Battle for the Tongass

Protecting Alaska’s Salmon Factory
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Battle for the Tongass

Protecting Alaska’s Salmon Factory

Alaska’s Tongass National Forest produces more wild salmon than all other national forests combined and inspires anglers and visitors from around the globe. Fish, wildlife and visitor services — these are the three pillars TU believes management of southeast Alaska’s magnificent Tongass National Forest should be based upon, abandoning the old model of timber and extraction. This vision requires a rapid transition from damaging industrial clear-cut logging of old-growth trees, to safeguarding important fish and wildlife habitat of the region. 

The Tongass is the Pacific’s salmon factory.

Trout Unlimited has made significant progress in this shift by partnering with outfitters, guides and outdoor retail businesses from the Tongass and beyond to speak up loudly and in unison to key decision makers, and by building trust through partnerships with the Forest Service itself. Trout Unlimited helps facilitate and implement much-needed restoration projects across the forest, find compromise with stakeholders related to forest management, and has secured new protections for approximately 2 million acres of the region’s most important salmon habitat. When circumstances demand, Trout Unlimited also uncovers wrongdoing. TU has earned high-profile media coverage that is used to cultivate broad public support for protecting 77 roadless areas and the top fish-producing watersheds on the forest, known as the “Tongass 77.” The support manifests as thousands of Alaskans and hundreds of businesses overwhelming public testimony at every opportunity. As TU advocates for these safeguards and a shift in management priority on the forest, the organization also identifies new salmon and steelhead habitat for complimentary state-level conservation measures.  

The Tongass is home to many quality steelhead. 

The almost mythical appeal of Alaska’s rich fish and wildlife populations and ancient forests have inspired national media attention not seen in the past. Going forward, Trout Unlimited will use this momentum to ensure the economy of southeast Alaska can continue to be based upon its ample fishing, abundant wildlife and stunning natural beauty. 


Nelli Williams, Alaska Program Director

When faced with a grave threat, great leaders not only develop successful strategies to block the threat, they also envision ways they can harness the energy to achieve other goals. That is precisely what Nelli Williams has done – using the problem of the proposed Pebble mine, and other threats in Alaska, as an opportunity to build communities committed to responsible stewardship.    

With the seed planted by bluegill fishing with her family as a child in central Wisconsin, Nelli’s true passion for fly fishing and coldwater conservation grew two decades ago while she worked toward her masters degree in environmental education in Thorne Bay, Alaska – a small community within the Tongass National Forest in Alaska’s Southeast panhandle.  

An educator by trade and a natural graphic designer, Williams is resilient, persistent, and creative – all skills that help her uniquely direct a decade-long campaign to stop a mega-mine from destroying Alaska’s ‘salmon country.’ 

 Today, when Nelli’s not working she can usually be found on one of Alaska’s rivers in search of fish with her husband and two kids. Her education and love of rivers and wild places helps Williams ‘talk the talk’ with many stakeholders from the fish fanatics, environmentalists, D.C. insiders, to couch conservationists and everyone in between.  

Williams started with Trout Unlimited as the very first executive director of the Wyoming State Council, a position in which she took her natural graphics ability to develop their logo—still in use today—as well as position the council to be an effective force for conservation in the Cowboy State. So effective, in fact, that the council has been a critical element for bringing back Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake. From there, she took her talents to Alaska where she runs the policy for the national team and anchors the Williams family 

 Williams has a gift for cutting through complex policy and science issues to convey how the awe-inspiring fisheries and the needs of those who rely on them will be affected by proposed actions. 

 “When you get to the heart of most conversations about clean water and healthy, wild land for fishing and hunting and outdoor recreation, most people, regardless of where they fall on the politics spectrum, support conserving these special resources,” she said. “Families play in these places on the weekends, dream of future trips, want to share past memories of outdoor adventure with the next generation.” 

 Thanks to her welcoming and supportive demeanor, she doesn’t do it alone. They say, “A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected,” and you can see it in Nelli’s approach with her team of staff and volunteers. They’ve seen her visioncome to expect her characteristic flood of 6 a.m. emails, and can’t help but join in going “all in” to see it through. 

 Ask Nelli what ‘giving back’ means and her answer explains a lot about the passion with which she does her work.   

“Giving back is when I can look my kiddos in the eye at the end of the day and feel good about something that I did, large or small, to make their future a little brighter.”