The straits of southeastern Alaska that weave among thousands of forested islands are home to an array of marine life, including Dall’s porpoises, humpback whales and Steller sea lions.
Not too long ago, we thought we could improve upon what nature had perfected. We put bounties on bald eagles and Dolly Varden trout, thinking we were helping salmon by killing their predators. We tidied salmon streams, not realizing that nature’s chaos nurtures life. We built hatcheries and treated salmon like commodities instead of fine-tuned creatures that have carried their genetic message for millennia. We clear-cut ancient forests, not heeding the wisdom written in those growth rings of trees many centuries older than us. We did all of this with the best of intentions, thinking we were doing the salmon, forests and ourselves a favor.
That scientists have discovered salmon in the trees tells us that everything is connected. And if we start tossing away the pieces, we eventually unravel the whole glorious show. Salmon link the land to the sea, and they can’t survive if both aren’t healthy. Neither can we. Long ago, we knew how to live within nature’s constraints. We need the Tongass, if for no other reason than to connect us to the world that we once knew. When the circle is whole, so are we.
We’ve been given a great gift and an even greater responsibility. The Tongass is public land that belongs to all Americans. All the pieces are still here. But for how long? Its biological riches are vulnerable to the demand for minerals, timber, seafood, tourism and who knows what else down the road. Despite these threats, we can get it right in the Tongass simply because there’s still time, and we know it’s the right thing to do.
Tongass National Forest Quick Facts
Location: Southeastern Alaska; also called the Panhandle of Alaska or the Inside Passage
Size: 16.8 million acres, about the size of West Virginia
Geography: A narrow arc on the mainland coast bordering Alaska and British Columbia, with more than 5,000 islands in the Alexander Archipelago
Ecology: Coastal temperate rain forest with an annual precipitation ranging from 38 inches to more than 220 inches Wildlife: Some of the world’s highest densities of grizzly bears, black bears, bald eagles and salmon
Number Of Salmon-Spawning Streams: More than 4,500
Salmon In The Trees: Scientists have discovered salmon, in the form of marine-derived nitrogen, in trees near salmon-spawning streams Trees In The Salmon: Trees shade the spawning streams, prevent erosion and provide habitat for the juvenile salmon
Threats: Industrial-scale logging began after World War II. Clear-cutting and 5,000+ miles of logging roads have degraded salmon streams and other wildlife habitat in parts of the Tongass. Continued threats include logging, mining, industrial-scale tourism, energy development and global climate change.
Conservation: Enough critical areas of the Tongass are still intact, holding the ecological integrity of the ecosystem together. These areas aren’t protected from resource extraction, but the opportunity exists to preserve them. Amy Gulick’s book, Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest (Braided River, 2010), is part of a collaborative effort with conservation organizations to educate Americans about the significance of the Tongass rain forest.
Amy Gulick is an International League of Conservation Photographers Fellow. Learn about her new book Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest at www.salmoninthetrees.org.