Southeast fishermen lobby for watershed protection

The narrow, twisting slice of ocean called Tracy Arm Fjord weaves through the Tongass National Forest for roughly 35 miles.

The narrow, twisting slice of ocean called Tracy Arm Fjord weaves through the Tongass National Forest for roughly 35 miles. (Photo by Neil Clement/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest, stretches 500 miles along the southeast panhandle.

And it’s part of one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries.

“The economy has really transitioned to this replenishable, healthy fishery,” said Jesse Remund.

Remund fishes with his family off the southern tip of Baranof Island. He said the region has moved beyond timber. In fact, he doesn’t know anyone who works in logging anymore.

His family fishes black cod and halibut and Coho salmon.

Remund, in Washington D.C. this week, met with Democratic Congressional staffs to urge them to upgrade the protective status of some 1.9 million acres in the Tongass.

“We would like to see these 77 watersheds protected as a start, it’s just under two million acres, so we’re not trying to cut off any possibility for all development.”

The advocacy group Trout Unlimited organized the trip. It hopes Congress will officially designate the 77 watersheds, which are scattered throughout the forest, from north of Yakutat to south of Ketchikan, as Land Use Designation Two (LUD-2) Unlike wilderness status, LUD-2 allows some limited development.

Matt Boline runs a fly fishing company in Juneau. He takes tourists of the cruise ships into the forest on float planes.  He said people pay to catch fish; they don’t like to fork over money and not catch anything.

He takes them where he knows they’ll get bites, including some of the 77 watersheds he’d like to see upgraded. He said 60 of them never been logged or have no roads.

“The heart of this is that we’re trying to protect something that’s not broken yet, instead of going back and fixing something after we’ve screwed up,” he said at the office of the Alaska Wilderness League.

The timber industry, much of which was effectively idled in the mid 90′s, would love to get into the old growth forest. Owen Graham, director of the Alaska Forest Association, called the increased protection totally unnecessary.

“We don’t have enough access to timber resources to keep more than one sawmill open in a region that has the largest national forest in the country,” he said in a Tuesday phone interview.

Graham said the state and federal governments have enacted sufficient protections for salmon habitat, and 77 new protected watersheds would not increase the health of the fish population.

His main concern: getting people back in logging  jobs.

“We’ve gone from about 3,000 to 4,000 people with direct jobs to our industry to somewhere between 400 and 600 people.”

The timber industry has an ally in the U.S. Forest Service, at least on this issue.

Wayne Owen is a director with the Forest Service. He said the Tongass National Forest already has various land use designations designed to protect salmon.

“We have substantial amounts of wilderness in the Tongass National Forest,” he said Tuesday morning. “There are a lot of roadless areas that protect salmon. And frankly, a lot of the northern parts of the Tongass where a number of these watersheds are are not actively managed, there’s not a lot of ground disturbing activities in them. For the most part, we’re doing a very good job.”

Trout Unlimited brought forward a similar plan last Congress only to see it fade. This time around, it said it’s more optimistic it will gain traction.

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