What do Canadian mines have to do with Alaskan wild salmon? Almost everything.
This link became all too apparent on August 4, when a tailings pond breached at Mount Polley mine in British Columbia. Millions of gallons of metal-contaminated water and sand poured out of the tailings pond and into the arteries of the Frasier River system, transforming healthy salmon-spawning rivers into wastelands. Several newspapers referred to the Mount Polley breach as one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history.
But it’s not just a Canadian disaster, it’s an Alaskan disaster. While the breach occurred on Canadian soil, it will adversely impact Alaskan waters and Alaska wild salmon. As Senator Begich noted in an August 26 press release, “The dam failure validated the fears that Alaskans have regarding Canada’s proposed development of large-scale hardrock mines near transboundary rivers like the Unuk, Stikine, and Taku Rivers.” For Southeast fishermen, this is not welcome news. And what’s worse…Mount Polley is only the beginning.
In northwest British Columbia (B.C.), a mining boom has begun that could threaten Southeast rivers, salmon, and Alaskan jobs in fishing and tourism. There are currently 21 mining projects in Northwest BC that are either active or in the later stages of exploration. At least 5 of these projects are located along the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk Rivers, key salmon rivers that flow right into Southeast Alaska.
The development of large-scale hardrock mines in BC is alarming. Almost all of the proposed mines involve large-scale hydro projects, transmission lines, roads, and storage areas for acid-generating waste rock and mine tailings. Threats posed by these mines to water quality and salmon habitat include tailings dam breaches, spills, long-term acid mine drainage, and habitat fragmentation. These concerns prompted a group of 36 Canadian and U.S. scientists to write a letter warning officials of the environmental risks posed by transboundary mines. To see the letter in full, click here: Letter of Concern about Proposed Development in the Transboundary Watersheds
In Southeast, salmon are the lifeblood of our economy. Salmon fishing (including commercial, sport, and subsistence fishing) supports over 7,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska alone and generates nearly $1 billion a year for our regional economy. Keeping our waters clear of mine tailing contaminates and acid-mine drainage is vital for our economy and our livelihoods.
What can do we do stop BC mines from contaminating Southeast Alaska waters? We have to raise our individual and collective voices. We must call our representatives and elected officials and ask them to use all means necessary to protect wild salmon runs from BC mining development. We must act locally. On October 14, the Sitka City Assembly voted 5-0 to protect Southeast salmon streams from transboundary mines in BC. Bravo City Assembly members! To see the full resolution, click here: RES 2014-16 Transboundary Mines
With every day that passes, BC mine projects inch closer to completion. Take action today to protect Alaska salmon.
Good news for the Tongass!
This week, the Pacific Northwest Research Station announced it will hire a Research Fisheries Biologist to be stationed in Juneau.
Why is this good news? Because it means the Forest Service once again has a fisheries biologist stationed in Alaska. Several years ago, the Forest Service moved a fisheries research position out of Alaska just when Alaskans needed them to be looking more into salmon habitat, salmon production, and salmon population resilience.
According to Senator Begich, who wrote a strong letter to the Forest Service in support of hiring a fisheries biologist, “It only makes sense that fisheries research in Alaska should be conducted by staff in Alaska, not from a remote office located in another state.” To see the letter itself, click here: Begich Letter Supporting Juneau Position
In his letter, Begich noted that the Forest Service is facing a number of pressing environmental issues that justify an Alaska-based fisheries position. These issues include climate change vulnerability research, watershed restoration and monitoring, fish stream/road crossings, and an amendment to the Tongass Land Management Plan.
The Sitka Conservation Society congratulates Senator Begich for supporting fisheries research in the state of Alaska. In 2013 alone, Southeast fishermen hauled in a record 272 million salmon. Annually, this generates almost a billion dollars in the Southeast Alaska economy! From commercial fishing to sport fishing to tourism, salmon-related jobs are now the mainstays of our economy. Thank you Senator Begich for recognizing the importance of salmon in Southeast and for encouraging the Forest Service to prioritize salmon, not timber, in the state of Alaska.
Let’s hope the Forest Service finds a great candidate to fill this new fisheries biologist position. Interested in applying? Click on the job description here: Outreach Notice Fish Biologist Juneau
For more information on this issue, please contact Sophie Nethercut at the Sitka Conservation Society at email@example.com or call 747-7509.
This year’s primary election was one for the record books. Financial record books, that is. Over the last few months, Alaskans witnessed the most expensive primary campaign in state history. Where is all this money coming from? Corporations. And not just any corporations – some of the richest corporations on earth.
In order to secure their billion dollar tax break, oil companies contributed nearly $15 million to the Vote No (on Ballot Measure 1) campaign. According to campaign finance reports published by the state of Alaska, the top six contributors to the Vote No campaign were BP Exploration Alaska Inc. ($3,625,408), ExxonMobil ($3,606,132), ConocoPhillips Alaska ($2,541,584), ConocoPhillips ($1,471,077), Repsol ($729,432), and Chevron ($300,000). Less than 25 individual Alaskans contributed to the campaign. The Vote Yes campaign, on the other hand, received financial contributions from over 1,000 individual Alaskans.
