news again, this time in a Los Angeles Times article about a new economic study focusing on logging, salmon, tourism and how the Forest Service is spending your tax dollars in the country’s largest and wildest national forest. 

The article quotes Trout Unlimited’s Austin Williams as saying that the Forest Service is "throwing good money after bad" to support an industry on the decline while ignoring growth sectors like tourism and fishing. "They're cutting funding for the programs we rely on most, burning down the village to save it," Williams said.

In his blog post below, Williams takes a deeper dive into what’s happening on the Tongass and what the new report reveals:

By Austin Williams

In Southeast Alaska, hundreds of millions of wild salmon return each year to more than 5,000 streams and 4,000 lakes in the Tongass National Forest.  Decades-old Alaska Fish and Game estimates identify more than 300 steelhead-producing streams in the lush Tongass rain forest, but tight-lipped locals with a penchant for exploring beyond the beaten path know of many more.  As an angler, so long as you’re willing to brave soggy weather (parts of southeast Alaska receive more than 200 inches of rain a year) the Tongass should be at or near the top of your list of destinations for big, abundant anadromous fish.

And it’s not just fly-anglers that enjoy the Tongass.  Annual salmon migrations support commercial and subsistence fisheries throughout the region.  All told, salmon fishing—including sport, commercial and subsistence—account for about 10 percent of regional employment and contribute roughly $1 billion annually to the regional economy.  When you add in the tourism industry and the more than 1 million out-of-state visitors to the Tongass each year, tourism and fishing combine to account for about one-in-four jobs in southeast Alaska and more than $2 billion annually.

While salmon, wild rivers and the world’s largest in-tact temperate rainforest are the foundation of southeast Alaskan communities and economy, the Forest Service, which manages 80 percent of the region’s land base, remains stuck in the past.  While the Forest Service was once obligated to provide huge volumes of Tongass timber to two large pulp mills, those mills closed in the early 1990s and the fishing and tourism industries  came to the forefront.  

Following the long decline of the timber industry, and in recognition of the changing economic landscape of the region, in 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, announced it was developing a Tongass “Transition Framework.”  This change of direction was meant “to stabilize communities in Southeast Alaska by providing jobs around forest restoration, renewable energy, tourism and recreation, subsistence, fisheries and mariculture,” according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  The take-home message: it’s time to quickly end old-growth logging and move on to the region’s growth industries.  

While many southeast Alaskans initially hailed this announcement, progress toward meaningful change has stalled—and a new report by Headwaters Economics outlines just how far the Forest Service must go to make the Tongass transition a reality.  According to the report, the Tongass continues to spend more on its timber program than on its fish and wildlife, watershed protection, and recreation and visitor services programs, combined.  While the Tongass timber industry provides less than one percent of the region’s jobs, the logging program receives about 40 percent of the Tongass’ budget and has a net-loss to taxpayers of more than $20 million annually.

The impacts to fish and wildlife habitat from decades of industrial-scale clearcuts, often spanning many miles and encompassing entire watersheds, and the vast spider web of logging roads have left an enormous backlog of restoration work that needs to be done.  The Forest Service estimates will cost more than $100 million and take 50 years to repair all the watersheds damaged by logging.  Instead of investing in services to support the expanding tourism industry, the Forest Service announced earlier this year that it would be cutting its recreation program even further and shutting down many of its visitor facilities.  In essence, the Tongass has closed shop for the two industries most responsible for sustaining and stabilizing southeast Alaska communities.

By continuing to spend the large bulk of its resources on an outdated and costly timber program and failing to take advantage of opportunities for job creation in the fishing and tourism industries, the Tongass is throwing good money after bad and undercutting the foundation of the region’s growth industries.

Moving forward, as scrutiny on government spending increases and federal budgets tighten, the Forest Service must ensure its Tongass budget and staff allocations reflect the needs of the region.  For the very same reasons the Forest Service announced the Transition Framework in the first place, the Tongass needs to move away from costly old-growth timber sales and invest in fishing and tourism industries that provide jobs, promote sustainable management of forest lands, and contribute to stable, healthy local communities.  

It is far past time for the Forest Service to get serious and make good on its promises for a real Tongass transition.  Trout Unlimited remains committed to working with the Forest Service to protect the Tongass’ world-class fish and wildlife resources and make needed investments in restoration and visitor services, but we’ll also be watching closely and won’t hesitate to call it like we see it.  And in this case, the Forest Service needs to buckle down and find a new way of doing business on the Tongass that prioritizes southeast Alaska’s biggest jobs and revenue producers:  fishing and tourism.

Austin Williams fly fishes on the Tongass as often as possible.  He’s also TU’s Alaska director of law and policy.


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