Articles: Alaska’s Tongass National Forest: A Refuge

Posted on NANPA website October 23, 2020

Tongass National Forest and Mountains of the Inside Passage as Seen from the Ferry. © Debbie McCulliss
Tongass National Forest and Mountains of the Inside Passage as Seen from the Ferry. © Debbie McCulliss

By Debbie McCulliss

“Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue; the body seems one palate, and tingles equally throughout.”

~John Muir

In November of 2018, 40 years after my first and only trip to Alaska when I hiked the Chilkoot Trail, I was traveling again on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry—an affordable, informal cruise that took me round-trip from Juneau (Alaska’s capital city) to Haines in Southeast Alaska, where, at times, there are more eagles than people.

Alaska’s Inside Passage is a coastal route for ships and boats along a network of passages that weaves through the islands of the Pacific Northwest Coast. During the Klondike Gold Rush, it was a popular route used by prospectors from the U.S. West Coast. Today, about a million people cruise the Inside Passage each year. It is a round-trip journey that typically begins in Seattle or Vancouver and travels through the southeastern panhandle area of Alaska—an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands and islets. People come from all over the world to visit the forest and fish, hunt, camp, whale watch, or hike.

Travelers on this route may see snow-capped mountains, glacier-fed rivers, and small coastal communities. Depending on the weather, people traveling from Juneau, Skagway or Haines might also see the Eldred Rock Lighthouse. This lighthouse was built after a few disastrous shipwrecks in the vicinity, particularly during the 1898 Gold Rush, when the channel was full of steamships bringing miners to Skagway for their climb over the Chilkoot Pass.

The weather while traveling the Inside Passage is often unpredictable. Copious amounts of rain and snow feed the bordering temperate coastal rain forest and the area can get up to 250 wet days per year.

However, November 9th was an exception and lucky for me and my camera. The low-lying clouds hanging over the towering distant mountains of the Inside Passage showcased Alaska’s wild and rugged beauty. Fog rose from the forest floor. This was scenic grandeur at its best.

A Blanket of Clouds Opening Up in the Forest and Mountains of the Inside Passage . © Debbie McCulliss
A Blanket of Clouds Opening Up in the Forest and Mountains of the Inside Passage . © Debbie McCulliss

For me as a photographer, traveling to Alaska is a yearly must. Otherwise I seek out travel to colder places that many people won’t see in their lifetime—those remote parts of the world that my grandchildren may never see in the same way as global warming continues to affect the environment and as species become ever more endangered or threatened with extinction. Wherever I am, capturing nature’s beauty and wonder through photography is a privilege, and, in some ways, a duty.

“Beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever.”
John Muir

I’m not a scientist, historian, or naturalist so, while it’s one thing to view such spectacular beauty from the ferry, I find it rewarding to dig deeper and really research a location once I’m home. I don’t claim to be an expert here, but some things seem to be pretty clear. Through reading and research about the Inside Passage and Tongass National Forest, I have become keenly aware of the need to protect and preserve the world’s fragile ecosystems. This forest is one of them.

Tongass is the United States’ largest national forest and the earth’s largest remaining temperate rain forest. It borders the great Alaska Marine Highway, blanketing more than 80% of the Inside Passage and covering almost 17 million acres of land. The islands and mainland of the forest create more than 11,000 miles of shoreline, along which mountains rise from tidewater to overlook a mostly undeveloped and isolated landscape, preserved as 19 congressionally-designated wilderness areas. The city of Juneau, Misty Fiords National Monument, and Admiralty Island National Monument are all located within the Tongass.

John Muir once called the Tongass National Forest a “Place of Endless Rhythm and Beauty.” It contains nearly one-third of the old-growth, temperate rain forest remaining in the world and some of the largest tracts of old-growth forest in the United States.

Sun Shining Through the Clouds on the Mountains of the Inside Passage. © Debbie McCulliss
Sun Shining Through the Clouds on the Mountains of the Inside Passage. © Debbie McCulliss

As I write this, I think about the hot, dry weather and prolonged drought in the American west. I worry about the increasing size and severity of the many fires that continue to ravage so much of its wilderness, forcing the evacuation of people and animals from their homes, food, and habitats. Wildfires this summer in the western United States have exploded in number, scorching a diverse range of ecosystems and rendering the air quality unhealthy and sometimes downright dangerous.

While some forests must contend with fire, in the Tongass, it is the wind that disrupts forest life, sometimes toppling acres of trees at a time. This makes me think of Maya Angelou’s poem, “When Great Trees Fall,” a poem about loss as a tragic yet inevitable part of the human experience. Angelou writes:

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

In the forest, when “great trees fall,” the animals hide, hunker down, or move on, and a whole new life cycle begins. When old, large, and powerful trees fall in the forest, monumental shifts can occur within us as well. And I have learned that, if we cannot adapt to these shifts, the recovery process cannot begin, whether we are people or trees.

The Tongass forest canopy is made up of mostly western red cedar, Sitka spruce (Alaska’s state tree), and western hemlock, some of which are more than 500 years old. The forest floor is covered by ferns and moss, while shrubs and evergreens grow between the floor and canopy. This forest has been described as the largest, wettest, and wildest of the United States national forests. Despite having the Northern Hemisphere’s largest, intact, temperate rain forest only about 60% is covered by trees. The rest, more than 40% of the forest is composed of wetlands, snow, ice, rock, and non-forest vegetation.

View of Mountains and Clouds with Sun Shining at Last © Debbie McCulliss
Sun Shining at Last © Debbie McCulliss
Visible at Last  © Debbie McCulliss
Visible at Last © Debbie McCulliss

A popular tourist destination in the Tongass National Forest is about 12 miles outside of Juneau—the 12-mile long Mendenhall Glacier. It was once dubbed “the Auk Glacier” by John Muir (after a member of the Tlingit tribe). When I was there in 1979, at age 24, I was somewhat naïve and thought the glacier would never melt. However, it has receded massively over the years and scientists predict that, by 2050, the glacier will no longer be visible from the visitors’ center. Besides widespread glacial retreat, the ever-present warming trend is affecting average temperatures in Alaska. This summer record highs were hit in some parts of the state. Ice and snow are melting earlier, wetlands are drying out, and the fish that live in river waters are affected by new diseases caused by the warmer waters.

On the ferry 40 years ago, I was in awe of Alaska’s scenery, but distracted with rainy weather and other young world travelers seeking an Alaskan adventure. But fast forward to my more recent trip, and Alaska’s wilderness beckoned in all of its glory, calling out to be seen. Photographing the majestic beauty of these snow-capped mountains buried in the low-lying clouds was an unforgettable, visceral experience. It felt as though I was uncovering a hidden treasure. I was so absorbed in the moment, that it never dawned on me that people lived there. Sometimes I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I had to set my camera down and simply observe and breathe in the experience. I didn’t think about whether I was cold or hungry. I didn’t think to experiment with camera settings or whether my image would be best in black or white. I was energized and inspired and ready for the varying shadows and light that came into my viewfinder over the course of four hours.

Back home, I relived my experience on the Inside Passage as I downloaded my images. I made an intimate connection with this land. Once again I felt the mood of the landscape that moved me to shoot that day and found emotion in every image. But, true to my nature, I was curious and needed to know more about this land, the people, and the animals who live there.

I learned that Tongass National Forest was created by President Theodore Roosevelt on September 10, 1907. It was named for the Tongass Clan of Tlingit Indians who inhabited the southernmost areas of Southeast Alaska. Customary and traditional hunting, gathering, arts, and culture still thrive among the Alaska Native nations (Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian) that live in the area. Roughly 70,000 people inhabit the forest and depend on some facet of the land for survival.

This diverse forest provides habitat for a large population of bald eagles, brown and black bears, wolves, mountain goats, ravens, and Sitka black-tailed deer. The migratory Arctic terns come all the way back from Antarctica to nest in the forest during summer months. The majority of salmon in Southeast Alaska spawn within the territory of the Tongass and wild salmon fisheries support thousands of local jobs, as does tourism.

Unfortunately, Tongass National Forest has been on environmentalists’ watch list because of logging practices. The forest holds valuable trees for logging but trees also pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it, which is a vital process in addressing climate change. The Tongass alone holds 8% of all carbon stores in the U.S. national forests, with about 650 million tons of carbon sequestered it it’s soil. It is recognized as a globally-significant carbon storage reserve, or warehouse, one of the best carbon sequestration forests in the United States. Undisturbed lands like this are vital to a natural ecosystem’s ability to adapt to climate change.

President Clinton barred the construction of roads in millions of acres of undeveloped national forest across the country when he signed the Roadless Area Conservation Policy in 2001. Areas protected from logging by the Roadless Rule now offer sites for research into natural systems, and they preserve uninterrupted habitats critical to species’ survival. These areas also provide refuge for plants and animals pushed out of other damaged landscapes, increasingly important as floods, fires, and other climate-crisis events become the new normal.

Though Clinton’s Roadless Rule once had tremendous public support, in August 2019 President Trump suggested exempting Tongass National Forest from logging restrictions. That would open it to large-scale industrial logging, energy, and mining projects. All of these industries, and the road building that develops around them, would endanger and potentially devastate the wildlife and clean water sources of the forest and damage its ability to capture and store carbon. While a final decision has not yet been made, I can’t help but wonder about the potential effects, locally and globally, now and in the future, that this decision will have on the earth’s climate. The loss of a treasure like the Tongass National Forest would be felt far and wide. That is not something I want to see, so I am going to join the fight to save and preserve what we can of our earth.

John Muir also said, “To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” Protecting the Tongass helps keep it that way.

Alaska, Alaska 2018, Inside Passage, November 2018 Michelle
Tongass National Forest