That legislation would permanently conserve the most productive and currently unprotected watersheds for salmon and trout across nearly two million acres, the scientists said in an announcement June 10.
The 17-million acre national forest produces about 70 percent of all wild salmon harvested from national forests in the United States and roughly 28 percent of Alaska’s overall salmon catch, U.S. Forest Service data shows.
Tongass 77 legislation would permanently protect 58 percent of all Tongass salmon and trout spawning and rearing habitat at the watershed scale, said Heather Hardcastle, a Juneau gillnet fish harvester and biologist who works for the Trout Unlimited Alaska program, a supporter of the legislation.
Scientific research conducted by Audubon Alaska and The Nature Conservancy and reviewed by local fisheries experts identified the Tongass 77 watersheds as the highest-quality habitat for salmon, trout and other wildlife that lacks permanent protection in the Tongass. Timber and mining, 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 for these lands. Efforts to privatize several million acres of the forest come from Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s Alaska timber jobs task force, Sealaska Corp., and other Southeast Alaska Native groups.
These initiatives and development activities have the potential to significantly impact the spawning and rearing habitat of Tongass salmon and trout as well as other species dependent on old-growth forest, the scientists said.
The scientists noted in their letter to Congress that populations of many species that are rare or have declined significantly in their southern ranges, including all Pacific salmon and steelhead trout species, brown bears, wolves, marten, bald eagles, marbled murrelets, and northern goshawks, are still abundant in Southeast Alaska, but face threats from climate change and ongoing habitat loss and fragmentation from development.