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02/10/2012

Forest Service Deepens Commitment on Climate

I’ve had the good fortune to visit Alaska several times during the course of my life and she never ceases to amaze me with her beauty.  Several years ago, while in Anchorage attending a scientific meeting, a colleague and I snuck away one morning to hunt ptarmigan in the Chugach National Forest.  Driving our rented Subaru down a rough two track we were nearly creamed by a giant bull moose that burst out of the brush, his hair glistening with the moisture that hung in that coastal mountain air, his eyes deep and wide in their indifference to our presence, his antlers silhouetted against the cerulean sky, like a bony halo.

Catching our breath, we drove on until we reached  the end of the track in a high elevation basin ringed by peaks studded with snowfields, its floor carpeted in willows.  Our shotguns loaded, we started climbing, picking our way across scree, listening for the telltale clucks of the ptarmigan.  The terrain, the chill, the unparalleled scenery made for one of the most challenging and rewarding mornings of bird hunting I’ve ever experienced.  By the time we returned to the Subaru we had three birds in our bag.  Back home in Virginia, they were oven roasted and served at a special dinner party where most of the guests had never heard of the Chugach until they were told the story of how it had come to feed them and in turn deserved some reverence.

The Chugach National Forest is a special place, and not just because of the opportunities it gives hunters like myself.  The rain and snow that falls on the Chugach Mountains supply fresh water to the 270,000 residents of the city of Anchorage.  They also feed the rivers and streams that support wild salmon runs that help form the backbone of Alaska’s multi-billion dollar commercial and recreational fishing industries. The forests and meadows are home to wildlife like the moose and ptarmigan we encountered, along with grizzly and black bear, Dall sheep, mountain goat and bald eagle, making it a crucial area for conserving America’s natural heritage. 

Chugach forest

To conserve these values the U.S. Forest Service has designated the Chugach as one of eight "early adopters" of their recently released landmark forest planning regulations.  Northern forests like the Chugach are on the front lines of climate disruption, making it an ideal place to apply these new rules which, for the first time, address climate change. 

Going forward, water, the resource most vulnerable to climate disruption, will be a priority for Chugach managers who will be required to establish science-based buffers around streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands and prevent activities that negatively impact water quality or temperature.

In the course of their planning, managers will be taking into account the ability of the forest to capture greenhouse gas pollutionin both trees and soils, so that our air is cleaner and climate disruption is not worsened.

All forest management decisions will now be based on the “best available science” and the purpose of forest planning will be to maintain the ecological integrity of the Chugach so it can continue to benefit the American People.

On the Chugach and across the national forest system, the U.S. Forest Service is moving into the 21st century with a thoughtful and much needed approach to managing our public lands.  Other federal land management agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, can and should learn from the approach the Forest Service is taking so they too can meet their responsibilities to the American people in our changing world.

-- By Catherine Semcer

Photo courtesy Dan Logan, USDA

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