[Marxism] Fish Need Trees, Too

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 22 09:07:47 MDT 2014

NY Times Op-Ed, May 22 2014
Fish Need Trees, Too

AS a resident of Sitka, in southeast Alaska, I’ve worked in the local 
commercial fishing industry on and off for the past 17 years. This 
summer I’ll go out on the boat once more, in search of salmon, which 
have become one of the drivers of the region’s economic recovery.

This year, though, the fishing fleet in southeast Alaska will work under 
the shadow of an announcement by the United States Forest Service that 
it intends to approve the Big Thorne timber sale, which would allow the 
logging industry to harvest about 6,200 acres of remnant old-growth 
trees in Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest remaining 
temperate rain forest. It would be the most destructive old-growth cut 
in the forest in the past 20 years.

The salmon need those trees to spawn. This means we need those trees.

Here’s how a salmon forest works. In a healthy system, the old-growth 
western hemlock and Sitka spruce provide a moderating influence for the 
stream environment; large trees along the banks help cool water in the 
summer and warm it in the winter. The forested hillsides absorb rainfall 
and snow melt, ensuring a steady flow of current for the hatching and 
spawning fish.

But when timber companies arrive, punching in their roads and 
clear-cutting, gone are the trees and root wads that create a diverse 
stream environment. Now the water runs in flash floods down the bare 
hillsides, washing away the fish eggs and silting up the spawning grounds.

It’s sad, and it’s bad business. Fishing — and tourism — are directly 
responsible for the recovering economy in southeast Alaska. Jobs and 
people trickled away for 10 years, from 1997 to 2007. But in the past 
two years alone, 1,800 new jobs were created, largely because of good 
fishing. Population in the southeast is at an all-time high, with more 
than 74,000 residents, and employment increased by 10 percent over the 
two-year period from 2010 to 2012.

Last year, the salmon harvest set a record at 272 million fish. (Juiced 
up on coffee and peanut butter bars, my skipper and I caught about 
25,000 of these.) That’s good business, and the fishery, managed by the 
Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has proved sustainable.

But the Forest Service, buffeted by lobbying pressures and subject to a 
1990 Congressional mandate to seek to meet demand for Tongass timber, is 
stuck in an outdated “get out the cut” mind-set that made sense back 
when timber was southeast Alaska’s economic backbone. The era of 
clear-cutting old-growth stands, however, is over. Once accounting for 
some 3,500 jobs, timber now provides fewer than 300 jobs a year. This 
includes sawmills, logging, logging support and wood-product 
manufacturing. At one point, pulp mills and sawmills hummed away 
throughout southeast Alaska. Now only one major sawmill remains.

Today, the Tongass National Forest — at 17 million acres the largest 
national forest in the country — produces exponentially more value in 
fish than it does in timber. Salmon alone generate nearly a billion 
dollars. As for logging, it actually costs taxpayers more than $20 
million annually for timber programs and logging roads, even after 
timber sales receipts are taken into account.

To be clear, I’m not anti-logging. The harvesting of young growth and 
second growth could play an important role in the southeast’s recovery. 
But when the Forest Service makes a timber sale, it’s geared toward 
larger, out-of-town companies that can exit the state quickly. 
Small-scale local operations can’t afford the large tracts the Forest 
Service makes available, nor do they have the equipment to complete the 
cut by the required deadline.

In more depressing news for the local economy, in February the Forest 
Service released a newsletter that concluded that as a result of a 42 
percent cut in funding in the past five years, it can “no longer 
maintain” the current recreation and trail infrastructure and must 
reduce its inventory.

There goes the tourism.

The Forest Service itself has identified more than $100 million in unmet 
“watershed restoration work” (Forest Service-speak for “we really jammed 
this stream up good and should probably do something about it”). The 
agency has estimated that it will take more than 50 years to redress the 
problems logging in the Tongass has already caused wild salmon.

Here’s a crazy idea: Instead of prioritizing large-scale timber sales, 
what if the Forest Service protected the Tongass? What if it joined up 
with local groups like the Sitka Conservation Society and became a 
willing partner in aggressive stream restoration and cabin and trail 
maintenance? Salmon would have their spawning grounds, and tourists who 
come to Alaska to see one of the last wild places on earth wouldn’t find 
in its place a moonscape.

In a few weeks I’ll pack my dry-bag with my fishing bibs and ratty 
Carhartts and sweatshirt with the cuffs lopped off, whistle the dog onto 
a salmon troller named Saturday and head out with my skipper into the 
open waters. Word is it’s already shaping up to be a good summer.

But if we get down to Prince of Wales Island, near those 6,200 acres of 
spruce and hemlock slated to be cut, I’ll want to spend an afternoon 
following those majestic salmon upstream, right up to where they lay 
their eggs, in the shadows of those ancient trees. And I’ll be thinking 
about the narrator in Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” observing fish 
in a stream: “On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of 
the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be 
put back. Not be made right again.”

I hope the Forest Service chooses to become a partner in southeast 
Alaska’s economic and ecological restoration, instead of its enemy, 
while things still can be made right.

Brendan Jones is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Alaskan Laundry.”

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