Forest Service identifies nearly 700 Tongass stream crossings that could block migrating fish

an old culvert, with water around it
An old culvert built for past logging projects obstructed Logjam Creek on Prince of Wales Island. (Photo courtesy of USFS)

Nearly 700 sites along Tongass National Forest streams could obstruct fish from migrating, according to a new report from the U.S. Forest Service. But there is a plan to deal with the old roads and culverts causing the problems.

“Fish migrate, so we need to ensure that they have that opportunity,” said Sheila Jacobson, fisheries program manager for the U.S. Forest Service.

Jacobson is leading a new project that seeks to restore all 700 of the crossings on the Tongass that aren’t up to federal standards. She said migrating fish — including salmon, steelhead, and trout — swim into human-caused barriers left over from the days of heavy logging in Southeast Alaska. Back in the 50s and 60s, timber was harvested throughout the region without plans for how all the construction — like roads, culverts and bridges — would affect fish habitats as they deteriorate.

“This project really is aimed at restoring fish passage across roads and motorized trails, which are fragmenting fish habitat across the entire forest,” Jacobson said.

The federal agency has been documenting these stream crossings since the early 1990s. The Forest Service has tried to restore them one by one as funding allows. Now, they’ve compiled all of them into one project, the Tongass National Forest Fish Passage Restoration, which can be added to as more crossings are identified.

Jacobson said it should make for a more streamlined process.

“It sets us up well for being able to capitalize on some of the new funding streams that have been coming up in the past year or so,” she said. “And then partners are able to help us with grant opportunities as well. So, we are definitely being able to get more project funding for this particular issue.”

This culvert on Logjam Creek on Prince of Wales Island has been restored to improve fish passage. (Photo courtesy of USFS)

The Forest Service isn’t the only one restoring streams on the Tongass. The agency has several partnerships, including the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership. Ian Johnson runs the environmental department for the Hoonah Indian Association. For the past five years, they’ve run programs that have local workers restoring watersheds in the area. Hoonah is on the northeast side of Chichagof Island.

Johnson said streams there have been affected by past logging.

“When fish are passing through a culvert, if there’s a meter perch or something on the backside, people can see that,” Johnson said.

Johnson said around six years ago, the tribe surveyed the community about environmental issues, and stream restoration was ranked number one. He said some community members had worked for the logging industry in the past.

“There were a lot of folks here who were a part of the logging and, you know, experienced the logging,” Johnson said. “And those that had concern at the time about the effect of logging right up to the stream.”

Now, workers with Hoonah Native Forest Partnership fix culverts and bridges and reintroduce wood into watersheds that lost that natural process through logging. Johnson says healthy streams are important — especially for communities that rely on the land around them.

“Hoonah as a community relies on subsistence resources, to meet many of its needs, especially around protein,” Johnson said. “and needs to have a landscape that can provide those resources.”

The Forest Service wants to grow partnerships like the one with Hoonah. Fixing 700 stream crossings is a lot. It’s a plan that spans nearly the whole Southeast region, except for Prince of Wales Island. That island has 2,000 miles of mostly logging roads and has its own restoration plan.

Many of the bad logging practices started changing in 1976 with the passage of the National Forest Management Act. It regulated the timber industry, limiting the size of clear cuts and how far away from streams they could be.

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