JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — More than 200 scientists have signed onto a letter asking Congress to enact legislation protecting 1.9 million acres of salmon habitat in this country's largest national forest.
The proposal is billed at the “Tongass 77,” referring to the number of watersheds in the Tongass National Forest that would be protected from activities like logging, mine development and road-building. There is currently no bill pending in Congress but the roughly 230 scientists who signed the letter, dated Monday, as well as other activists, hope the plan will be picked up and sponsored as a bill.
John Schoen, science adviser emeritus for Audubon Alaska and a former state Fish and Game biologist, told reporters via conference call that there are administrative actions the U.S. Forest Service could take but those are temporary and the preference instead is to have a long-term solution. Supporters of the plan also see watershed-wide protections — rather than buffer zones or restrictions near streams or stream segments — as more meaningful.
Heather Hardcastle, commercial fisheries outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited in Alaska, said the goal behind the plan is not to “lock up” any more of the Tongass from other activities but to secure a designation for the lands that is “pro-fish and wildlife.”
The Tongass covers much of southeast Alaska and is billed as the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. According to the Forest Service, nearly 80 percent of the commercial salmon harvested from the region annually comes from the Tongass, and the forest produces on average 28 percent of Alaska's annual commercial salmon catch.
“Tongass salmon and wildlife are likely to be adversely affected by future development activities and climate change without additional protection,” the letter states. “Timber and mining development, road building, more than 40 proposed and existing energy projects and several initiatives to privatize large swaths of the Tongass are currently in the works. These development activities have the potential to significantly impact the spawning and rearing habitat of Tongass salmon and trout as well as other species affiliated with old-growth forest habitats.”
Hardcastle, also a commercial gillnetter, said examples of privatization include the proposed Sealaska lands bill making its way through Congress and efforts under way from a state timber task force.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said Monday morning that his office had not received the letter. Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said Murkowski's Sealaska bill contains the kind of protections the scientists and others are seeking for six watersheds.