How Do You Talk About the Tongass National Forest to Tourists?

This past June, as a crew member on a whale-watching boat, I tried to share with the guests the vulnerability of the mountainous Tongass — its green velvet cushions rising out of ochre tide flat — and to help them understand how acres of old growth are essential in the fight against climate change.


But why have that conversation with people who just want to see cool things while on vacation? And are rightly distracted by spouting whales, cavorting sea lions, and adorable otters?


Through a story, I tried to connect them to the mountain in this image: “That’s my favorite ski hill!” Of course, hill is a misnomer. Here’s how a typical ski day goes: first, battle a brushy logging road; then carry all the gear up the thick timber; finally slog along the alpine muskeg through cementy snow. At last, we crest out in a wonderland of stunted mountain hemlock, wind-swept edges, and softly powdered slopes through which we can carve turn upon turn in thigh-burning ecstasy. Then it’s time to repeat the process in reverse – sometimes a seven-hour trip will include merely one hour of turns. But all that together fulfills my definition of a perfect day!


I also shared with the guests that the Tongass is the world’s largest, uninterrupted block of temperate rainforest. But I couldn’t show them what it’s like under the canopy. There wasn’t time — or words— to describe the carpet of moss and ground creepers. How Sitka spruce mingles with shade-tolerant western hemlock and occasional stands of yellow cedar. Or that downed logs decompose into unsteady mossy rubble around which spring berry bushes.


Sometimes I explained that the areas of lighter color had been logged. To the casual tourist, the miles-long ragged swaths shaved out of the velvet in the 90s and 2000s now look like bright green meadows. The viewer on the water can’t see that the trees have regrown too thickly for ground cover, and that for deer, it is barren and impenetrable.


The purpose of environmental education is to convey information that compels the listener to new behavior. Do any of these stories and facts encourage significant change? Perhaps just seeing such natural abundance, hearing about how much I love this landscape, raises their awareness. Could all those tiny inputs add up to memories that change political choices and daily behaviors?



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