Southeast Alaska is one of America's great wild places. Old-growth spruce trees, prolific returns of Pacific salmon and abundant wildlife characterize the area.
Southeast Alaska also contains the Tongass National Forest. At 17 million acres, the Tongass is America's largest national forest. Nearly one-third of the world's remaining temperate rainforest lies within the Tongass. This is one of the few places in our country where we do not have to talk about how things used to be, but can appreciate what we have today.
In the past the Tongass National Forest has been managed as the Forest Service's tree farm. Large-scale clearcutting operations have created a patchwork of old-growth stands that many Oregonians might find eerily familiar. The Forest Service explains Tongass management for timber production by citing the need for local jobs and money for Alaska's economy. What they often fail to mention is that large portions of timber sales are exported out of state, essentially denying the Alaskan economy the monetary influx the Forest Service claims to be supporting. But most of the timber sold out of the Tongass is sent out of state as raw, unmilled logs — even the basic value-added processing happens out of state.
There is another logging sale on the table in the Tongass. Forest Service officials claim that the Big Thorne timber sale, which largely targets old-growth timber, is necessary to make the transition to future second-growth timber operations. The agency is essentially saying that if we give them just a little more old growth, they'll work toward targeting second-growth timber next time. What that means for us is that it's business as usual, with an additional 6,000 acres of old-growth going to the mills.
What is even more devastating about the Big Thorne sale is that it will be targeting the remaining gaps between previously logged areas. In the past the Forest Service has defended its clearcutting operations by pointing to buffer areas that remain intact. These buffer areas are important ecologically for salmon-bearing streams as well as migratory animals. Now the Forest Service wants us to forget about the importance of buffer areas so it can clearcut those as well. In the end, the Big Thorne sale will have a devastating effect on an area that is fragile, unique and already heavily impacted.
So why is this important to Oregonians? Because there are real economic and recreational ties between Oregon and Alaska. In 2012 alone, more than 4,500 Oregonians obtained fishing permits in Alaska. Think about how many people you know in Oregon who visit Alaska, fish Alaska or spend their summers working in Alaska. The company I work for sends anglers from around the country to fish in the Tongass region. Likewise the rivers of the region remain a stronghold for diminishing wild salmon stocks. For the health of all wild fish we need to preserve and protect places like the Tongass. The cumulative effect is that we have a real stake in how our country's largest National Forest is managed.
Each year, over 1.2 million people visit the Tongass. Those visitors support 10,000 jobs and contribute $1 billion worth of economic activity. These are not insignificant statistics. The Tongass supports a real, sustainable economy. Continued large-scale old-growth logging jeopardizes all of it. Now is the time to transition management of the Tongass to prioritize recreation, tourism, fishing and healthy, productive habitats that we can enjoy now and in the future. Call Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and your representative in Congress. Ask them to help lead the Forest Service's transition. In Oregon, we're tied to the Tongass.
Charles Gehr is a staff member of Fly Water Travel and a volunteer for the Alaska Wilderness League.