Sitka Conservation Society is proud to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Fellows Program to host the Public Lands Communications Fellow position. Our goals for this position are to support Forest Service employees to tell the stories of the work they do on the ground in the Tongass National Forest and recruit more young people into Tongass stewardship roles and agency employment.
The Public Lands Communications Fellow position is a 9-month position, with a new fellow rotating in each fall. Since the position began in 2016, each of the three fellows have spent part or all of the summer following their fellowship doing wilderness stewardship projects with the Forest Service. Read on for a reflection from Ellie Handler, the 2018-2019 Public Lands Communications Fellow, who will soon join the Redoubt Lake Forest Service crew for the 2019 summer season.
Before I learned about the Public Lands Communications Fellow position with the U.S. Forest Service and the Sitka Conservation Society, I knew very little about the Forest Service or the Tongass National Forest. Growing up on the East Coast, I had no idea that there was a 17 million acre temperate rainforest — the largest remaining in the world — spanning thousands of islands across Southeast Alaska.
I studied ecology in college and found myself seeking direction as my four years came to a close. Academia seemed like the only option if I wanted to pursue a career in environmental science, but I wanted other paths. After writing for a science magazine in college, I knew that I loved translating jargon into stories that would appeal to a broader audience. The Public Lands Communications position seemed like a great opportunity to expand on my science communication experience and work for both a conservation nonprofit and a federal agency.
My position seeks to increase the Forest Service’s capacity to tell the stories of on-the-ground projects. Especially after years of budget cuts, the Forest Service has had limited resources to communicate the amazing work that employees accomplish every day. Working with the Tongass National Forest’s Public Affairs Officer, I’ve written for the Tongass’s social media platforms, focusing on stream restoration projects, invasive species removal, trail maintenance, and much more.
We’re in the third year of this joint position between the Tongass and SCS, and Forest Service experts now come to me with ideas for social media outreach and new stories to tell. For example, I’m working with Forest Service employees and partner organizations across the region to create a story map for a multi-year restoration project in the Staney Creek watershed.
I never expected that my boss would show up at my door one evening with fresh halibut he caught that weekend, or that a co-worker would bring me sockeye at work when I casually mentioned I hadn’t tried it yet. The people that I’ve met this year are inspiring in their kindness and generosity, and even more so in their passion for the work they do on the Tongass. Working so closely with others at the Forest Service, I’ve learned so much about the wide variety of responsibilities on the Tongass.
This summer, I’m trying out a new one! I’ll be working twelve miles south of Sitka at Redoubt Lake, one of Sitka's most important subsistence fisheries, especially for sockeye, monitoring the run to help inform management decisions. This is an opportunity I would have never expected in the Forest Service. I’m now considering pursuing a future in fisheries ecology, as I’ve seen this year how important fisheries management and conservation are for so many people who depend on the resource. I can see a future for myself in the Forest Service, working directly on the projects that I once covered for social media.
I’m now full of fast facts about the Tongass. Did you know that there are 128 glaciers in the Tongass, including part of the largest tidewater glacier in North America? Or that 79% of the commercial fish harvested in Southeast Alaska come from Tongass lakes and streams?
Beyond the quick and easy facts, I’ve begun to absorb some of the nuance and complexity of life and forest management in Southeast Alaska. We’re always searching for a sustainable balance: between conservation and resource use, commercial and subsistence uses, short-term need and the needs of future generations.
As I think more about my future and the end of this position, I’m taking with me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the Forest Service. From restoring streams impacted by past timber harvest to managing fisheries, from permitting outfitter guides to maintaining cabins across the forest, there is a wealth of opportunities to steward the land and support our communities on the Tongass. I am so excited to continue working with the Forest Service this summer and spend more time out in the forest!