It’s in our blood, we yearn for those mythical places, Xanadu, Shangri-La, Bedford Falls, Button Valley. For anglers, our fabled places seem even more real. Our dreams take us to places like Patagonia, Kamchatka, Tasmania, or even Montana. Even though most of us will never visit those mythic locales, we still keep that box of big streamers handy, or that 8-weight rod polished and ready.
Wild fish in wild places. I live, work and fish among some of the most legendary waters in the world. A short drive can put me on the Missouri, the Clark Fork, Rock Creek or the Big Hole. These are places that fill the dreams of many anglers around the world. And yet, many of the storied fisheries of Montana are the result of human tinkering. Sometimes legal, sometimes unlawful, or accidental, we have changed the makeup of our fisheries. Travel to any of the rivers mentioned above and you will find fish populations made up mainly of fish that Nature never intended for those waters. Brown trout from Europe, rainbows from California, walleye and northern pike from God knows where, inhabit waters intended for wild native trout. I won’t try to tell you that the fishing isn’t wonderful and the catching superb, but in the back of my mind I will always wonder what this place could have been had we just let it be.
There are few places left in our world that we have not reached with our misguided ideas and “management” philosophies. We change the habitat, redirect the waters, increase access and introduce alien species. In southeast Alaska, there remain a few of those untouched places. Places where most of the fish don’t come from concrete ponds, raised on nuggets of dead fish and delivered to their new homes by shiny tanker trucks. The nation’s largest national forest, the Tongass, is one of those places. The Tongass still contains all five species of wild Pacific salmon. 70% of all wild salmon harvested from our national forests come from the Tongass and 30% of salmon caught on the West Coast. The Tongass salmon fishery provides $1 billion to the economy of southeast Alaska annually and 7,300 jobs. And yet, 65% of the salmon habitat in the Tongass remains open to watershed-scale development that could devastate those vital fish populations. The time is now to guarantee protections for one of our last truly wild places.
The Tongass faces direct threats from mining, timber harvest, hydropower development and poorly planned roads and culverts. We don’t yet know how the threat of a changing climate will ultimately affect southeast Alaska, but all of these factors, along with our innate greed and stupidity, are sure to impact one of the most important wild fisheries left to us. Judging by the ways in which we have failed to protect watersheds and fish in the “Lower 48”, time is short to see to it that our remaining wild fish populations continue to thrive for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.
Several organizations have identified 77 watersheds, out of the hundreds within the Tongass National Forest, that are considered to be of the highest priority for salmon and trout production. Currently, only about 35% of the wild salmon and trout spawning and rearing habitat in the Tongass is properly protected. These 77 watersheds comprise only 1.8 million acres of the nearly 17 million acres of the Tongass These watersheds are most in need of watershed-scale protection and are integral to continued salmon and trout production. You can help to protect the “Tongass 77” by spreading the word. Please visit AmericanSalmonForest.org and add you name to the growing body of those concerned with protecting this special and unique resource for our children and grandchildren. Even for those of us who will likely never see it, it is vital that places like the Tongass continue to exist.