A Homecoming: Trekking Selections on Prince of Wales

 I've spent every summer of my life on the ocean. Here I am in 2016, fishing my power troller the Lena along the outer coast of Prince of Wales island. 

I've spent every summer of my life on the ocean. Here I am in 2016, fishing my power troller the Lena along the outer coast of Prince of Wales island. 

I was raised on Prince of Wales Island, in Southeast Alaska's rainforest archipelago. My home village relies on commercial fishing, and my childhood was shaped by the seasonal rhythms of the commercial fishing lifestyle. In the summer, my family fished for salmon on our wooden troller, and the months would pass by with the roll of the ocean and silver salmon. Sometimes, when the fishing was slow, my mom, brother and I would take time off the boat to camp on the wild islands scattered along the outer coast of Prince of Wales. In the fall, my family returned to our home village on the northern tip of the island, my mom canned salmon, my dad hunted deer, and as a family we'd prepare for a winter that would pass quickly with the busyness of community, learning, and exploring the forests around our home. 

 My favorite Southeast Alaska wildflower. Photo Marissa Wilson. 

My favorite Southeast Alaska wildflower. Photo Marissa Wilson. 

Fishing, forest, and community were the strongest themes of my childhood, but on Prince of Wales Island the conflict around timber development was inescapable. Timber provides jobs, but in my community and family, I was most aware of how the industry and the politics around it degraded the environment and divided communities. Prince of Wales is home to some of the biggest trees and best wildlife habitat in Southeast Alaska, but since the glory days of the logging boom, the island has been exploited as a "sacrifice zone". Heavy logging and taxpayer subsidized infrastructure resulted in devastating clearcuts across the island, and left many decision makers all too willing to carve the remaining old-growth up into disposable parcels of forest. This attitude is neither ecologically nor economically sound. Regional naturalist Richard Carstensen describes the compromised but still immensely productive forests and ecosystems of Prince of Wales as being “hammered gems...roaded and logged watersheds that still serve as engines of regional fish & wildlife productivity”. 

 Under Alaska law there is no limit on the size of a clearcut.

Under Alaska law there is no limit on the size of a clearcut.

This conflict continues today. Even though the timber industry makes up less than 1% of the regional economy, Alaska’s federal delegation prioritizes timber above all other forest uses. Both Senator Murkowski and Representative Young have allied themselves with a recent timber industry effort to transfer 2 million acres of the Tongass National Forest out of federal ownership and to the State of Alaska. The lands would be managed as a timber forest, unlimited by U.S. Forest Service commitment to manage for multiple uses, including hunting and recreation. In the winter of 2017 Young introduced HB 232, if this bill passes then it's possible that 2 million acres of the some of the best remaining habitat in Southeast Alaska could be clearcut without significant public process or meaningful environmental regulation.

One version of the possible state forest selections on Prince of Wales Island. In the summer of 2017 I will hike across every one of these selections. 

I can't wrap my head around why this option is on the table, and I fear that logging of this scale could eliminate the possibility for a healthy and resilient future for my home island. The scale of the State Forest is so large, that I need to advocate against it in the most meaningful way I can imagine. For me, this takes the form of an expedition. In the summer of 2017 I will transect every State Forest selection on Prince of Wales and its outer islands. The hike will carry me through at least 150 miles of forest, and many small communities along the way. This is not a publicity stunt, but rather a journey to attempt to better understand this unique island. Hopefully I will emerge from this experience with a richer understanding of the remaining forest, an acceptance of the impact of past logging, and a better understanding of the many relationships between people and forest. I will be joined by scientists, photographers, journalists, and other media makers, who will enrich the experience with their perspectives and help share the experience with others. Together we will will offer a new narrative for Prince of Wales, and the areas selected for timber production - now just outlines and colors on a map - will be imbued with meaning and life. 

Although I will primarily be hiking the state forest allocations on Prince of Wales, there are many other areas in Southeast Alaska that have also been selected to be part of the state timber forest without any meaningful public input. Other Southeast Alaskans are also planning to transect areas threatened by the potential State Forest, and will create their own stories of place that can be shared alongside the stories of Prince of Wales.  In doing so, I hope we can confront the idea of parceling off huge pieces of habitat, of destroying entire ecosystems by identifying places on the map that can be most readily “sacrificed.” These are not anonymous lands - these are lands with long histories, rich webs of life, and value that extends far beyond "stumpage". 

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