Between the Lines: The Wild Ride of Bringing Alaska Story To Full Bloom As a Book

July 15, 2010



I'm proud to announce the birth of my beautiful new ……. book. Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska's Tongass Rain Forest was born April 1, 2010. The new arrival has its own Web site, YouTube, and Facebook fan page. After a three-year gestation, mother and book are doing well. As a freelance photographer and writer for almost 20 years, I've published many magazine stories, but Salmon in the Trees is my first book. From the moment of conception, it's been a wild ride, but as a zealous new "parent," I would encourage others to take the plunge as well.

Salmon in the Trees tells the story of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States, and it contains nearly one-third of the world's rare old-growth coastal temperate rain forest. This is a place where great numbers of grizzly bears, bald eagles, and wild salmon thrive as they have for thousands of years.

It's also a place full of controversy, divisiveness, and bitter battles. After World War II, the U.S. Congress authorized a "timber-first" policy for the Tongass, and awarded 50-year contracts to two companies to harvest trees in return for building giant pulp mills in the Southeast Alaska towns of Ketchikan and Sitka. Five decades of industrial-scale clear-cut logging claimed many of the best stands of public forest most valuable to wildlife. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act gave large tracts of the national forest lands back to the indigenous people of the region. The Native corporations clear-cut much of their lands as well. From 1980 to 1990, government subsidies to the tune of $40 million a year allowed the timber companies to cut unsustainable levels of 4.5 million board feet annually.

In 1990, after a decade of activism called attention to the destruction of the ecosystem, Congress passed the Tongass Timber Reform Act, which revoked the cut levels and repealed the annual subsidy to the timber companies. Both pulp mills shuttered their operations several years later. Communities have had to rebuild themselves, and some have done a better job than others. Commercial fishing and tourism are the mainstays of the local economy. The Tongass is in a state of transition, and the decisions we make today will determine its future.

Enter the idea for the book. A decade ago, I had accompanied a research team to the Tongass and wrote/photographed a story published in Sierra ("Remains of the Rainforest," Nov/Dec 2001: For good reasons, but for far too long, the story of the Tongass has typically focused on what's wrong with the place. I decided it was time to tell the story of what's right about it. I contacted the original members of the research team, and they all agreed that the time was ripe for a hopeful story of the place.

I needed a hook, one that could offer a new look at a decades-old issue and help people understand the significance of the Tongass and why it's worth preserving. I read an article that talked about scientists discovering salmon in trees in this part of the world. The concept was so unexpected that I knew if I could help people understand this one connection, then they would understand the ecology of the ecosystem. In a nutshell, the connection goes something like this: salmon are born in freshwater streams and rivers, they head out to the oceans to mature, and then they return to their birth streams as adults to spawn the next generation. When they return, there are lots of hungry animals waiting for them, including bears. Bears often carry salmon away from the streams and into the forests. Researchers say that one bear may carry 40 fish from a stream in 8 hours. With thousands of bears and millions of salmon, this adds up to a lot of fish carcasses dragged and dropped in the forest. Over time, all of that rich fish fertilizer decomposes into the soil, and the trees absorb it through their roots. Scientists have actually been able to trace a particular form of marine nitrogen in trees near salmon streams. Remarkably, this connection between salmon and trees still exists in much of the Tongass. And despite the clear-cut logging of the past, enough critical areas are still intact, holding the ecological integrity of the whole ecosystem together. But many of these critical areas are not protected and threats to them include continued logging, mining, industrial-scale tourism, energy development, and global climate change.

The goal of the book is to educate a broad readership about the remarkable connection between salmon and trees, and the relevance to people, both locally and globally, of the ecosystem remaining intact. In addition to providing local and sustainable jobs in commercial fishing and tourism, the Tongass also ranks among the top ten U.S. national forests for its ability to store carbon and regulate global climate. In order to elevate the credibility and visibility of the importance of the Tongass, I asked a number of noted authors to contribute their voices. Carl Safina (Song for the Blue Ocean), Douglas Chadwick (long-time National Geographic contributor, and author of The Wolverine Way), and Brad Matsen (Titanic's Last Secrets) are nationally recognized authors. Scientist John Schoen, cultural anthropologist, and Native leader Rosita Worl, and Southeast Alaska naturalist Richard Carstensen are well-known Alaskans, each noted for his/her field of specialty. Since people are such an integral part of the Tongass region, I asked local artist Ray Troll and local writer John Straley to talk about what it's like to live in the area. Ray Troll also contributed his off-beat fish illustrations, for which he's best known. Richard Nelson, a local radio voice and author, recorded an audio CD of a first-hand account of watching grizzly bears fish for salmon. I created all of the 160 photographs, and wrote 11 profiles of local people, as well as several personal essays. The final result is a rich and diverse mix of voices and visuals that bring the Tongass alive.

I didn't have to do a lot of arm twisting to convince all of the contributors to agree to participate — the Tongass pretty much sold itself. And the topic was a perfect fit for my publisher Braided River, the conservation imprint of The Mountaineers Books. But books like this are expensive to create and they don't happen without financial support. I needed to raise funds to cover my field work, which included multiple trips to various parts of the Tongass, often chartering boats and airplanes to take me to some of the more remote areas. Fundraising became a newly acquired skill for me. Luckily, my fiscal sponsor and publisher Braided River is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, so all funds raised are considered tax-deductible by the Internal Revenue Service. This is an enormous advantage when approaching private foundations for funding. By law, foundations can only grant funds to registered 501(c)3 charitable organizations. Many foundations do not fund books or videos, and so I narrowed my funding search to those that historically have funded organizations working to preserve the Tongass. Fortunately, those most committed to the Tongass saw the value of a book that could highlight what makes the place special, and they agreed to fund the work. However, I would not have been able to raise a single dollar from any of these foundations without the collaboration of many conservation organizations working to preserve the Tongass. These organizations understood that the book could be used as an effective communications tool for raising awareness about the issues surrounding the Tongass. Because I agreed to incorporate the book into their public outreach efforts, these organizations provided the assurances to the foundations that their funds were being well spent.

Just like raising a child, creating a book like Salmon in the Trees takes a village, and collaboration became the theme throughout the entire project. And just like giving birth, the mother vows she'll never do it again. But creative urges, like biological urges, often trump rational thought. So I wouldn't be surprised if Salmon in the Trees has a sibling in its future.

Amy Gulick is a freelance photographer and writer. Her work has appeared in Sierra, Audubon, Outdoor Photographer, High Country News, and other publications. To see more of her work, visit Contact her at To learn more about Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska's Tongass Rain Forest (Braided River, 2010), visit

* From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2010 issue


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