• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tongass, Part I

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: Whether the roadless initiative stands or falls will have huge consequences for one of the world's natural wonders. If the ban is overturned, nearly nine-and-a-half million acres on the panhandle of southeast Alaska could see a significant increase in logging. The area is called the Tongass National Forest. It's the nation's largest national forest, and it's made up of just about the rarest kind of forest in the world: the temperate rainforest. In this, the first of two reports on the Tongass, producer Guy Hand explores the wild and wet nature of this unique ecosystem.

(Rolling over rough terrain)

VOICE: Forty seconds.

VOICE 2: They're getting nervous now!


VOICE: Thirty-five seconds.

HAND: I've never seen anything like this.

VOICE: Thirty seconds.

HAND: It's moments before the opening of the herring fishery off Sitka, Alaska, and things are a little crazy.

VOICE: Twenty-five seconds.

HAND: Like the start of some kind of aquatic demolition derby, commercial fishing boats are all but bouncing off each other, jockeying for position, bobbing in the icy water as their captains yell frantic last-minute orders.

VOICE: Twenty seconds.

HAND: If that's not enough, a hundred -- and I'm not exaggerating - a hundred bald eagles share the sky with spotter planes and helicopters, all waiting for the fishing to begin.

VOICE: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six...

VOICE 2: A flock of seagulls. That's something you don't see very often. (Laughs)

VOICE: Five, four, three, two, one, open. Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery is now officially open...

(Motors, splashing water)

HAND: As soon as Fish and Game announces the herring opening via radio, diesel smoke explodes from the stacks of every boat.

MAN: Look at all this smoke. (Laughs)

HAND: And each begins dropping sein nets into the sea. Soon, they're pulling uncountable masses of wriggling, silver-skinned herring to the surface. It's as if the ocean were made of fish. Nothing in my two weeks in the Tongass has shouted more loudly of its fertility than this churning circus of herring and humanity.


HAND: And nothing speaks to its fragility like the sliver of time allotted to the herring opening, just 15 minutes. In this quick quarter hour, thousands of tons of fish are being yanked from the sea.

MAN: We got it!

HAND: This delicate dance between fecundity and fragility defines not only the herring fishery, but the whole of the Tongass.

(Flowing water)

HAND: And as the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, its fertility is fueled by water. Alaskan state writer Richard Nelson.

NELSON: Rain is the god here. Rain is what makes this forest. Rain is to southeast Alaska as sun is to the desert.

HAND: Water is the one thing that touches and fuses and influences everything else in Alaska's panhandle. Even the bookstores. A sign in the Old Harbor Bookstore in Sitka says, "Please don't drip on the books." But dripping is what the Tongass does best. Here you could measure rainfall in fathoms. Hundreds of inches fall in southeast Alaska a year.

METEOROLOGIST: Let's take a look at the weather story this morning. Showers in the forecast today...

HAND: The land itself is shattered by saltwater into thousands of islands, and each of those is partially submerged in boggy muskeg and riven with rivers and streams. And from all that water sprouts a forest of superlatives. Richard Nelson.

NELSON: What's remarkable about the Tongass National Forest, that sets it apart from almost anywhere else in North America, and what ranks it with the great wild places anywhere in the world, is that every species of plant and animal known to have been here as far back as we can trace a human presence is still here. There is nothing missing here.

HAND: John Schoen, senior scientist for the Alaskan Audubon Society.

SCHOEN: We have healthy populations of all five Pacific salmon. We have all of our large carnivores, brown bears or grizzly bears, the black bear, the wolf. The Tongass Forest has the highest concentration of nesting bald eagles in the world.

HAND: And what protects and nurtures those animals, apart from the rain, are stands of very big, very old trees. What naturalist Richard Carstenson calls the landmark forest.

CARSTENSON: The landmark forest is the bear, salmon, eagle forest.

HAND: But trees make up only a small portion of the Tongass National Forest. Far more rock, ice, and wetland covers southeast Alaska. It's the very rarity of trees that makes old growth Sitka spruce, hemlock, and cedar so important to Alaska's temperate rainforest ecology.

