The inspiration, guidance, wisdom, and “ways of seeing” that you have given us will live on forever.

Long-time Sitka Conservation Society Board Emeritus Richard “Nels” Nelson passed away on November 4th, 2019. Nels served on our board of directors for close to 40 years, and he has enormously influenced our organization.

Photo by Ben Hamilton.

Nels spent his life developing his connection with and understanding of the natural world and how people fit into it. We are lucky that he freely shared his knowledge with everyone around him. 

He shared it in his books as a talented writer. He shared it as a compelling speaker who enraptured audiences with his stories about the natural world and his experience with peoples throughout Alaska. 

He shared it as an advocate who testified at hearings and conversed with his neighbors and peers about pressing environmental issues.  Nels could distill complex policy issues and decisions down to their most important points in ways that everyone could understand and connect with the impacts of the decision being made in their own lives.  Many people depended on Nels to help guide them in articulating their feelings, frustrations, hopes, fears, and feedback. 

As a radio and podcast host, Nels took his listeners deep into the heart of wild Alaska. There, he introduced us to species and ecological processes in a way that always left us with a sense of enthusiasm and awe.  

As a friend, Nels always had a huge smile, kind words, encouragement, and contagious happiness.

Nels came to Alaska first as a cultural anthropologist. He lived in remote indigenous communities where he learned and documented how the Koyukon Athabascan, Gwich’in, and Iñupiak people live with their natural world. He was known for his utmost respect of indigenous communities and Indigenous knowledge. 

Photo by Ben Hamilton

To the Sitka Conservation Society, he brought the unique combination of his Wisconsin upbringing, his learnings from the Koyukon Athabascan, Gwich’in, and Iñupiak peoples, and his intimate and in-depth understanding of the natural world. Nels fused all that together into a strong set of values and an approach to life and showed us how to incorporate those values and perspectives into our conservation work. 

He helped the organization figure out how to step up to protect the amazing natural environment around us, in a way that keeps humans as part of it. 

Nels believed that one of the highest manifestations of a connection with the natural environment was to nourish yourself and those close to you with foods that you harvested and gathered yourself. 

Nels taught us how to feel the forest running through the blood in our veins when we eat the venison of Sitka black-tailed deer and to let that connection bring us joy. Nels taught us how to experience the journey of a salmon from a mountain stream into the currents of the north Pacific currents through the salmon we eat. 

Moreover, he demanded that we respect living things and give perpetual thanks and respect to them. He taught us that to use those resources means to take responsibility for protecting them, to never abuse them, and to speak out against anything that might harm them. In this vein, Nels helped us to advocate to keep old-growth forests standing and to give future generations the chance to experience the same joys we find in the natural world.

We cannot yet fathom the loss of Richard Nelson. We are humbled by his approach to life.  We will continue to carry forward his legacy and do our best to follow the paths he has charted.