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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Richard Nelson

Coming Home to Sitka

I live in the town of Sitka, which is on the outer coast of Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. Unlike the Tlingit and Haida people, I am not Native here. But since I first set foot in Sitka about twenty years ago, I have rooted my soul in this place and committed myself to it, like a kind of marriage.

Baranof Island is a rugged spine of mountains about 100 miles long and up to 25 miles wide, cleaved by many large, fjordlike bays. Sitka is located on the island's west side facing the open Pacific, partly sheltered by a skein of small islands and surf-pounded rocks. The only other modern settlement on this 1,600 square mile island is the tiny fishing village of Port Alexander, down near the southern tip.

The entire island is a homeland to Tlingit people, who have hunted, fished, and gathered here for thousands of years. Sitka's original Tlingit name is Shee Atika, meaning "The Outside of Baranof Island." In 1799, Russians began colonizing Sitka, and they eventually made it the capital of Russian America. The newcomers were attracted by an abundance of sea otters, which were hunted for their extremely valuable fur; but after a few decades of overharvesting the sea otters were gone, Russian interests in this part of the world dwindled, and in 1867 arrangements were made to sell the entire Alaska Territory to the United States. Ceremonies marking the transfer of ownership took place on Castle Hill in Sitka. When John Muir and his companions from the Harriman Alaska Expedition visited in 1899, Sitka was still Alaska's capital, but just a year later the seat of government moved to Juneau, where it has remained ever since.

Today Sitka is a modern American community with about 8,700 residents. About 20 percent of the people are Tlingit Indians, who still hold strongly to many of their traditional social and ceremonial traditions, adding a rich and vital element to community life. The town stretches along about 20 miles of shoreline road with turnarounds at either end. This means travel in and out of Sitka is only by boat or airplane, creating a sense of isolation and separateness that is much favored by many folks who live here.

Sitka is one of Alaska's largest commercial fishing ports. The three harbors are jammed with boats&emdash;trollers, seiners, and longliners -- variously geared for taking salmon, halibut, cod, rockfish, and herring. Around 70 million pounds of fish are offloaded from fishing boats here every year. Over the past ten years, sport fishermen have swarmed to Sitka (and other southeast Alaska communities), spawning a tremendous increase in the number of charter fishing boats.

Until recently, the timber industry was dominant in Sitka's economy. During the 1950s, the U.S. government sought to boost southeast Alaska's economy through a program of intense logging within the Tongass National Forest. Wood from large timber operations supplied two pulp mills -- the Japanese-owned Alaska Pulp Company in Sitka and the Louisiana Pacific Corporation's mill in Ketchikan. Thick mats of pulp produced in the Sitka mill were shipped to Japan, where they were used mostly to manufacture rayon and cellophane.

The Tongass National Forest contains some of the largest stands of old-growth temperate rainforest left anywhere on earth, but by the 1980s, as many as 28,000 acres were being clear-cut each year to supply the mills. Citizens from Alaska and other states criticized this logging as taxpayer-subsidized destruction of a precious resource, but many others felt that cutting timber from the Tongass was an important way to provide jobs and promote economic development in southeast Alaska.

Although the pulp mill was Sitka's largest employer, residents found themselves in conflict not only over clear-cutting in the Tongass but also over air and water pollution from the mill. This was a darkly divisive period in Sitka's history, but the situation changed dramatically when declining pulp markets, high operating costs, and antiquated equipment led to the mill's closure in 1993. While loss of the pulp mill caused serious hardship for many individuals and families, retraining programs and federal relief funds helped to soften the blow. And to everyone's surprise, the overall impact on Sitka's diversified economy has been remarkably small, and at the beginning of this summer Sitka had the lowest unemployment rate in Alaska.

Perhaps the most important counterbalance to the mill closure is a boom in tourism over the past fifteen years, due especially to the increase in numbers and size of cruise ships. On almost every day from late May to early September, one or more ships anchor just offshore, bringing 700 to 2,000 passengers to Sitka. Visitors also arrive on state operated ferries and commercial jets -- coming to take in the scenery, watch wildlife, hike, kayak, camp, catch fish, and experience something of life in a small Alaskan town. Sitkans have mixed feelings about these enthusiastic throngs: although most everybody wants tourism, there's also a feeling that numbers should be regulated to make sure travelers have a high quality experience and locals preserve their peaceful way of life.

