Resources for the Soul
By Cory Luoma
To Americans, and even to westerners, the enormity of "wild" Alaska is truly unfathomable. It is like talking about Bill Gates' money or the distance between the closest star and planet Earth; the vastness transcends our human understanding. I have spent 5 summers in Alaska – flying, guiding, filming, fishing, loving, and living. And every year, when I return to the Great Land, my jaw drops, and my fish bum brain short-circuits, preventing any worldly comprehension. Amidst it all, the subtlest miracles are occurring. Millions of salmon are running to their spawning grounds, balls of smolt are fleeing to the sea, and a pure and intact ecosystem comes to life right in front of our eyes with the dawn of summer. The mystery overcomes me, a rush surges through my spine, and the only things tangible are the goose bumps. That is the infinity moment that we all seek as human beings – a truly scarce resource in this day in age.
Along with our ever-growing world population, is a cultural epidemic of insatiable greed and obsession for making money. Our time spent seeking infinity moments in wild places are being replaced by longer hours in the office, and a sickening cycle of trying to buy happiness. In our heart of hearts exists another world, where life is simple yet unforgiving. Our truest selves take solace in the existence of a wilderness where fish thrive in the rivers, bears meander the forests, and the culture remains untouched by the Kardashians and Angry Birds. Thankfully, this fading utopia still exists in select places on this planet. One of which is the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.
The Tongass encompasses 17 million acres (Yellowstone National Park boasts a modest 2.2 million acres). It is the largest national forest in the country, and it contains 19 designated wilderness areas. It is absolutely colossal in size. The area is a bio-gem, and the largest temperate rain forest left on our planet. What exists there is a whopping 75,000 residents, a salmon-based culture, and some of the best fishing in the world.
Speaking plainly, 65% of the Tongass watersheds are unprotected, vulnerable, and prime for the taking. Like the Pacific Northwest 100 years ago, another great salmon forest of North America is a sitting duck for exploitation at the expense of the area's salmon, cultural heritage, and native way of life. The salmon wars continue to wage on in the state of Alaska, salmon protections are lost, and the tracks are freshly greased for industry.
Luckily, Trout Unlimited's Tongass 77 campaign seeks to gain permanent Congressional protection of 1.8 million acres of high-value salmon and trout habitat in the coastal temperate rain forest of the Tongass. The Tongass 77 refers to a proposal set out to conserve the 77 highest-value salmon and trout watersheds that are not currently protected at the watershed scale and are open to activities that could damage fish habitat. 1
To be very clear, this essay is not meant to be an economic analysis of the viability or detriments of resource development in the region. I have put the proverbial spectacles down and will not delve into scientific assessments surrounding the various watersheds in the Tongass. Let's leave that to Trout Unlimited and other experts. The perspective that I can advocate for, for which we all have an innate and personal connection, is the human perspective. It's an outlook that sportsman, commercial fisherman, CEOs, golf pros, blue-collars, celebrities, and even John Shively can relate to. In spite of everything, we are all human.
In this new global world that is always changing, we are slowly losing sight of our roots, our stories, our traditions. In the Tongass, these things remain relatively intact and buffered from man's so-called progress. The subsistence lifestyle, the salmon-centric community, and the unique cultural heritage of the Tongass are invaluable, and no economic appraisal can ever justify risking it. That fact alone is worthy of our protection.
As individuals, we all need wild places, even if we never have the opportunity to visit them. Places like the Tongass help fill a void, they humble us, and they help us experience those infinity moments in life. As adventurists, sportsman, and fly anglers, we long for the lost salmon forests of the Northwest. In the same breath, an existential hunger thrives for the "wilds" of Alaska, clean rivers, healthy salmon runs, and the myriad of miracles that make up this incredible coastal rainforest we call the Tongass. These are truly resources for the soul, with market values exceeding our human comprehension.
Join Trout Unlimited in the Tongass 77 campaign to help protect the last salmon forests in Southeast Alaska. Learn more here.
1 Tongass: "America's Salmon Forest." Trout Unlimited, Web. 22 May, 2013.