AMERICA'S SALMON FOREST
IMMENSE. WILD.BEAUTIFUL. CRITICAL.
Welcome to the Tongass National Forest — what many people call the United States’ most unique national forest. It’s vast — approximately the size of West Virginia — and occupies most of Southeast Alaska. At nearly 17 million acres, it is the world’s largest remaining temperate rain forest and hosts some of the rarest ecosystems on the planet.…
A magnificent landscape of western hemlock, Sitka spruce, western red cedar and yellow cedar trees, the Tongass contains thousands of mist-covered islands, deep fjords, tidewater glaciers and soggy muskegs that provide ideal habitat for a vast array of wild plant and animal species, including healthy salmon and trout populations. Approximately 40% of the Tongass is composed of wetlands, snow, ice, rock and non-forest vegetation, but the remaining 10 million acres are forested. Beneath these massive conifers are young evergreens and shrubs such as devil’s club, blueberry and huckleberry. Moss and ferns cover the ground, and lichens drape many trees.
The region is home to over 70 species of small and large mammals including squirrels, marten, moose, mountain goats, the Alexander Archipelago wolf and the Sitka Black Tailed Deer. The Tongass is notorious for its brown and black bear populations as there are more bears in the Tongass than in the lower 48 states combined. In addition to the vast number of mammals, there is extensive avian life. Many migratory birds, such as the Arctic Tern, spend summer months nesting on the Tongass’ archipelago. Other bird species include Northern Goshawks and Marbled Murrelets. As many as 10,000 bald eagles, the world’s largest concentration, reside in the Tongass.
The fuel for the entire ecosystem are the fish, particularly the salmon. All five species of North American Pacific salmon use this area as critical spawning and rearing grounds. During their spawning migrations, the salmon bring external nutrients from the Pacific ocean back to the forest where these nutrients feed all the other plants and animals in the Tongass.
AMERICA'S SALMON FOREST…
The Tongass National Forest has been dubbed “America’s Salmon Forest” ... and for good reasons. The Tongass includes more than 15,700 miles of clean, undammed streams and 4,100 lakes and ponds that provide optimal spawning and rearing conditions for the region’s abundant wild salmon and trout. The waters of the Tongass host all five species of North American Pacific salmon (Chinook, Coho, Pink, Sockeye and Chum), Steelhead, Rainbow Trout, and both resident and sea-run populations of Cutthroat Trout and Dolly Varden.
Each year as millions of wild salmon return to Tongass streams to spawn and die, they bring nutrients from the North Pacific Ocean to the forest. Whether though decomposition after spawning and dying, or after being digested by predators, their nutrients feed the entire forest— plants and animals alike. In fact, “salmon” nutrients have been found more than a mile away from the waterways proving that these fishes’ contributions extend far beyond the shorelines and riverbeds of the Tongass. Enriched by this annual salmon return, the Tongass literally is a “salmon forest”
It’s not only the plants and animals that rely on the fish to survive. Commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing for salmon is a centerpiece of the region’s economy and way of life. All told, fishing contributes close to a billion dollars in economic activity to the regional economy and accounts for more than 1 in 10 jobs in Southeast Alaska annually. The wild salmon spawned and reared in the Tongass National Forest represent approximately 70 percent of all wild salmon harvested from our national forests, roughly 24 percent of Alaska’s overall salmon catch, about 30 percent of the salmon caught on the West Coast of the United States and close to 13 percent of the salmon harvested on the Pacific Rim.
These are diverse and fragile habitats which host a wide range of flora and fauna that coexist in delicate balance. All of them rely either directly or indirectly on the salmon for their sustenance and survival. Should the salmon (and trout) populations/ecosystems wither for any reason, the entire Tongass will be affected. Since it’s establishment in the early 1900’s, the Tongass National Forest has been recognized as a critical wildlife area and has seen protection at various levels.
STRESSES ON THE REGION
Despite its stature as an internationally significant forest, 65-percent of the Tongass’ salmon and trout habitat is not protected at the watershed scale. This means millions of acres of temperate Alaska rainforest are open to development activities that could permanently harm important fish and wildlife habitat.
Limiting further habitat degradation is one of the keys to the continuation of the Southeast Alaska salmon success story, and watershed-scale conservation is a way to achieve this objective. As one may expect with regions like this, there is a human and entrepreneurial interest in Southeast Alaska's many resources such as timber, energy and, yes, fish.
And while the history of the Tongass is deeply intertwined with the logging industry and the even more impactful road construction that frequently accompanies these initiatives, the region has always had its protectors and is in a better state than many other similar regions. That being said, it is imperative that individuals and groups keep a steady watch on the region's future with a focus on salmon and the other species of wildlife that are the true heart and soul of the Tongass National Forest… America's Salmon Forest.
Thankfully, Trout Unlimited, the Sportsman's Alliance for Alaska, the USFS and other conservation groups have dedicated substantial energy and resources to initiate environmental studies and conservation/restoration efforts within the Tongass. This work has been critical in keeping the American Salmon Forest in the minds of both the public and decision-makers. Umpqua is proud to now be involved as well.