A major element in that way of life is subsistence -- meaning the harvest of game, fish, and edible plants for use at home. To understand Sitka and other southeast Alaskan towns, it's essential to understand how passionately people feel about subsistence and how much wild harvests contribute to the economy. For example, an average Sitka household consumes about 300 pounds of fish and 150 pounds of deer venison every year. Many local folks love to hunt, fish, and gather; they enjoy doing these activities together with family members and friends; they value healthy, organic wild foods that they've harvested for themselves; they enjoy sharing subsistence foods; and they feel that subsistence activities strengthen their sense of connection to the land and sea.

Because Sitka is nested within the Tongass National Forest, this publicly owned reserve is a dominant factor in local people's lives -- a constant focus of news and conversation. This is America's largest national forest, measuring 26,500 square miles, about equal to the size of West Virginia. Besides its remaining tracts of ancient rainforest, the Tongass embraces spectacular mountains, enormous glaciers, silent valleys, about a thousand islands, and an intricate lacework of streams and rivers. Emblematic of its biological richness, the Tongass is one of the last places in the United States where every plant and animal species known to have existed before Columbus is still here. If it were located anywhere else in the U.S., the Tongass probably would not be a National Forest at all, but one of our most cherished National Parks.

For perspective, I should mention that southeast Alaska has been intensively used and inhabited over many thousands of years by ancestors of the Tlingit Indians. And yet -- until the logging activities on National Forest and Native Corporation lands in recent times -- southeast Alaska was so rich, so pristine, and so beautiful that early European visitors have often called it a "wilderness," as if no one had ever lived here. This testifies not only to the relatively small Tlingit population using low impact technology, but also to their traditional wisdom of viewing the natural environment as a community of spiritual beings who must be treated with humility, respect, and restraint.

Where the Tongass National Forest remains intact today, it is a tribute to that cultural tradition as well as a legacy from nature herself. Today, we face hard decisions about balancing that legacy against our economic interests. Many Sitkans feel that -- as residents of the Tongass -- they have a special stake in these discussions as residents of the Tongass, and that local people should have the strongest say in how the National Forest is managed. Here again, discussions usually center around that familiar dichotomy of "jobs versus protection."

But under present law, every American citizen holds an equal share in these national public wildlands, every citizen has an equal right to visit them, every citizen holds equal responsibility to assure that they are treated properly, and every citizen has an equal voice in deciding how they are used. It could be said that the establishment of America's national public lands -- which protect some of the world's most exceptional natural beauty and biological diversity -- stands among our nation's greatest achievements. And that the system that gives all of us a voice in management of these lands is among the finest expressions of American democracy. And beyond this, that working for protection of these lands should be regarded as a kind of patriotism -- speaking out for the American land and all that lives on it, including not only the plants and wildlife but also the people.

In the Tongass National Forest, several of the most important, fascinating, and charismatic animal species are heavily dependent on undisturbed old-growth forest. One of these is the black-tailed deer, which is an important source of food for Sitkans as well as a creature esteemed for its beauty. In the Lower 48 states, white-tailed deer and mule deer can benefit from the flush of shrubby growth that follows clear-cut logging. But in southeast Alaska, large stands of old-growth forest are essential habitat for deer, especially during periods of deep winter snow when open areas are deeply buried, making it difficult for the animals to move around and find food. To survive these conditions the deer need old-growth forests, where a dense canopy of boughs intercepts snowfalls and keeps the ground relatively clear. This gives deer access to low-growing plants that are crucial to their survival

Salmon are very important in southeast Alaska's commercial and subsistence economies, and while we think of them as ocean and river dwellers, it is equally true that salmon are fish of the forest. This is because the streams where salmon spawn and where their young are nurtured flow through ancient forests. Large trees are important for maintaining the cool water temperatures essential for salmon to survive, dense vegetation and root networks under the trees prevent erosion that can degrade spawning habitat, and trees that fall into stream beds create the deep pools where spawning fish congregate.

