I first visited southeast Alaska in 2004, the guests of a family from my home state of Idaho who had acquired a fishing lodge at the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island.
The lodge was–and still is–known for its salmon and halibut fishing in the waters of Sumner Straight, but the family wanted to expand their options a bit, and they asked me to come and fly fish the rivers and streams of Prince of Wales from the island’s expansive logging road system. The idea was to spend a week fishing the streams at the northern tip of the island and then report back to the lodge’s owners with notes and advice.
I’ve been back to the lodge twice more, and to this day, my favorite stretch of fly fishing water on the planet runs beneath one of the last few stands of old growth cedar, spruce and hemlock left on Prince of Wales. Needless to say, the fishing proved to be wonderful for pink salmon, chum salmon, Dolly Varden and the occasional sea-run cutthroat trout. In a couple of streams, coho salmon run in from the ocean and offer up a hard-fighting surprise on light fly tackle.
At the time, I knew little of the region’s industrial history, other than the obvious. I was fishing from a logging road, after all. It took only a week to see first-hand the impact logging on Prince of Wales had on the island’s waters over the years. While much of the island is intact, massive swaths of old-growth timber have been cut–some have been razed right up to the edges of salmon streams. Thick stands of juvenile second-growth timber–often single-species forests of “dog hair” so thick that moving among the small trees is impossible–are coming back to the clear-cut acreage, but it’s not ideal habitat for the island’s wildlife or for its watersheds.
It was clear that past logging practices on Prince of Wales were, at best, irresponsible. There was little consideration for the island’s other resources, like the black-tailed deer, black bears, moose and wolves. And, of course, for Prince of Wales’ salmon, trout and char. To a biological novice like me–like many anglers, I’ve learned about the connection between intact habitat and fishing opportunity–it was clear that the best fishing on the island took place in waters that flowed beneath the old-growth rainforest canopy.
It’s simple. Old-growth forests provide the appropriate filter for the region’s ample snow and rain. They stabilize the soils and filter the sunlight for shade-loving ground cover. They are key to the habitat balance required by fish and game to survive and thrive. Therefore, they’re key to fishing and hunting success, and, of course, to the region’s economically vital commercial fishing industry.
Sadly, even in southeast Alaska, half of the old-growth timber has been logged (and across the rest of the country, old-growth timber is even more scarce). It’s scientifically proven that this habitat provides the best refuge for fish and game, and is ecologically necessary for species ranging from raptors to deer to salmon. Simply put, protecting what’s left is vital.
Recently, a cadre of dozens of biologists, ecologists and scientists around the country sent a letter to President Obama, asking his support for a National Old-Growth Forest Conservation Policy that puts the protection of old-growth timber at the forefront of forest management in Alaska and throughout the country. It’s a common-sense policy grounded in science, and it speaks to the importance of old-growth timber, not only to the environment, but to the regional economies that depend on fishing, hunting and outdoor recreation for their prosperity.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service didn’t get the memo. It recently approved a huge timber sale on Prince of Wales in the Thorne River system—one of the most productive salmon rivers in all of Southeast Alaska. The sale drips with irony—in recent years, the Forest Service has agreed to shift the emphasis from timber to salmon on the Tongass National Forest—thousands of jobs in the region are dependent upon salmon, while only 100 or so timber jobs remain. The sale simply makes no sense to the commercial and recreational angling industries that quite literally carry the region’s economy.
Join TU and these scientists that include well-known figures like former U.S. Forest Service chiefs Jack Ward Thomas and Mike Dombeck, as well as TU’s own Senior Scientist Jack Williams, and let the White House know that protecting what’s left of America’s old-growth forests has never been more important.
Our fishing, today and for generations to come, will be better for it.