By Peter Brownell / Medium
A year ago, my grandfather, Chuck Johnstone, passed away after spending most of his 93 years in Alaska. He was quintessentially Alaskan, doing the hard jobs that needed doing: he dropped out of high school to work in a gold mine. He served in the Navy during WWII. He served as dogcatcher, police chief, and deputy US Marshal. He worked as a logger and in a pulp mill. He worked in construction. He was the captain of a pilot boat.
He (and my grandmother Alice) also made it their lives’ work to protect some of Alaska’s most beautiful and ecologically significant places. They lived in Sitka, a small coastal fishing town nestled in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, a 17 million acre tract of public land that is home to ancient spruce, cedar, and hemlock trees, brown bears, humpback whales, bald eagles, and all five species of Pacific wild salmon.
Although it was not always a popular position to take in a small town where the pulp mill was the largest employer, my grandparents were founding members of the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS). Together with friends and neighbors, they persuaded Congress to designate the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area within the Tongass National Forest, protecting that area of the region’s unique temperate rainforest from logging, and preserving spawning streams that serve as nurseries for the wild salmon that are the basis of Alaska’s multi-billion dollar commercial and sport fishing industries. In 2010, my grandparents accepted the US Forest Service’s Bob Marshall Award for Champions of Wilderness on behalf of SCS.
Chuck understood in his gut that in order for people to want to conserve Alaska’s wilderness, they need to experience it firsthand. Chuck made that happen. He led charters on his boat, the Fairweather, that transformed people’s lives by bringing them into what is now the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area.
I can testify to that transformational experience, as my own life was shaped by a trip I took with my grandparents along the coast of West Chichagof to Glacier Bay when I was about three. I remember picking wild strawberries and making ice cream with glacier ice. I remember how when we stopped to fish in Sea Level Slough, I lost the salmon my grandpa hooked for me. And I remember that pretty much every time the boat stopped after that, I rushed to drop a hook baited with fresh salmon eggs off the stern, hoping to repeat that experience of having a fish on the other end of the line. Now, just as the salmon return to the streams of their ancestors, every summer I am pulled back to Alaska to enjoy the area’s unmatched fishing and to see my family.
Chuck was a pioneer in Alaska’s eco-tourism industry and the West Chichagof-Yakobi was the first citizen-initiated wilderness area in Alaska designated under the Wilderness Act. But despite that early innovation, the Tongass National Forest is literally the last National Forest that still allows the clearcut logging of old growth forests. Old growth forests are not a renewable resource. Every acre that we cut to feed the few remaining sawmills is an acre that won’t grow back to the wild grandeur of today’s majestic trees until after we are dead. Even if we live to be 93.
After years of negotiation and compromise among stakeholders, the US Forest Service adopted a “Tongass Transition Plan” to phase out this remaining old-growth logging in our national forests over the next 15 years. But the timber companies and their allies in Washington DC are doing everything they can to overturn the compromise plan and resist being brought into the current century and the responsible timber practices that are the rule in every other National Forest.
After 93 years, my grandfather is gone. He can’t lead this fight for us anymore. That’s why you and I need to pick up where he left off. Our Senators and Representatives in the House need to hear from you that the Forest Service must continue to move ahead and fully implement the Tongass Transition Plan, and finally end the clear cut logging of old growth forests on our public lands.
Peter Brownell, PhD is the Research Director at the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) in San Diego. Prior to joining CPI, he was an Associate Social Scientist at the RAND Corporation. Dr. Brownell originally came to San Diego as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and a guest scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, both at UC San Diego. When not at work, he fishes, gardens, hikes, kayaks and raises chickens