On Tuesday night, June 10, just over 40 people gathered at Crescent Harbor to embark on a three hour boat cruise that travelled out of Sitka Sound, all the way to West Crawfish Inlet and back. Fresh off the plane from Boston, MA, I was lucky enough to be one of those participants, and had my first real introduction to the Alaskan landscape that I will be working with closely this summer as SCS's Wilderness Intern. We were exploring by boat the South Baranoff Wilderness Area, one of the nineteen wilderness areas that is managed by the United States Forest Service within the Tongass Forest of Southeast Alaska. The cruise, the first of four trips being sponsored by SCS over the course of the summer, had as its educational theme the concept and land designation of "wilderness," in honor of this year's 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. A landmark moment in American history, this act, signed into law in 1964 by President Johnson after almost unanimous Congressional approval, officially recognized as important the designation and legal protection of places "without permanent improvements or human habitation" (Wilderness Act of 1964, Section 2 c. "Definition of Wilderness). Wilderness was meant to be a place where nature reigned and humans remained solely as visitors.
The visitors on this week's boat tour certainly got a taste of wilderness' wonders, catching sight over the duration of the trip of sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, and sweeping old-growth forests of western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and Alaskan yellow cedar. About halfway through we even caught a glimpse of one of the brown bears for which Sitka, and Southeast Alaska in general, is so famous. In some ways, the boat cruise, and the natural beauty being appreciated from its decks, thus functioned as a celebration of the past – a celebration of the 50 years of committed stewardship that has kept such pristine places intact, and preserved them for the enjoyment of future generations and those who have yet to behold the natural splendor of Alaska.
But even as it commemorated past achievements, the tour also served as a stark reminder that the battle for the protection of wild places is not yet over. As of only a few months ago, a Department of the Army permit was issued for work in the waters of Crawfish Inlet – the very inlet to which our cruise had come. The permit will allow the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA) to moor structures and store net pens in the inlet, which stands to interfere with the current use of these woods and waters for subsistence, recreation, and tourism operations. The land's "outstanding opportunities for solitude," one of the quintessential pillars and promises of wilderness areas, will no doubt also be negatively affected by the presence and operation of these large, metal enclosures.
Fish are a fundamental part of the Southeast's ecosystem, economy, and identity. And as such, they are a vitally important and valuable resource. But in a landscape that has so much to offer, we must be careful not to manage one resource – fish – at the expense of another – wilderness. The boat cruise, filled to capacity Tuesday night, stands as a testimony to how many people put value in the existence of these wild waters and forests of Alaska. Which is good news – because even 50 years out from the designation of the Wilderness Act, there clearly remain many natural and wild landscapes still in need of defense.
Information on the other boat cruisesbeing offered by SCS this summer can be found on our website.And for a glimpse of even more Alaskan wilderness, be sure to check out The Meaning of Wild,a 30-minute documentary that brings you deep into some of the most remote areas of the Tongass.Interested in getting out there yourself? Head to SCS's Wilderness pagewhere you can learn about opportunities to volunteer for the Sitka Conservation Society and explore remote and beautiful places all while making a difference!