The troubling statistics continue. Stockpiled with big oil money, the Vote No campaign spent $170 per vote. The Vote Yes campaign, which relied primarily on contributions from individual Alaskan donors, spent $8.
This is an example of corporations asserting undue influence in the political process. In a country that calls itself a democracy, corporations should never be allowed to pay their way into the political system. In Alaska, however, they are.
How do we stop corporations from dominating Alaska politics? We stand up to them. We use our individual and collective voices. We form coalitions and citizen movements that demand corporations to serve the public good, not the Gods of Profit.
Leading up to the primary election, the Sitka Conservation Society mobilized Alaskans across the state to take action on Ballot Measure 1. We made phone calls, knocked on doors, distributed lawn signs, and had meaningful conversations with community members about what’s at stake when corporations dominate our political system. Many Sitkans voiced their concerns about SB 21 via radio waves and newsprint. A giant thank you to Steve Paustian, Mary Beth Nelson, Cindy Litman, Libby Stortz, and Anthony Guevin for submitting Letters to the Editor about the importance of repealing the oil tax giveaway.
Our efforts paid off. While the repeal failed statewide (52.5 percent of Alaskan voters voted No), Sitkans voted 3:1 in favor of the repeal. On Election day, some 1,315 Sitkans checked the “yes” box, compared to only 448 people who checked “no.” Every single precinct in the district voted in favor of the repeal.
What do these results reveal? They show us that we Alaskans are deeply divided on how we should manage our natural resources. They show us that thousands of Alaskans (90,150 to be exact) are willing to vote for oil company tax breaks, leaving less money for the state to fund public schools, hospitals, and necessary public services. But they also show us that thousands of Alaskans (nearly 82,000 voters) are deeply concerned about the excess role corporations play in the management of our natural resources.
The oil in our state ground belongs to the people of Alaska. We, the people of Alaska, must continue to mobilize against corporate oil giants that take our oil without investing in our state. Join us in our campaign to fight corporate influence and keep our natural resources in public hands.
To get involved or receive more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 907-747-7509.
If you've picked up a book on the Tongass or timber or even just Southeast Alaska, the story of the trees of Prince of Wales Island is probably one with which you're familiar. But even for an outsider, the story would be hard to miss, as the history of this island has been carved into its mountainsides. One does not need to have spent much time there to recognize: this land and logging have intimately known one another.
Traveling around the island by plane, car, and boat this past week, I saw before me a history etched in wood, a past laid bare by the felled trunks which often seemed to outnumber standing trees. But while I saw many scarred mountainsides on Prince of Wales Island, I also felt hope – hope that the manner by which this land was logged can serve a cautionary tale; function as an instructive story of misuse; and issue a warning – and wake-up call – to present and future generations of the costs we all pay when an unrenewable resource such as old-growth forest suffers reckless abuse as opposed to measured use.
It was beginning in the 1950s that many of the old-growth stands of the island began meeting with the former fate, logged swiftly and carelessly to provide raw material for the newly built pulp mill in Ketchikan. Flying over the forest in 1954, Art Brooks, logging manager for the Ketchikan Pulp Co., was to exclaim, "As far as the eye could see there were trees, trees, trees…nearly all virgin timber." That is no longer the case. Of the 140 by 45 mile island, only a few places have been spared the saw. I was lucky enough to visit one of them, the southern tip of the island, this past week.
For eight days, I, along with a group representing SCS, SEACC, the U.S. Forest Service, and HCA (the Hydaburg Cooperative Association), traveled around South Prince of Wales Wilderness, one of the most remote wilderness areas that Southeast Alaska has to offer, monitoring visitor use patterns. Along the way, we were fortunate enough to catch sight of whales and bears, watch the wonder that is salmon swimming upstream, be shown around an abandoned Haida village, and stand in the presence of trees hundreds – if not thousands – of years old. And aware of the past of this place, the contentious story of this space, I did not take getting to gaze at these ancient trees lightly. Knowing that this land has been a battleground for environmentalists for over half a century, that these forests are standing due to the hard work of many defenders, I felt privileged to be in their presence. But mindful that their present preservation was no guarantee of future conservation – the Big Thorne timber sale further north on the island standing as a testament to as much – I also began thinking about my own role to be had in speaking for these trees.
A few days before heading out on this trip, I had been having a conversation with someone who, when my job with the conservation society came up, laughed and said, "Oh, so you're part of the cult." When I asked what he meant, he spoke fairly disparagingly of environmentalism in general, asserting that environmentalists rarely understood their own agendas, merely mindlessly subscribing to whatever mentality happened to be dominant within conservationist circles at the time. Although initially affronted, I am, in retrospect, thankful for the encounter, as it reminded me that it's only when our beliefs are challenged that we take the time to reexamine, analyze, and crystallize them. As so, thinking of my parents soon flying into Sitka for a visit, and the many times as a kid they had read The Lorax aloud to me, I set out to articulate exactly what speaking for the trees means to me with regard to the Tongass National Forest.
