Every year anglers flock to Yakutat to cast their chance at catching a trophy steelhead or to fill their freezer with wild salmon. Most of these anglers likely know that Yakutat is known as the Yakutat Fish Factory and is one of the best places in Alaska to catch these fish, but how many know why this place is a hotbed for salmon and trout populations? And how many know about the work that is being done to ensure these fisheries are around for generations to come?
Situk River is the most famous of Yakutat’s rivers. It originates from the Situk and Mountain lakes and flows 18 miles through old-growth forests and muskeg meadows into the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific Ocean. Over the course of the river’s run, it only loses 1,640 feet of elevation. The small difference in elevation from its headwaters to the ocean creates meandering riffle-and-pool habitat throughout the river. This habitat is exactly what fish need to spawn and rear, and contributes to the Situk River being the largest steelhead fishery in the state. Nearly half of all steelhead caught in Alaska annually are caught in the Situk. That’s quite the accomplishment in a fish-filled state. The river also has substantial sockeye and silver salmon runs.
A wild Yakutat steelhead.
The Situk is world renowned, but it is just one of the rivers that make Yakutat so special. The Yakutat Forelands, which are part of the Tongass National Forest, stretch from Yakutat Bay in the north to Dry Bay in the south. This area includes numerous streams and rivers that have similar characteristics as the Situk: clean water, a meandering channel, perfect spawning gravel and slow tributaries. Together, the waters of the Yakutat Forelands have ideal habitat for incredible fish productivity and species diversity. This area is nature’s perfect design for a fish factory. All five species of Alaska’s Pacific salmon can be found in Yakutat, in addition to rainbow trout, steelhead trout, coastal cutthroat trout, and Dolly Varden.
Most of the Yakutat Forelands is within the Tongass National Forest and considered a “roadless area,” which means it has been spared from industrial logging and most road construction. The Roadless Rule, which the Forest Service originally passed in 2001, prohibits commercial logging and new logging roads in 9.4 million acres of roadless areas in the Tongass. Going against the will of many anglers and hunters, and more than 96% of all public comments, the Forest Service repealed the Roadless Rule on the Tongass in 2020 at the request of the State of Alaska, which sought to greatly expand industrial clear-cut logging of old-growth forest. The repeal left critical areas like the Yakutat Forelands, and the area’s incredible fish runs, at risk.
Roads have already left their mark on Yakutat. Within the Forelands, there are at least eight instances where roads cross streams and impede fish migration. When a road is poorly constructed and an inadequate culvert is installed at a stream crossing, it can prevent salmon and other fish from traveling through, eliminate access to important spawning and rearing habitat, increase erosion and the risk of flooding, and create significant additional maintenance costs. More than 1,000 such instances exist across the Tongass, impeding access to approximately 250 miles of salmon and trout habitat. Upstream habitat is critical for highly migratory fish like salmon. The more access is restricted, the more fish populations will suffer. The Roadless Rule has been a successful tool for preventing further damage like this from being created.
“Red Pipe” status culverts impede fish migration. Map created by Mark Hieronymus.
Importantly, the Roadless Rule does not prevent all development in roadless areas. It is flexible and set up to enable communities to advance projects they need, such as energy and other infrastructure projects, while conserving natural resources and habitat for fish and wildlife, which is the foundation of southeast Alaska’s fishing and tourism economies. That’s why the rule is popular on the Tongass. The majority of Alaskan voters and numerous southeast Alaska tribes opposed the exemption. All told, 96% of all public comments submitted during the latest comment period supported keeping roadless-area protections.
Fortunately, the Forest Service is now listening to Alaskans and is moving to restore roadless-area protections for the Tongass. In July, the Forest Service announced its new “Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy.” Under this new strategy, the Forest Service is ending large-scale old-growth logging and refocusing its efforts on restoration, recreation and resiliency. It also is recommitting to meaningful consultation with local tribes, is investing up to $25 million in sustainable economic and community development efforts and plans to fully reinstate the 2001 Roadless Rule.
The Forest Service’s new Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy will realign the agency away from outdated and costly practices that damage the forest and important fish and wildlife habitat, towards management activities that benefit local communities, the southeast Alaska economy, and our fish and wildlife—like hiring local businesses to fix culverts that do not meet fish-passage standards. The process to implement this new strategy is ongoing.
This new direction is wonderful news for places like the Yakutat Forelands and so many others across the Tongass National Forest. Beautiful scenery, wild landscapes, and healthy populations of fish and wildlife are what make places like Yakutat so special. The Forest Service’s new direction for the Tongass will work with communities, local businesses, and anglers and hunters to help make sure places like the rivers and streams near Yakutat remain a thriving fish factory for generations to come.
If you’d like to get involved with efforts to conserve the Tongass National Forest visit americansalmonforest.org.
Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect, reconnect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Learn about our work in Alaska at tu.org/project/alaska. Marian Giannulis is the Alaska Communications & Engagement Director for Trout Unlimited.
Story by Marian Giannulis
Photos by Nate Catterson