My Turn: Why conservation of the Tongass matter

  • Monday, March 21, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Last week, I was part of a small group that travelled from Southeast Alaska to Washington D.C. to draw attention to efforts by the American Salmon Forest Coalition to conserve the Tongass 77 (T77), a collection of over 70 high-value salmon watersheds in the Tongass National Forest.

While our group was small, we represented a diverse set of interests, including a Juneau-based guide outfitter who operates fly-out fishing and bear viewing trips under a Tongass National Forest special use permit for many areas in Southeast Alaska, including several of the T77 areas, a commercial gillnetter who relies directly on healthy salmon runs to sustain his business, and myself a charter boat captain. You may well be wondering why I, as a boat captain, was moved to advocate on behalf of the Tongass when the sole focus of my trips is wildlife viewing and not catching fish?

The humpback whales that my passengers come to see are inexorably linked to the pacific salmon both directly and indirectly. After their breeding season in Hawaii the whales return to Alaska. They haven’t eaten since the previous September and they begin to feed immediately. Initially they target salmon smolt in the estuaries of the Tongass as the fish transition from fresh to salt water. The salmon smolt are a vital feed source for these 40-ton monsters.

The Tongass National Forest is the issue that brought about this unlikely alliance, specifically its salmon and salmon habitat, which ultimately pays our wages and allows us to run our businesses. The T77 represents a mere 11 percent of the land area in the Tongass, yet these creeks and rivers represent a disproportionately large slice of the total available spawning and rearing habitat of the Tongass — 23 percent to be exact.

Given that salmon fisheries generate $1 billion annually and provides 7,500 jobs (or 10 percent of the region’s employment), it is easy to see why many in the commercial fishing industry are keen to see these areas conserved. Similarly, tourism relies directly on a healthy Tongass for survival.

The Tongass is the main economic driver for a tourist industry which contributes $1 billion to the regional economy. It is also responsible for an estimated 14 percent of the region’s employment. Tourists come to Southeast Alaska to go sport fishing, bear viewing, whale watching and to see an intact rainforest.

As a whale watching captain in Juneau, I operate nearly all my tours within 10 nautical miles of the estuary of Herbert River, which is included in the T77. Every day my passengers pay good money to observe seals, sea lions, eagles, orcas and humpback whales. These animals and birds benefit either directly or indirectly from having a healthy salmon habit. With tourist numbers increasing annually, it is an economic imperative to maintain the area that they are coming to see. Alaska is an experiential destination and if we remove or curtail their opportunities to experience salmon and salmon habitat, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

Our trip to Washington D.C. was an effort to highlight the economic benefits of conserving the T77, regardless of political affiliation. The response we received was overwhelmingly positive from legislative offices on both sides of the aisle. The Alaska delegates were keen to meet with us, and we had particularly constructive talks with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and her staff, and the staff of Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. I want to thank Sen. Murkowski in particular for being so generous with her time and for her careful consideration of the need to ensure Southeast Alaska’s tourism and fishing industries remain robust into the future.

Moving forward, I believe that there is no reason to pick winners and losers when it comes to the commercial and recreational use of the Tongass, and specifically the T77. The key to this will be maintaining a dialogue that can include all industries and lead to economic prosperity throughout the region. However, the stark reality of the situation is that if we can’t conserve the viability of our healthy salmon runs and the habitat that sustains them, and our commercial, sport and subsistence fishing, as well as tourism, all will suffer and that will negatively impact our regional economy.

The Tongass is our home, and as we move forward I feel proud to have had the opportunity advocate on its behalf.

• Alan Corbett lives on Douglas Island.

More in Opinion

Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

Former Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch in 2018. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
My Turn: Assembly needs to retreat

We might not be privy to what the Assembly’s agenda is, but… Continue reading

The Stikine River Flats area in the Tongass National Forest is viewed from a helicopter on July 19, 2021. The Stikine River flows from British Columbia to Southeast Alaska. It is one of the major transboundary rivers impacted by mines in British Columbia. (Photo by Alicia Stearns/U.S. Forest Service)
Opinion: Facing transboundary mining, Alaskans shouldn’t buy industry rhetoric

“Rest assured,” writes Michael Goehring, president of the British Columbia Mining Association,… Continue reading

(Juneau Empire File)
Letter: Attorney general’s letter to libraries are an abuse of office

Earlier this month Treg Taylor, Alaska’s attorney general, published a letter to… Continue reading

An aging outhouse overlooks Tenakee Inlet. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
My Turn: Murkowski’s bill will dramatically change map of public land in Southeast Alaska

There has been very little reporting on federal legislation that would greatly… Continue reading

(Photo courtesy of the City and Borough of Juneau)
Opinion: Choosing a seat at the table

To advocates for limiting cruise ship tourism and combatting climate change, partnering… Continue reading

A photo of Juneau featured on the front cover of this year’s annual “Economic Indicators and Outlook” by the Juneau Economic Development Council. (Juneau Economic Development Council)
Opinion: Troubling trends deserve Assembly attention

The economic indicators report published last month by the Juneau Economic Development… Continue reading

Passengers return to the Norwegian Sun on Oct. 25, the final day of this year’s cruise ship season in Juneau. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
My Turn: “Partnering” with cruise ship industry isn’t in Juneau’s interests

Regarding Jim Powell’s lecture at the Evening at Egan event on Friday,… Continue reading

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., questions Navy Adm. Lisa Franchetti during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 14 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Opinion: Music to the ears of America’s adversaries

Two weeks ago, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan made a commendable effort to… Continue reading

Fog drifts through the trees in the Tongass National Forest on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)
My Turn: A response to ‘There are no Landless Natives in Southeast Alaska’

Where to begin? Rebecca Knight’s — at best implicitly xenophobic and factually… Continue reading

(Juneau Empire File)
Letter: Thankful to see the construction by local Native organiztions

Sitting in my living room listening to nails pounding into the old… Continue reading

Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board members, staff and advisors meet Oct. 30 at the corporation’s headquarters in Juneau to discuss a proposal to raise the fund’s rate of return by making riskier investments. The idea stalled when advisors suggested the strategy and timing are ill-advised. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File).
My Turn: Need for accounting and legislative oversight of the Permanent Fund

The governor or Legislature or both need to conduct an audit format… Continue reading