The Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest is Vital for Both Hunters and Brown Bears

There’s a long history of Alaskan hunting guides stepping up to protect the Tongass

In the mid-1980s an old, dying bear hunter named Ralph Young sat in the back of a skiff, squinting through the rain at the ocean and mountains of Southeast Alaska. In the bow, huddled against the wind and rain, sat a teenager named Klas Stolpe. The two would be out for a month or two, until most of the salmon had spawned and the bears had left the streams for the high country. The old man didn’t especially enjoy the kid’s company but, due his to declining health and old age, he needed his help for basic things like getting in and out of the boat. They motored past once pristine bays, where years ago the old man guided legendary hunters like Warren Page and Jack O’Connor. Now, those lands were clear-cut logged. He pointed the skiff toward Admiralty Island, the heart of rainforest grizzly country, and opened the outboard’s throttle.

Young was making his last journey into the wilds of the Tongass National Forest. Established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, the Tongass is nearly 26,500-square miles of temperate rainforest, mountains and glaciers. Roosevelt, during his first year of presidency, unsuccessfully campaigned for Admiralty, Chichagof, and Baranof Islands, which compose most of the northern third of the Tongass, to be turned into a brown bear preserve. The President loved hunting bears and, believing that America could have both economic development and wilderness, saw the incredible opportunity the Tongass offered for hunters and for preserving a piece of the nation’s wild heritage.

Young came to Alaska during the first half of the 20th century, when many of Alaska’s leaders and prominent citizens wanted the brown bear eradicated. In 1929, when a timber cruiser who was mapping a giant pulpwood sale on Admiralty Island shot a bear and then was killed by it, the anti-bear rhetoric reached a boiling point. The Forest Service’s designated bear expert, Jay Williams, recommended exterminating all Admiralty’s bears to make resource development easier. This sort of thinking was common across Alaska at the time. Then, in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, a burgeoning movement of hunters banned together in defense of the bear. Harry McGuire, the editor of Outdoor Life, penned an extensive editorial about the importance of conserving the brown bear. Other naturalist hunters wrote books, articles, and campaigned across the country. Young joined the fight in the 1960s, after seeing what happened when one of his favorite watersheds on Admiralty was clear cut—salmon streams had been destroyed and the bears and other wildlife had been displaced. These sort of detrimental logging practices were occurring all over the Tongass. Young devoted the last quarter of his life fighting tooth and nail to save Admiralty Island and its bears. In 1980, after a 50-year battle that was led by Young, Karl Lane, and other bear hunting guides, much of Admiralty was designated as wilderness. Today, in large part because of the conservation efforts of many hunting guides, there are more brown bears in Alaska than during any other time in the last 150 years.

Roadless Rule on the Chopping Block

But today, hunters and brown bears still face an uncertain future in the Tongass. There’s a huge push led by the government and timber interests to open up much of the remaining old-growth forest to be clear cut logged and crisscrossed with roads. In 2001, the Forest Service established the Roadless Rule. Under the Rule, inventoried roadless areas all across America are protected from old-growth logging, new road building and, to a limited extent, other resource development. In the Tongass National Forest, about 9 million acres were protected. The Rule does allow exceptions for hydroelectric projects, mines, and community interties—every project applied for has been permitted. What the Roadless Rule does not allow is more logging roads and clear-cut logging, which protects much of the Tongass’ remaining old growth forest. These old-growth forests are the most important habitat for brown bears, spawning salmon, and other wildlife.

This June the Forest Service is expected to announce its decision to axe the Roadless Rule in the Tongass—despite 96 percent of public commenters stating they wish to keep the Rule in place. Intact habitat supports commercial fishing and tourism, which make up the lion’s share of the region’s economy, contributing more than $2 billion per year on average. The heavily subsidized timber industry, on the other hand, contributes less than 1 percent to the region’s economy. There are already thousands of miles of Forest Service roads in the Tongass maintained by American’s tax dollars that offer the chance for a second-growth logging industry—something that the majority of Southeast Alaskans would like to see. What most locals don’t want is a resurgence of the giant clear cuts of the past that will hurt their economy and Alaskan way of life. Axing the Roadless Rule will negatively affect hunters and fishermen. Forest Service representatives admitted at a town meeting in Juneau in 2019 that many hunting guiding businesses will be compromised.

Today’s hunting guides are speaking up for habitat just like Young and his partners did back in the day.

“My entire area is on the chopping block—logging or any form of development would negatively affect my business permanently,” says Lucas Mullen, owner and guide of Alaska Alpine Hunts, which specializes in brown bear and mountain goat hunts. “People come here for a trip of a lifetime. It’s not just to harvest an animal. It’s a chance to see big, wild country. Now, that could be taken away. I don’t see why we’re doing this. We’re losing money on these timber sales and they’ll put outfitters out of business.”

A hunter kneeling beside a large brown bear in the Tongass National Forest.
Atlin Daugherty with a happy hunter and a nice bear taken in the Tongass National Forest. Atlin Daugherty

Atlin Daugherty, lifelong Southeast Alaskan and owner of Rugged Alaskan Adventures, guides brown and black bear hunts and contends that guides and outfitters are the main advocates for bears and bear habitat.

“Guides and outfitters care about bears more than just about anyone else in the world,” Daugherty says. “Late-season still hunting brown bears in old-growth forest along salmon streams with hundreds or even thousands of salmon at your feet and you’re running into bears at 10 or 20 yards—it’s a really special experience. A lot of the areas we hunt are as they’ve been for thousands of years. Doing away with the Roadless Rule would change that hunt dynamic and landscape. The nostalgia would be gone. I’m not against logging—I support small scale and second growth—but the rape and pillage, one and done sort of clear cuts of the past make no sense. It’s proven that old growth is important to fish, brown bears and hunters,” Daugherty said.

