View of the Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Photo by Riley on Unsplash

Someone stop T***p before he clear-cuts Alaska

The day our cruise ship docked in Ketchikan, Alaska, it was raining. We were well prepared, with full-body lightweight rain gear at the ready, so that we didn’t have to let the weather get in the way of our explorations. The time allotted to spend in this small town in southeastern Alaska was brief, but we were eager to get out on foot and get a feel for a state we’d never visited before.

Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown.
Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown.

It was the middle of June, and everywhere we looked was a vibrant green, dense forest. As we wandered away from the dock, back into a residential area behind the shopping strip that most of the cruise-passengers beelined for, we found a short, paved trail back into the forest. For a few minutes, we felt like we were in Norway again, where we’d taken some hikes from the town of Balestrand up into the hills overlooking the Sognefjord. In both places, the Scandinavian forest we remembered and the American one we were standing in, we could easily imagine we had wandered into a scene from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, with the possibility of spying an elf vanishing in the distance, or arriving at a hobbit’s door. That’s how magical these temperate rainforests feel — compared to what most of us experience regularly, it’s as if they’re another world entirely, brimming with life and the possibility of showing us something marvelous and previously unknown.

Temperate rainforest, or Middle Earth? Photo credit: Jennifer Brown
Temperate rainforest, or Middle Earth? Photo credit: Jennifer Brown

Ketchikan, true to its reputation, gave us plenty of rain and plenty of forest, even as we walked the town’s streets. Although many people regard frequent rain as a dealbreaker when it comes to living somewhere or vacationing there, we thought it was beautiful — verdant, cool, and everywhere we looked, houses and shops were decked with flower gardens in colorful bloom. We were too early in the season to see the salmon running, but we did see a stream with a salmon ladder, and perched on rooftops and well-positioned tree-limbs, we saw bald eagles, just waiting for their favorite food to return home to spawn.

In Juneau, majestic. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown.
In Juneau, majestic. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown.

It’s no secret that salmon is abundant in Alaska, and that it’s big business: fishing is one of the top three industries in Alaska, the other two being oil and tourism. Yet as important as the salmon harvest is to the state and its residents (humans and other animals), current U.S. policy is endangering it. Global climate change has heated up the oceans rapidly, causing the death of numbers of salmon before they’re able to spawn. Furthermore, the EPA has paved the way for a mining project to commence in the Bristol Bay area, which is a crucial part of the seasonal salmon-run, producing more than 40% of the harvest.

And just today, news outlets are reporting on yet another blow to the government’s protection of Alaska’s natural resources: the president seems determined to open the Tongass National Forest, an enormous area in Alaska’s panhandle that is “the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest,” to roads, which would facilitate such activities as logging and mining. Not only would expanded logging deprive the world of trees that have been alive for hundreds of years — old growth — but clearcutting and mining both potentially affect the viability of the salmon that spawn in the streams of the Tongass.

What’s going on? Why does American policy as deployed by the current administration seem to be hell-bent on wrecking the more sustainable aspects of Alaska’s economy, like salmon-fishing and tourism? Is it really just because the quicker, blunter instrument of clear-cut, drill, and plunder yields more profit to the modern-day robber-barons who are counting on this president to assist them in the economic rape and pillage of both the natural world and the 99%? Is it just that? Is it also, at least a little bit, a competition with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who’s filling the pockets of the wealthy while the Amazon burns?

It seems like it should go without saying to anyone with a basic secondary science education that when you decimate one portion of an ecosystem, everything else in the ecosystem has to adapt. That’s the concept of “ecosystem” — interconnectedness and interdependence. It applies to everything, including us. And although we can speculate, we can’t predict with complete accuracy how ecosystems will adapt when their components are diminished or destroyed, because they’re so complex. We’re in deep when it comes to meddling with the natural world, and time will tell what the tipping point was or will be, and whether the worst damage is irreversible or not.

In the meantime, I’m selfishly glad I got to visit the Tongass National Forest around Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway while it was still protected, still a tourist destination with, at least in part, the mission and purpose of educating people like me about the incredible richness of life and geography on this planet and steeping us in the reality of ecosystems we otherwise might never know about. To me, preserving the beauty and biodiversity of the planet is a reason to protect a place like the Tongass that’s even more compelling than keeping Alaska’s economic returns in the coffers of the state’s university system, its arts organizations, and in the pockets of its poor and middle class residents, although those are clearly important, too. And either one — depriving a third-grader of art classes or killing a living being that has been alive for nearly a thousand years — seems like far too high a price to pay to enrich a handful of people’s accounts, so that they can do whatever it is that the obscenely rich do with their spoils. I wouldn’t know.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.