Tongass Odyssey Part 4: Conservation

LaVern Beier, left, and John Schoen, right, with a captured and radio-collared brown bear on a subalpine ridge on northern Admiralty Island above Greens Creek. This 547-pound eleven-year-old adult male bear (#46) was captured in June 1986. Photo by John Schoen

by John Schoen

I can’t recall when I first began thinking about it, but I suspect my conservation philosophy began to emerge when I was a teenager on Orcas Island, hunting deer in the forest behind our home, digging clams and collecting oysters off our beach, or diving for abalone and rock scallops in the intertidal waters of the San Juan Islands.

Our family’s harvesting rule was simple: don’t take more than you can use, and don’t concentrate your taking in one place. That basic approach describes my place-based conservation strategy.

After going to college and majoring in biology, my conservation philosophy evolved; after grad school, I gained the tools to ground my conservation philosophy in ecological theory.

For me, conservation includes protecting and managing natural resources — from berries and fish to trees and deer — so that they are available in perpetuity for others to use and enjoy.

In 1905, Gifford Pinchot, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the first chief of the United States Forest Service, described the purpose of conservation as managing resources “to provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time.” Conservation, in my opinion, includes both preservation and use. But the key is sustainable use and enjoyment of those resources over time measured in decades and centuries.

Early in my career with ADF&G, when I was first doing deer research on the Tongass, I was often asked by forest managers and administrators, “How many deer do you need?” Underlying that question was the assumption that there would always be some deer left after harvesting timber — timber was more important because it provided jobs and a strong economy.

The conventional wisdom at that time was that logging benefited deer. However, the more we learned about old-growth forests — including differences in various types of old growth — the more we began to understand that many other species also used old-growth habitat, including bears, marten, flying squirrels, bald eagles, marbled murrelets, goshawks, salmon, and many other fish and wildlife species. And those species depended on a variety of old-growth habitat types that were not necessarily the same as optimal winter deer habitat.

In the early stages of our research, it became clear to us that conservation on the Tongass was not just about deer. Fundamentally, conservation was about sustaining the natural diversity and integrity — structure, function and diversity — of the ecosystem.

Aldo Leopold said:

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

I believe strongly in Leopold’s tenet that the “first principle of conservation is to preserve all the parts.” Keeping all the parts of an ecosystem should be the foundation of any conservation strategy for our public lands. This does not mean that those lands should be protected from any human uses. But it is imperative that all of the ecological parts should be sustained over time. On the Tongass, high-grading the rare, large-tree old growth violates Leopold’s first principle of conservation just as much as threatening the existence of individual species — like king salmon, grizzly bears, or spotted owls — that has occurred on public lands and waters south of Alaska’s border.

The concept of conservation must be broadened beyond simply protecting rare, threatened, or endangered species. It must encompass sustaining the integrity of ecosystems, including species, distinct populations, discrete habitat types, and the natural diversity, structure and function of the ecological communities that make up the greater whole. On an ecosystem level, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

-John Schoen, Tongass Odyssey