Bear Hunting Controversy

It’s true that many people find brown bear hunting controversial. In 2017, after a pervasive social media campaign, all “trophy” brown bear hunting was banned in British Columbia. Up until then, about 250 brown bears were killed by hunters annually. B.C. has an estimated population of 15,000 brown bears. Most bears taken were boars, which contribute to the high mortality rate young bears face. The hunts were not hurting the population, but many well-meaning (but misguided) people congratulated themselves and viewed the closure as a victory for the bear. While this was occurring, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellinger released a report stating the province’s grizzly bear conservation strategy was failing. The real threat to grizzlies, Bellinger made clear, is the loss of habitat that’s occurring at an alarming rate in B.C. due to logging, mining, and gas exploration. Guides and hunters are important stakeholders in the bear’s future. Removing them eliminates a powerful voice in conserving the habitat animals need.

Keegan McCarthy, owner of Coastal Alaska Adventures, guides hunts for brown bear, black bear and Sitka blacktail deer. McCarthy has gone to Washington D.C. to campaign for the Roadless Rule numerous times and believes that Southeast Alaska can have a viable timber industry, and protect old-growth in the Tongass. But, a blanket exemption of the Roadless Rule would be disastrous, he says.

Read Next: The Tongass National Forest is a Wilderness on the Chopping Block

“The Roadless Rule offers important protections for salmon streams and watersheds. There are outfitters and small cruise boat operations basically using every major watershed—we’re already fighting over a small pie, then to add another large consumptive user — I can’t even imagine taking away watersheds. Hunters don’t come here to see clear cuts or listen to chainsaws. This is the last great old-growth forest in the country—this is the place to go. The hunting opportunities are incredible. We need to know there are places left like this.”

LaVern Beier likely knows more about brown bears than anyone in the world. Not only did he work as a hunting guide for decades, but he was also a brown bear expert in the Tongass for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 35 years. During this time he captured, radio tagged and tracked more than 1,000 brown bears. He wrote the following in an editorial supporting keeping the Roadless Rule in the Tongass for the Juneau Empire Newspaper.

“There are nine distinct DNA brown bear populations in the Tongass, each unique in the world. Reversal of the existing Roadless Rule would have cumulative adverse effects on six of these nine brown bear populations. Perhaps more paramount, climate change is not addressed in reversal of the Roadless Rule, despite the fact it has potential to affect future brown bear populations more adversely than any other human activity. It is well documented, visitors travel to Alaska with hopes of seeing three animals, bald eagles, whales, and brown bears. Wilderness is the symbol of brown bear habitat, and God isn’t making wilderness anymore. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

An aerial vista of the sprawling woods of Tongass National Forest.
Vista of the Tongass National Forest taken from the high country of Admiralty Island. Bjorn Dihle

Young’s Last Trip

The Forest Service and their bureaucrats are lucky Young isn’t alive today. When he was trying to save Admiralty Island he had no reservations getting into a fistfights when it came to saving brown bears and the habitat they need. On Young’s last trip into the wilds of the Tongass, he motored the skiff to the edge of a blue mussel and seaweed covered beach of Admiralty Island. He grumbled at Stolpe but grabbed his shoulder as he clambered over the gunnel and limped up to the high tide line. The kid stood with the skiff, staring up at a dark wall of forest and mountain that rose into swirling slate-gray clouds, and wondered what he’d he gotten himself into. Young, on the other hand, finally felt like he was home. The old hunter hoped his end would come at the teeth and claws of a bear. Maybe this sort of death was a dream of reciprocity for the hundreds he’d taken part in killing. Instead, years of heavy drinking, heart disease, and cancer couldn’t seem to finish him off, but the passage of time had whittled him down to a frail shadow of what he once was. Maybe, as he studied bear tracks wending along the edge of the forest, he felt like his own fate and the wilderness of Southeast Alaska were intertwined.

Days elapsed and Young and Stolpe went from bay to bay. Mostly the old man was silent, but sometimes he would look at bear tracks and other sign and describe in acute detail the size, sex, and behavior of the animals who’d left them. Other times he would describe hunts that occurred 50 or more years ago in crystal clear detail. He knew every plant and species of animal they encountered. Twice, they were charged by bears guarding their fishing holes. Both times, instead of raising his rifle, Young spoke calmly to the bear. To Stolpe’s amazement, both bears listened and gradually calmed before turning and disappearing into the salmonberry brush. In North America, there’s no animal filled with more life and power than the brown bear; during those encounters, Young transformed before the kid’s eyes from a fragile geezer into a big, powerful man. As the salmon runs petered out, migratory birds winged south, and the bears retreated into the mountains in preparation for their long winter sleep. The old man and the boy motored back to town, and Young passed not long after. A bit of Alaska’s frontier died with him.

Today, anyone with the gumption can still experience the brown bears and wild country of the Tongass. This is in large part because people like Ralph Young fought to conserve these public lands. Exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule would be a disaster for our wild heritage, for brown bears, and for hunting. Those of us who care about these traditions owe it to future generations to make sure they have the opportunity to walk up a stream brimming with salmon, surrounded by giant ancient trees, and to come face to face with the incredible rainforest grizzly.

Bjorn Dihle is a lifelong resident of the Tongass. You can follow him at instagram.com/bjorndihle/ or facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor/