A length of fluorescent surveyor’s tape still marks the site. Here at the edge of this Alaska stream, you can see fresh tracks left by the earth-moving equipment. The machinery and diesel engines are gone now, and only the sound of cascading water fills the forest.
Though you wouldn’t expect it, the machines actually left nature better than they found it.
“There was a huge culvert here that had been here for years, and it was perched, and the fish couldn’t migrate,” Budd Burnett tells me. We’re standing atop a new one-lane bridge (pictured below) that allows wild salmon to travel freely beyond this road crossing for the first time in decades. The old culvert didn’t stop every fish, but biologists say it stopped many juvenile fish from ever reaching upstream rearing habitat.
In the past, this would have included fish like the juvenile coho salmon I could see in the stream shallows during my visit. Adult chum salmon, coho salmon and pink salmon spawn here. It’s also rearing habitat for another species which anglers love: steelhead trout.
This transformation is happening in the rainforest on Prince of Wales Island in the Alaska panhandle. People use words like “cathedral” and “ancient” to describe the old-growth forests of this place. And with 17,000 miles of salmon streams, you can understand why people value salmon here. In fact, the Tongass National Forest, which surrounds us, annually produces 50 million salmon.
Budd is president of the community council for Hollis, Alaska (pop. 200) and so he helped oversee this project, but it’s far from just a job. In the great Alaska tradition, he pitches in where he’s needed. In Hollis, he’s the town fire chief, and he’s also the guy you call if you want a space to sell cabbages at the farmer’s market. He wears a baseball hat emblazoned with the Alaska state flag.
Like many people here, Budd is fond of catching coho salmon and eating them for dinner. It should come as no surprise that coho salmon are one of the species benefiting from a project like this one. If salmon streams are healthy, salmon populations are generally healthy, too.
Alaska is a place where salmon is akin to mom and apple pie. Budd believes doing right by salmon is simply the right thing to do.
He’s in good company. Polling by The Nature Conservancy showed 96 percent of those surveyed in Alaska believed salmon “is essential to the Alaska way of life.”
This would also include people like Mike Bush, who owns B3 Contractors in Klawock, Alaska, the firm that replaced the bridges. We spoke one morning at the Dockside, a local breakfast joint.
“A perched culvert or one that fish can’t get into is a big problem,” he told me. “Particularly in those sensitive fish streams. Each one of these streams is a big piece of an organization.”
From where we stood, fishing boats tied up at the dock were an easy reminder that an ecosystem supporting wild salmon – an absolute marvel of nature – are the basis of a certified sustainable commercial fishing industry.
In short, when people provide for the fish – as Budd and Mike are doing – the fish provide for us: Commercial fishing families and working waterfronts, anglers seeking the 10-pound-plus, Native families who fill their smokehouses with fish caught in the traditional way, and even consumers who grill salmon fillets at summer picnics.
“And we all do like to fish here,” Mike says. “That’s a big deal. And it’s a large part of the local economy. Sometimes you don’t think too much about it until you see what the fish can provide.”
[Top image: A fisherman catches a wild salmon on Harris River in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. Bottom image: Budd Burnett of Hollis, Alaska, visits a new bridge that allows wild salmon to freely pass this road crossing after crews replaced a ‘perched culvert.’]