Ten years ago, in anticipation of the 50thanniversary of the Wilderness Act occurring this year, in 2014, the United States Forest Service launched what it termed the Ten Year Wilderness Challenge – an endeavor aimed at bringing to the over 400 wilderness areas under the Forest Service's management a level of care needed to protect and preserve their wild character. As of 2009, the Sitka Conservation Society has been one of the organizations partnering with the Forest Service, specifically the Sitka Ranger District, to bring this goal to fruition.
This past week, I was lucky enough to find myself on the first Community Wilderness Stewardship trip of the season, traveling north to the Baird Islands. Bordered to the east by Slocum Arm and on the west by the Pacific Ocean, the Baird Islands are part of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area, successfully designated wilderness in 1980 by the famed Alaska National Lands Conservation Act. And after spending four days in this area, it's fairly easy to understand why the citizens of Sitka fought so hard to rescue this land from logging operations. Over the course of the trip we were awoken by whales in the morning, tailed by playful sea lions, protected from the elements by huge old-growth trees spreading their branches above us, and at all times were looking out on panoramic scenes of untouched mountain and open ocean. Nature, it would seem, is doing alright in Southeast Alaska.
And it is; but we also found signs that the work of conservation is not yet over. On a few of the small islands in the chain, we discovered an invasive species of plant, possibly curly dock, which, without monitoring and control, could constitute a threat to the ecological health of Southeast's native species. We also came upon lots of human trash, which, along with the potential harm it may have on the ecosystem, is also obviously an aesthetic affront. As well as doing general inventory on site use and monitoring for signs of permanent human presence, we therefore also spent a lot of our time picking up trash and pulling out plants.
One of my favorite moments from the trip happened in the midst of one such garbage pick-up. As I was, rubber gloves on and trash bag in hand, helping clean up the beach on which we were camped, Paul Killian, an individual at the crux of the partnership between SCS and the Forest Service, walked by me with a particularly heavy haul of trash. I made a comment about what a good load he had gotten, to which he smiled and said, "It's not staying in my wilderness!" I liked the way that Paul had phrased that: "my wilderness." It reminded me of a fact I often forget – although one that each time I remember amazes me no less – which is that by virtue of being American citizens, we are all shareholders in these vast and beautiful tracts of land. Our public lands, constituting about a third of the United States, are, in essence, land being held in trust for the American people – for us. It is land about which each of us is allowed to have and exercise a voice. There is thus something very personal about these public lands; and nowhere do I feel this more acutely than when I am actually out in the wild, enjoying and appreciating these areas. Herein, for me, lies one of the true values of experiencing wilderness: it turns the theoretical concept of conservation into a concrete and emotionally-driven desire to take good care of our earth.
My first trip to the Alaskan woods and waters made me very excited for a summer of working with various peoples and places in Southeast as SCS' wilderness intern. Being in the Baird Islands reminded me that even after an area obtains official wilderness designation, these lands remain in need of protection and voices to speak for them. Luckily, I also got to see firsthand that these places remain very much worthy of protection, and that there are people willing to lend their voices and hands to the continuing cause.
If you're interested in volunteering for SCS, be sure to check out our site's Wilderness Page. It has all the information on how you can get out and explore Southeast Alaska while making a difference and helping SCS promote the cause of conservation!