JUNEAU, Alaska—In Southeast Alaska, there's a controversy brewing.
A controversy between loggers and fisherman.
Last year, the salmon catch in Southeastern Alaska was the highest in the state, exceeding even salmon-rich Bristol Bay. Something in excess of 15-billion pounds of salmon was caught there in 2011.
That wasn't always the case. In 1967, the salmon catch in southeast commercial fisheries hit a record low, just 215 million pounds.
There are many possible reasons for the low catch, but scientists agree, among those reasons were the logging practices of the time.
In the 1960's, areas like Prince of Wales Island were heavily logged in clear-cuts. Forest restoration was not widely practiced, and it is a known fact that sedimentation and lack of shade can harm salmon spawning streams.
But there were probably other factors as well. Asian vessels that were doing illegal drift net fishing, and possibly pollution factors in the Pacific.
One thing is clear. Logging in the Tongass National Forest was greatly curtailed in the 1990's. The reduction cost at least 6,000 loggers their jobs and devastated the economies of many communities.
Coincidentally or not, in the 1990's the salmon catch in Southeast Alaska went up. And it continued to go way up into the first decade of the 21st century. By 2011, it reached a new record; the biggest catch ever in the Southeast.
Fishermen see a direct correlation between the scaling back of the logging industry and the increase in their catch.
But the largest native corporation in the state, Sealaska, says that with modern forest regeneration practices, logging can coexist with a health salmon industry.
The U.S. Division of Forestry has been conducting experiments and generating healthy second-growth forests in the Tongass just 50 years after old-growth clear cuts were made. The second-generation forests are not as ecologically diverse as the original old-growth forests, but they are a vast improvement over so-called "untreated forests".
Right now logging in the Tongass has been cut back from its maximum of over three-quarters of a billion board feet of lumber, to about 100-million board feet per year.
At 100-million board feet, you never have to touch old growth forest again. All you need to do is re-harvest the second growth forests.
Fishermen love that. Loggers do not. A Southeast Alaska logging industry that used to employ 6,000 to 7000 people now only employs 200.
Sealaska, which owns 3% of the Tongass, would like to see logging nearly triple, to about 270-million board feet.
Fishermen say logging is fine just where it is. In fact, some would like to see it reduced further and more money put into watershed restoration.
Fishing now directly supplies 7,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska, and they feel it would be unwise to risk that.
The controversy is likely to continue. The Division of Forestry plans would technically allow 270-million board feet of lumber to be harvested.
But, in a presidential election year, it seems unlikely that moves will be made to increase the lumber harvest anytime soon.