The essence and boundaries of life within Alaska’s Tongass National Forest are etched in water.
From the mosses and ferns that carpet the feet of the rocky earth to the spawning salmon that pass from the brine of the sea into freshwater streams, every living organism that inhabits the Tongass depends intimately upon the presence of water for its survival.
Rain in this southeastern swatch of Alaska averages some 100 inches annually. Some years, it can hit 300 inches. That constant moisture has created a unique environment and today the Tongass represents the largest contiguous temperate rainforest in the world.
A hike in the forest here is a walk through an almost magical wood where water drops glitter on every leaf, the sound of cascading streams is ever-present, and the earthy smell of rotting wood permeates all.
Water not only provides the lifeblood for the area’s flora and fauna, the waterways also have helped protect them from encroachment by humans. The forest has over 11,000 miles of shoreline along with countless glaciers, fjords, lakes, rivers, and oceanic passages. These watery features have made development difficult and scattered small communities across islands are accessible only by boat or, today, floatplane.
Such seclusion has allowed rare and endangered species to thrive in this almost-primeval rainforest. Five species of salmon return here to spawn. In fact, the undammed rivers and streams within the Tongass provide some of the last great runs for Pacific salmon in the world.
Salmon are joined by whales, orca, sea lions, seals and otters in the waters surrounding islands. Both black and brown bear, mountain goats, Sitka black-tailed deer, and wolves make their homes in the forests. And overhead it all soar various species of seabirds and songbirds as well as the largest congregation of bald eagles in North America.
This national forest is the largest in the United States and remarkably most of its 16.7 million acres are roadless. Within the national forest are 19 designated wilderness areas, more than within any other national forest. Included in that splendid list of wilderness areas is Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness.
This is where my introduction to the Tongass began – on a floatplane that bore me into the mist-covered mountains and glacier-sculpted valleys of Misty Fjords. On the second day of my four-day stay in Ketchikan, myself, five other tourists, and a pilot crowded into a small plane to explore the majesty of this wilderness.
Located some 40 miles east of Ketchikan, Misty Fjords comprises 2.3 million acres of the Tongass. Glaciers occupy some of the monument’s highest reaches, while the near vertical granite walls of valleys often rise some 3,000 feet above the water. The highest mountains reach up to 6,000 feet.
Ours was a flight punctuated by sharp inhalations of breath as the plane soared above the spectacular landscape. Meadows of brightest green seemed to cascade down the mountains, bounded by the darker greens of cedar, hemlock, and spruce. Around all flowed the sparkling blue of a spiderweb of waterways.
We landed in one of those pristine lakes, surrounded by only the majesty of the wild. There were no human-made sounds to puncture the fabric of unadulterated nature – the lap of the water against rocky banks, the whoosh of the wind through tree branches, and the hoarse caws of crows.
Our small group was less boisterous – more subdued – as we reboarded the plane and soared skyward, back to Ketchikan. In awe, I think, of the wild splendor that we had just observed.
The experience was repeated two days later, on the day before I was to leave. Another guest of my Airbnb and I decided to scale the mountain that backed up to the city of Ketchikan. It was rated “hard” on our maps but we determined it would be a worthwhile day’s adventure.
Mist punctuated by fine rain accompanied our trip. Wisps of vapor drifted through mammoth firs, some of which in the Tongass are up to 10 feet in diameter and 800 years old. From the treetops, ravens and other winged creatures cried.
The trees surrounding us wore long beards of lichen and moss, dripping with the rain. At our feet, multicolored flowers spread between the rooted feet of the trees and scattered boulders. And while the omnipresent mist obscured any long-range views, it provided a sense of security, wrapping us in a dense blanket of moisture.
The hike not only heightened my appreciation of this special wilderness, it underscored the fact that this forest is a marvel. Indeed, a national treasure. It’s so globally special, some naturalists call it the Amazon of North America and recognize it as one of the best forests at carbon sequestration on the continent.
President Teddy Roosevelt first recognized the importance of this area, creating Tongass National Forest in 1907. Under the Clinton administration, the forest’s protections were extended with the Forest Service’s Roadless Rule, which prohibited new roads from being cut in any undisturbed national forests.
President Donald Trump, however, threw those protections into disarray when he announced that more than half of the Tongass would be opened to development, including roads, clear-cut logging – even of old-growth trees, mining, dams, lodges and other incursions. He ordered that the Tongass would be exempted from the Roadless Rule.
It was both a travesty and an outrage.
Thankfully, President Joe Biden is working to restore protection to the Tongass. He’s pledged to end old-growth timber sales except for cultural uses, such as cutting for the totem poles created by Native American tribes that call the forest home. The administration said it will soon publish a new version of the Roadless Rule, but it remains to be seen what that new rule will entail.
What is clear is that this forest must be saved.
The Tongass is not only home to over 400 species of wildlife, it is also a valuable carbon sink that is needed to offset the damage causing climate change. And, it’s a sacred spot for the Native American peoples who live here.
Just as importantly, the Tongass is an irreplaceable treasure for the United States. Its riches lie not in gold and silver, but in the undisturbed wildness it embodies. There are few places in our increasingly developed country that remain so pristine.
Quite literally, the Tongass is an oasis of beauty and wildness. It is a jewel we should cherish and safeguard for all Americans – indeed, for the world.