A lot of us know Alaska’s Tongass is a land of big trees. Trees too big, in fact, to get your arms around. It’s the kind of place a nature writer unleashed might describe like this [cue soft piano melody]:
To walk in the old-growth rainforest of the Tongass is to tread in a pristine emerald cathedral where ancient cedars and Sitka spruce draped in verdant moss reach toward the sky. Deer step lightly, grazing on a lush carpet of blueberries and wildflowers where sunlight filters through the tall forest canopy.
It’s all true. But there’s something more here than the roaming bears and wolves and giant grandmother trees that put the Tongass in the Earth’s atlas of biodiversity hotspots.
That something else? It’s the salmon. A new book from photographer Amy Gulick makes the case with photos that pack a message.
“Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest” isn’t just another pretty coffee table book. (Though Alaska inspires plenty of those.) Gulick’s work is noteworthy because her camera captures a beautiful relationship: salmon need the forest and the forest needs the salmon.
As one of the book’s essayists, biologist Carl Safina, explains: “Salmon defy gravity by flowing uphill. And that upstream influx, that living flood tide, that invasion of salmon is energy – protein and fat and nitrogen and phosphorous. After spending years gathering the thin broth of ocean, salmon cease to be mere fish. They become delivery packages of super-concentrated nourishment.”
There’s another message here, too. Not all of the Tongass still stands in picture-perfect majesty. Decades of logging across much of the Tongass National Forest – at the pace of hundreds of millions of board feet per year – transformed park-like stands of old-growth into clearcuts that grew to become overly dense second-growth forests where no wildflowers or blueberries grow. And without food, no deer will graze here.
This history hasn’t been good for salmon streams, either. Logging and roadbuilding threaten the salmon traditions of indigenous people and the catch of local commercial fishing boats.
But the streams and forests aren’t lost. Rob Bosworth, a fish biologist in charge of the Conservancy’s restoration projects in the Tongass, has been wading streams and walking the forest, finding ways to restore deer and salmon habitat for years. Rob was working side-by-side with heavy equipment operators – people in Carhartts who cut their teeth on logging projects – before the words “green” and “jobs” ever appeared together in a headline.
For the last five years now, Rob has teamed up with the Tongass National Forest with the goal to restore 500 miles of salmon streams. Yes, it means jobs. And yes, it means more habitat. But it also means this: what’s possible in ravaged Harris River and Sal Creek and even Fubar Creek can happen all across the Tongass.
With their work, people like Rob and his partners at the U.S. Forest Service have laid the groundwork for something big. It comes from imagination and from moving rock, and ultimately, from a belief in what can be. Rob can see the salmon in the trees, and he can see there’s still more work to be done to keep them there.
If you, like Rob, believe nature can bounce back, then I’ll bet you can see the salmon in the trees, too.
Do you know a natural place — a stream, a prairie, a forest — that cries out to be restored? Tell us about it!