Biological studies have uncovered another dimension of this relationship. Each year millions of salmon come from the far reaches of the ocean, crowd up into southeast Alaska's streams, spawn in the riverbed gravels, and then die. Their decaying bodies fertilize the waterways, providing nutrients essential for the growth of the next generation of salmon. Fish that enter the streams to spawn are also eaten by bears, otters, mink, eagles, gulls, and other animals. These predators and scavengers deposit nutrients from the fish -- or parts of the fish themselves -- back under the forest, where nutrients from the sea are important for the health of the entire plant community, including the giant trees. In this way, an elegant reciprocity is created between salmon and forests, each supporting and sustaining the other.

Another wildlife species that depends on southeast Alaska's forests is the grizzly bear, or brown bear, as it is called locally. These great animals, weighing up to 800 pounds, range widely from the high mountain country down to the estuary meadows, from scrub thickets to old-growth forest; but researchers have found that the bears make very little use of freshly logged areas or second growth forest that grows up after clear-cutting.

Recently, geneticists also discovered that the grizzly bears on three islands in the northern Tongass -- Admiralty, Chichagof, and Baranof (where Sitka is located) -- are profoundly different from all other brown/grizzly bears in the world. Apparently, these Tongass island bears have been isolated from all others for many thousands of years, going through relatively little evolutionary change while the brown/grizzly bears everywhere else have evolved much more rapidly. As a consequence, Tongass island bears are a kind of "living ancestor," more similar in many ways to the Asiatic brown bear than they are to their grizzly kin on mainland North America. Even more remarkably, they have a very close genetic relationship to the polar bear.

One further note. Biologists estimate that there are now about 1,200 grizzly bears living on Baranof Island. This is more than the total of 1,000 grizzlies found today in the entire lower forty-eight states, where it is conjectured that at least 50,000 grizzlies existed at the time of Columbus.

As tourism has become increasingly important for Sitka's economy, wildlife species like brown bears, salmon, and blacktailed deer have also become more valuable. For example, it's likely that every grizzly living in the Sitka area is worth a lot -- in purely monetary terms -- because so many people come here with a strong interest in seeing bears. Some Sitkans also suggest that Tongass forests are becoming more valuable not as lumber for the market but as vast expanses of trees standing on the mountainsides and along the valley floors. In other words, ancient forests and wild bears have become important living resources for this community.

In Alaska today, it may be true that what we take from the land and waters is less important than what we leave here to grow and thrive.

Trees, bears, salmon, and deer might also have a kind of spiritual value -- not just for Sitkans but for everyone who comes to experience them. For many thousands of years, the Tlingit Indians and other Native people in Alaska treated everything in the natural world as a community of beings possessed of spiritual power. These traditions also teach that all of nature must be treated with humility, respect, and restraint. acknowledging that plants and animals are the source of human life.

I would like to close with a short passage from The Island Within -- a kind of personal credo, based on the teachings of Koyukon Indians, with whom I lived for some years:

I have often thought of the forest as a living cathedral, but this might diminish what it truly is. If I have understood Koyukon teachings, the forest is not merely an expression or representation of sacredness, nor a place to invoke the sacred; the forest is sacredness itself. Whoever moves within the forest can partake directly of sacredness, experience sacredness with his entire body, breathe sacredness and contain it within himself, drink the sacred water as a living communion, bury his feet in sacredness, touch the living branch and feel the sacredness, open his eyes and witness the burning beauty of sacredness. And when he cuts a tree from the forest, he participates in a sacred interchange that brings separate lives together.

The dark boughs reach out above me and encircle me like arms. I feel the assurance of being recognized, as if something powerful and protective is aware of my presence, looks in another direction but always has me in the corner of its eye. I am cautious and self-protective here, as anywhere, yet I believe that a covenant of mutual regard and responsibility binds me together with the forest. We share in a common nurturing. Each of us serves as an amulet to protect the other from inordinate harm. I am never alone in this wild forest, this forest of elders, this forest of eyes.


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