CARSTENSON: So the loss of that forest can have an enormous impact on wildlife that converges on those streams from every other habitat in the Tongass.

(Footfalls, dripping water)

HAND: And that's why Carstenson, with the help of friends and volunteers, has taken it upon himself to find and catalogue the biggest, best stands of old growth forest left in southeast Alaska.

CARSTENSON: We're anxious to see that the value of these forests are recognized. And it's just a great way to spend your summer. (Laughs)

HAND: Today, Carstenson is taking measurements of a very old Sitka spruce on the outskirts of Juneau. Behind this tree's massive trunk you could hide a car.

CARSTENSON: This is a forester's drill. It's hollow. We'll turn it into the tree and extract a pencil-diameter core that we can look at the rings with.


CARSTENSON: They often squeak a lot when you're being extracted. Sometimes they make wildlife noises. Last summer in Petersburg I was coring and I had deer come in, and a varied thrush got all irritated at me. The old varied thrush must have sounded like I was messing with the babies or something, because he flew right over my head three times.


CARSTENSON: Okay, it's all the way in. Now I'm going to insert an extractor, and back off the increment bore a couple of turns to break the sample loose, and pull it out.

HAND: Carstenson slowly begins pulling the core out and counting rings.

CARSTENSON: This is a very old tree. Look at that. We've only got six inches out and there's already 200 rings.

HAND: Carstenson estimates this spruce to have sprouted at about the time Columbus set sail. But just because it's called rainforest doesn't mean that the biggest trees grow where the most rain falls.


SMITH: Watch out for that pit over on your left there. That goes down thirty feet. You can step right off the edge of it.

HAND: Thanks for the warning.

HAND: In fact, rain in a rainforest can be too much of a good thing. The most dramatic forests on the Tongass rise where excess rain drains efficiently away. On alluvial fans, skree-covered slopes, or above the natural plumbing created by caves.

SMITH: So, just to see if this light's going to work here.

HAND: Pete Smith, a director for the Tongass Cave Project, is leading me from green trees into gray cave. El Capitan Cave, the longest in Alaska. It feels kind of weird. I've hiked through old growth forests before, but never beneath one.

SMITH: Make sure you get a good footing in. Don't slip.

HAND: Pete and I pick our way through a passage that's about ten feet wide and 20 feet high, around a tube of cool, dripping stone. On the cave floor are what look like river cobbles.


SMITH: We're in a part of the cave that has had water flowing through it for thousands of years. The limestone or carbonate rocks are very porous. The rainfall that hits the surface drops underground almost immediately.

HAND: Pete and the Tongass Cave Project have found hundreds of caves on the Tongass. He thinks there are hundreds more.


SMITH: Yeah, you do get some really interesting formations in our caves here. We've got formations around here that form underwater, that aren't seen anywhere else in the world, actually.

HAND: Caves can also protect spawning salmon from brown bear and other predators. While some salmon swim through the caves to spawn in waterways beyond, others spawn in the safety of the caves themselves.

(Flowing water)

HAND: Yet, for the salmon who do end up in the jaws of bears, it's hardly the end of the story. Scientists are just beginning to realize that a significant amount of nutrients flow from ocean waters to conifer needles and back again via salmon. Call it the salmon cycle. Writer Richard Nelson.

NELSON: One of the miracles of the Tongass National Forest is the salmon. The bears and the otters and the bald eagles and other animals carry the bodies of fish, fragments of the fish, up into the woods. Those nutrients go up inside the veins of the trees. And then the trees rot. What they were made of flows back into the stream, flows back out into the ocean, and nourishes the next generation of salmon. You know, it's as if salmon were put on the Earth to show us how our world works.

(Dripping water)

HAND: Maybe it's the fluidity of this place, the way the rain softens hard edges, that gives the Tongass a knack for teaching connections. How salmon connect to trees. How trees connect to caves. How an intact, healthy ecosystem flows within itself, cycle within cycle. There aren't many places like the Tongass left, places that can show us how the world works. But one day they could become the most precious places of all.

(Dripping water)

HAND: For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.

(Dripping water, fade to music up and under)



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth