Claire Colegrove, Alaska Representative
“It’s nearly impossible to capture in a photo,” the woman next to me says while leaning over the rail of the ship deck. I wonder if she is referring to the endlessly striking coastline of Prince William Sound, or just Alaska in general. I was cruising along the coast of the Chugach National Forest’s Wilderness Study Area with Pete Nelson, Defenders’ Senior Policy Advisor on Federal Lands, and Alaska Program Director Karla Dutton. Pete traveled to Alaska from Defenders’ Bozeman, Montana field office to lend his national forest policy expertise to our work with the Chugach National Forest. While the trip’s focus was meeting our Chugach National Forest partners to develop stronger regional and national relationships and further collaborations, we also made sure he was able to spend time out in this stunning, 5.4-million-acre coastal forest that we work so hard to protect.
Pete and I are both originally from the Pacific Northwest, and it’s instantly striking how different the Chugach National Forest is from the coastal rainforests we grew up spending time in. Here in the gulf region of Alaska, many mountains shoot directly up from the ocean shores. One of the most remarkable examples is Mount Marcus Baker, which rises to 13,100 feet from within just 10 miles of sea level. As we traveled through Prince William Sound the view of similar mountains nearly surround us.
In addition to stunning mountain views, some of the main attractions that bring visitors and locals into the waters of Prince William Sound are the tidewater glaciers that snake through the forest and into the ocean. All glaciers are moving. By definition, ice cannot be deemed a glacier without movement, but tidewater glacier calving provides visitors with visible proof as large pieces break off from the immense slab and crash into the water before their eyes. Glacier calving also serves an important role for wildlife: the shed ice provides important haulout spots for seals, sea otters and sea lions, and the glacial silt adds nutrients to the water that help feed the krill and other tiny creatures which the larger marine life depend on.
The Chugach National Forest is not only connected to the ocean through these coastal areas, but also through the 1,800 miles of anadromous streams (waterways where fish spend time in both salt and freshwater travel) that run through it. All five North American species of Pacific salmon are found in the waters of the Chugach, and they are perhaps some of its most important inhabitants. These salmon provide a major food source for some of the forest’s most important terrestrial wildlife, including brown bear (Ursus arcos, listed as a State Population of Special Concern), black bear (Ursus Americans), gray wolf (Canis lupus), Kenai wolverine (Gulo gulo katschemakensis) and lynx (Lynx canadensis). One of the initial reasons the Chugach was designated a national forest in 1907 was to protect the salmon’s spawning habitat. The salmon provide important nutrients to the people, wildlife and vegetation of this area, and sustaining their habitat and numbers is absolutely critical to the Chugach National Forest. It is also worth noting that as many as 5 million shorebirds rest and feed in the Copper River basin, which makes up 31% of the Chugach National Forest.
While significant portions of the forest and nearby waters appear completely devoid of humans on our tour, we occasionally pass reminders of the human interactions with this rugged forest. We pass salmon fishing boats out during an open 14-hour period for commercial pink salmon fishing. When we approach the tidewater glaciers, we see daring kayakers paddle within feet of areas of falling ice. Dotted along the coastline are secluded Forest Service public use cabins available to those recreating in the forest. Despite its expansive wild appearance, humans use the Chugach– and ensuring that those uses are compatible with the needs of the wildlife that call this forest home continues to be a priority of Defenders as we work with the Forest Service on the management of this land.
“You have to see it to get it,” Karla says to Pete, who nods and we both laugh at the astonished look he has had on his face the majority of the trip. The United States is fortunate to have many stunning national forests, and all three of us have been lucky enough to spend time in many of them. But the Chugach National Forest is a particularly unique one in its appearance, uses and its abundance and variety of life. Distinctive places like this requirement careful management and protection, and the greater our understanding, the better suited we are to help.