Painting the Wilderness: Report on the Forest Service's Annual Artist Trip

This past week, I, along with SCS co-workers Paul Killian and Tracy Gagnon, had the privilege of introducing Ray Geier, a talented artist from Boulder, Colorado, and a recipient of one of the Forest Service's annual artist residencies, to Southeast Alaska. Our destination was South Baranof, designated wilderness in 1980 under ANILCA, where we spent five days paddling from Shamrock Bay to the Rakof Islands. Along the way we monitored the land for human use and disturbance, kept track of boat and plane traffic for Forest Service management purposes, and disassembled an illegal tent platform. Greeted at our first campsite by a brown bear, our time spent out in the field also found us no stranger to wildlife. Not a day – or barely even an hour – went by in which we didn't come across a sea otter, seal, or sea lion breaking the surface of the water in front of us. Thus, despite the fairly constant rain that hammered us for most of the trip, the splendor of the place was not lost on us. As Ray, frequently to be seen with colored pencil or paintbrush in hand, had to say: "It's even more beautiful than I thought it would be."

This residency with the Alaskan Voices of the Wilderness Program was Ray's first visit to the state, so although a newcomer to Sitka myself, I tried over the course of the trip to communicate as much about the history of the land as I could. We discussed logging and the pulp mills, and SCS and ANILCA, and talked more generally about the allure of this landscape and the unique relationship between the Alaskan state and the American wild. It was while telling Ray the specific story of South Baranof though, and its particular path to wilderness designation, that I was struck by how fitting a place it is to hold the artist-in-residency trip; and that is because South Baranof provides the perfect example that you don't have to be a conservationist by trade to care for the earth or embrace an environmental ethic. Neither the project of a non-profit nor the goal of a group of "greenies," the proposal for the protection of this area actually came from the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. For this reason, I think that South Baranof has an important story to tell, which is that regardless of whether you're an artist or a government employee or anything in between, there's a role you can play in the preservation of our planet and public lands. Environmental stewardship can emanate from anywhere; caring for the Earth is not reserved exclusively for the environmentalist.

The brown bear we encountered at our first campsite.

And this comes as very good news, because in recent decades – at a time when the environment has become one of the forefront social, scientific, and political issues of the day – people's willingness to identify as an environmentalist has plummeted. In 1999, the last time that the national Gallup poll asked whether people considered themselves "environmentalists," only 50% of respondents answered yes. Yet a related survey conducted only a few months later found 83% of respondents, a considerably larger number of individuals, "willing to agree with the goals of the environmental movement." So what accounts for this disjunct?

According to a number of social scientific studies, many people's hesitance to self-identity as an "environmentalist," even while agreeing with the term's associated values, stems from the negative connotations that people believe come attached with the word. For many, the term conjures up images of tree-hugging hippies, implies privileging ecology over the economy, or suggests subscription to a larger (and liberal) agenda. I myself have encountered friends and acquaintances wary of using the term for all of the above, among other, reasons. Which is why I like the story of South Baranof. It's a story of an environmentalism differently defined – a story of many different types of people who over the years have worked to protect the land. As a matter of fact, the first people to press for restrained logging and preservation of the Southeast's forests were not hippies, but hunters! Thus, from its Chamber of Commerce creators up through its current artist, among other, stewards, the individuals responsible for the creation and conservation of South Baranof have shown that "environmentalist" doesn't have to be a restrictive or totalizing term. Caring for the Earth can come in different forms.

The American author and environmental activist Edward Abbey once advised his readers to "be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast, a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of your lives for pleasure and adventure." As we continue to face growing environmental threats in the 21st century, I think the sentiment captured by Abbey's statement is an important one: which is that caring for the earth doesn't need to be your full time job in order to practice good stewardship. Being green doesn't necessarily require engaging in extreme action, merely exercising a conscious ethic. So there is good news for the 66% of Americans who in 2014, in this year's Gallup survey, admitted to worrying about the environment, which is that you can be an "environmentalist" andsomething else – be it an artist, or a hunter, or a town employee, or whatever job you currently hold. As the success story of South Baranof attests to, stewardship springs from many sources. You don't have to be an "environmentalist" by trade to effect change and get the job done.

One of Ray's paintings from the trip.

If you're interested in learning more about or applying to a Voices of the Wilderness Alaska Artist Residency, be sure to check out thelinkon the Forest Service's website. And if you're still looking to get outdoors this summer, be sure to check out some of the opportunities provided by the Sitka Conservation Society at our wilderness page here. The artist trip may be over, but there are many more ahead! We'd love to have you involved.


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