There is a Yakima Indian legend that tells how salmon were given as a gift to the People from the Creator. Sitting on the banks of rivers darkened with the returning salmon run, grandfathers would tell the story to their grandsons and granddaughters. If the salmon were mistreated, said the legend, they would disappear forever. In this way, respect of the resource was taught and handed down from generation to generation.
As if heeding the warning in the legend, Trout Unlimited is stepping to the fore in a conservation effort designed to protect some of the best remaining salmon habitat in the world. TU, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society, used intensive GIS mapping techniques and on-the-ground evaluation to identify key watersheds in the region. After careful consideration, 77 critically important watersheds for salmon and trout habitat were listed – the Tongass 77. All-told, an impressive 1.9 million acres was included in the encompassed area.
While the entire Tongass National Forest makes up an area of nearly 17 million acres (surrounding such urban centers as the Alaskan capitol of Juneau), only 40 percent of that is forested. Nonetheless, this area comprises the largest temperate rainforest on the planet. This reiterates the point that Trout Unlimited is trying to make – save the best to protect the rest. By meticulously researching and listing the Tongass 77, TU and their partners are trying to create a safe zone within the larger forest – a ‘Salmon Forest’, to ensure the continuation of these incredible fish. Shuttling precious nutrients from the open ocean to far inland, salmon create an ecosystem all their own. More than just a fascinating annual phenomenon, salmon are the Tongass’ soul. Salmon Forest, indeed.
The Tongass region of Alaska was made a national park in 1907 by Theodore Roosevelt. Though much has changed since then, the area’s economic dependence on salmon has changed very little. In fact, it is estimated that 97% of Alaskans consider salmon to be essential to their economy. When Trout Unlimited fights for the future of the Salmon Forest, they are also fighting for the stability of the local economy.
I have been enthralled by salmon for as long as I can remember. In 2001, I found myself living just down the lane from the Stillaguamish River in Washington state. What an opportunity! I spent hours wandering through a large chunk of forested land that literally bordered my back yard. I can still vividly remember the greenness of everything – verdant mosses, ferns, blackberry brambles, algae on every surface. The rivers were the most beautiful though; to this day my favorite color is “steelhead green”, a color used by fishermen in that area to describe the perfect green-clear-blue that rivers would turn after just enough runoff to stimulate fresh fish to enter the river.
The wildness of Alaska has always fascinated me. The vast tracts of land, thinly populated, appeal to me in a primal way that is hard to explain. My training in biology has only deepened my adoration for that landscape, and my fisherman soul practically drools at the prospect of spending time on such hallowed water. To fish in the Salmon Forest would truly be awe-inspiring. More important, though, is passing along the truth in the heart of that Yakima legend. The salmon runs are ours to protect. Trout Unlimited and their partners are working to leave a legacy of strongly protected habitat – the legacy of the Salmon Forest.