Osprey Marketing Director and Conservation Alliance board member, Gareth Martins was recently invited on a trip to SE Alaska by the Alaska Wilderness League. Along with Conservation Alliance Executive Director, John Sterling and Hans Cole, Environmental Grants Manager for Patagonia, he gained firsthand, on-the-ground briefing on the campaign for permanent protection of this extraordinary area.
The flight from Seattle to Ketchikan is relatively short but it is truly like passing through a portal to an entirely different world. Approaching the airport on this cloudy afternoon, I can see nothing but water from the plane window. Suddenly, land comes into site, every inch of it covered by rich green vegetation and trees. Then a clear cut. Then the hugest wood mill I have ever seen. And then the tarmac. We have landed. Instantly the pace is slower, the people stronger, more resilient and relaxed.
After meeting up with John Sterling and Hans Cole, we head down to the float plane dock (adjacent to Ketchikan International Airport), to await our hosts Laurie Cooper, Rainforest Program Director and Justin Bricarell, Director of Corporate and Annual Giving ( now there’s an honest job title) for Alaska Wilderness League. They are already on board our float plane bound for Craig, Alaska. Craig is the hub of Prince of Wales Island, the third largest island in the United States. We’ll see that the island is an excellent bellwether for what is happening in the southern half of the Tongass National Forest.
Unlike other National Forests, commercial logging in roadless areas is allowed in the Tongass National Forest. Since roads have to be built to log, road building in rugged SE Alaska country is very expensive, and logging in this region has not been very profitable given the effort expended, we the taxpayers have footed the bill for years. 5,000 miles of roads meander throughout the Tongass at a cost of $40 million dollars per year. All for a program that employs less than 200 people in the region. By contrast, commercial fishing and tourism employ 10,000 people regionally.
So, the bottom line here is that AWL wants to help stop the logging and protect the remaining old growth in the Tongass. The House has overwhelmingly passed bills calling for the end of taxpayer subsidies for roads, but this has yet to translate to real policy. The benefit is clear – restored watersheds, a logging industry that once and for all transitions out of old growth harvesting practices to sustainable logging and most of all, the preservation of some of the finest old growth trees on the planet which among other things, provide all of us with – gasp – oxygen.
We are joined at dinner by Tim Bristol, Alaska Program Director for Trout Unlimited and Mike McKimens, skipper of the mighty NaPali. Our group is complete and after a dinner of fine Alaksan salmon and halibut, we are ready to go explore the beautiful Tongass National Forest.
Our first visit is to Fubar Creek, a Forest Service funded project that restored an important feeder creek on the island. Prior logging had gone all the way to the creek allowing alder to grow creek side and eliminating the presence of large trees which eventually fall into the creek, creating fish habitat. Additionally, paved road construction straightened the waterway a faster slow and growing erosion. Tim Bristol was a catalyst in convincing the Forest Service to fund the project which created a meandering creek with large logs to create eddies.
Our drive continues alongside some incredibly devastated land – massive and messy clear cuts. Pretty depressing stuff along with low clouds and intermittent rain. We are in a rainforest after all. Finally we’re rewarded. We pull off the road and a short hike brings us to a breathtaking waterway, the Thorne River. Tim tells us it makes for an incredible 17 mile canoe and is becoming more and more popular with tourists. Needless to say its character would forever be destroyed by logging.
Having concluded our short tour of Prince of Wales Island, we board the M/V Na Pali for three days and two nights of camping. Beside operating fishing excursions Captain Mike has played a big role in Craig in the effort to help convert the logging industry to more sustainable practices. He helped create a biomass project that heats water for the Craig schools and swimming pool. Wood waste is compressed into very dense bricks that are then incincerated thus creating heat from a much more sustainbale source than oil We motor out to Esquibe Island and establish a camp on shore on the edge of thick forest. The sheer diversity of life is astounding. The forest floor is thick with undergrowth. The shoreline is rich with sea creatures in tide pools. Hans and I set out for a kayak paddle and are greeted by dozens of sea otters and seals. Bald eagles are like robins – there is hardly a moment when one is not in our line of sight.
The next morning John, Hans and I set out in the kayaks again. On our way into the cove aboard the Na Pali the night before we had spotted a large humpback whale near a small rock island. We paddle out in hopes of seeing it again and are soon startled by a sudden breach in the distance. For the next few hours, we paddle around watching the whale as it does laps up and down the kelp bed near the island. At one point, the whale breaches only fifty feet away from John and me – all caught on video. Check it out here....
Later that day, we try some halibut fishing in a place called Halibut Harbor but to no avail! No worries, Halibut Harbor is beautiful, so we pull in the rods and paddle ashore in the kayaks to find camping. The area we are trying to camp in has some incredible old growth trees located about 300 yards in behind second growth. But with camping gear in a variety of different sized dry bags we have no way to carry it in. Ah, if we only had a few Osprey Argon 110’s! Dragging a 50 pound dry bag 300 yards is a big deal in the second growth forest. Additionally, there is literally nowhere to pitch a tent. The ground is choked with deadfall, the trees are too thick, the plant life isn’t very diverse. This is the result of logging decades ago followed by poorly managed second growth. In SE Alaska they do not replant trees like they do in the Pacific NW. So, the trees grow back on their own and often too thickly.
In the end we decide to “camp” on board the Na Pali. The weather is beautiful – blue skies hardly a breeze – very unusual for this part of the planet. But no one is complaining and we enjoy a long sunset, a THREE hour long sunset. In Alaska, the phrase “Wanna drink a beer and watch the sunset?” just doesn’t work. It is more like, “Wanna drink a six pack and watch the sunset?” I’m convinced this is the reason why beer sells so well in the state.
Next day is fishing day. We start out with some salmon fishing off the coast of Maurelle Island, which is entirely a wilderness area. Our expectations aren’t high on the salmon as the water is apparently still too cold for them to be this far in. So we motor out to halibut fishing grounds and soon those bottom feeders are biting. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, reels one in . Except for me. I catch a ratfish. Yes, a ratfish. Luckily my comrades share their halibut with me and the next day I discover the Ketchikan based band, the Ratfish Wranglers - so all is not lost. Check out their MySpace page here, http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=
John, Hans and I all came away from our Tongass trip with a deeper sense of appreciation for how special this area is and for the spirit of the people that live there. When it comes down to it, no one that lives there wants to see the continued dessimation of old growth trees. Until recently the environmental organizations that attempt to preserve places like this were often seen as adversarial by the locals. But the dynamics are changing. As Tim Bristol put it during one of our many group conversations on the trip, “At some point you’ve got to shift strategies, you have to start thinking about being a neighbor as well.”
The Tongass is our largest national forest at 17 million acres. 5.7 million acres are designated wilderness, but only 30% of that land actually contains trees – the rest is mountainous glacier and rock. The fact is that more than half of the actual old growth forest has already been lost to logging. Public awareness and support, both nationally and locally is at an all time high for permanent protection of what remains. It has been two decades since any wilderness was designated in this area. For the most part, the local economy has already moved away from old growth logging. Yet the forest service plan for the Tongass still calls for massive and unrealistic timber harvests.
Please take the time to learn more about the Tongass and support upcoming efforts in Congress to save it. Take a trip there. Hop on the Na Pali with Captain Mike. Hike through the rainforest. Catch a ratfish. Go see the Ratfish Wranglers. Drink a six pack while watching the sunset. Stare at the incredible vistas. Revel in the silence and the clean air and the abundance of LIFE. Enjoy the rain. There are too few places like this left on Earth. Don’t allow this one to be destroyed.