And after having spent a week out in the wilderness, observing the natural connections that govern life in the Tongass, it becomes immediately apparent that just as with Dr. Seuss' Truffula trees, speaking for the spruce, hemlock, and cedar of Southeast Alaska involves speaking for a lot more. It's speaking for the salmon we saw jumping upriver, who rely on the trees for the enrichment and stabilization of their spawning streams. It's speaking for the deer we saw foraging on shore, who make their homes and secure their food under the cover of these trees' canopy. It's speaking for the bears we saw catching salmon, who depend on the forest to protect their food source of fish and fawns. It's speaking for the eagles we saw flying overhead, who make their nests and raise their young in the trees. And it's speaking for the people who catch those fish, hunt those deer, and enjoy the multiple other uses to which wilderness can be put. We are all intricately connected. It may be important at times to see the forest for the trees, but it is just as important to sometimes, both literally and figuratively, see the individual trees as well – see all the organisms and associations that make up the forest and appreciate that the parts are, indeed, what make up the whole, and if we misuse one, we endanger them all.
In its message of interconnectedness and warning against environmental abuse, Dr. Seuss' fable of the Truffula trees thus seems perfectly able to translate to the Tongass. There is only one point on which I might challenge him: having seen them, having stood in their presence and felt the reverence, awe, and humility they are able to inspire, in some ways, it seems, the trees of Southeast can also speak for themselves.
If you're interested in hearing more about our work, or are looking to get involved with wilderness stewardship and the preservation of our wild places, be sure to check out SCS's wilderness page here.Thanks and photo credit goes out to Luke A'Bear, one of the SCS participants, who was amazing at taking photos out on the trip. The Lorax image remains the property of Dr. Seuss.
The Sitka Conservation Society sponsored a boat cruise through Sitka Sound and Nakwasina Sound on Sunday afternoon, bring visitors from Florida, Columbia, New York, Ireland and even some native Sitkans around the waterways and salmon habitats of the area. Led by SCS director Andrew Thoms and SCS board member Kitty LaBounty, guests on the Allen MarineSea Otter Express, enjoyed gorgeous vistas, a bear siting, watching salmon jump and bald eagles soar and just before heading back to Crescent Harbor, a humpback whale gave everyone a close up flick of his tail as it descended to the deep.
But, while aboard the Sea Otter Express, guests also learned the southeast Alaska sea otter story, a tale fraught with controversy that acts as a simple reminder of the importance of any one species to The Tongass National Forest ecosystem.
Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals and are members of the weasel family. They spend almost their entire lives in water, often only going on land to give birth. Sea otters usually stay in groups called rafts of all males or females with their pups. These furry creatures are often seen floating and grooming around kelp beds and the rocky islands of Sitka Sound.
With no natural predators, sea otters have free reign over their territory. They eat shell fish and sea urchins and spend their days playing and grooming their fur. Because they do not have a blubber layer to keep them warm in the ocean, their fur is vital for their survival. Otters have the densest fur of any animal in the world with 300,000 hairs per square inch. And that is what has gotten them into trouble in the past.
During the late 1700's and early 1800's Russian fur traders almost completely wiped out the population of sea otters in Alaska. What some researchers believe was a population of 150,000 to 300,000 had been reduced to a mere 2,000 sea otters along the Pacific Northwest Coast by 1911. And it wasn't just the fur industry thriving. Without the sea otters to eat them, clam and other shell fish populations grew and so did a whole system of fisheries that became very profitable in the region.
As you can tell from the pictures, the sea otters have returned. Hunting restrictions and reintroduction programs have restored the sea otter population along the Alaskan coast. Now, an estimated 12,000 live in Southeast Alaska.
But, the story is not without controversy. Those profitable shell fish fisheries I mentioned are now struggling to compete with the renewed sea otter population. Some argue that those fisheries became profitable in a time when the natural environment had been altered. There is also the topic of kelp to consider. Sea otters also eat sea urchins that kill off bulk kelp populations. The kelp is a great place for fish, particularly herring, to spawn and now with the sea otters back eating sea urchins, the kelp populations can thrive again.
Removing a species from its natural habitat can have profound effects on an ecosystem, as the story of the sea otters has shown. Even without natural predators, the sea otters play an important role in The Tongass National Forest ecosystem and help keep the environment in balance.
The next time I go for a walk in the woods, I'll be sure to pay attention to the ground beneath my feet. Along with the trees lining it, and the birds flitting above it, and all the animals that may amble across it, a trail itself deserves attention. As easy as it is for you to walk it, that's how hard someone worked on it. I know this now from experience.
I spent this past week out at White Sulphur Springs, working with the Forest Service cabin and trail crew and a group of SCS volunteers to repair an old trail that had fallen into disrepair. For those not familiar with the area, White Sulphur lies within West Chichagof-Yakobi, designated wilderness in 1980, and derives its name from the naturally occurring hot springs to which it is home. If there was ever a perfect place to first experience trail crew, White Sulphur was it. At the end of a hard day, what better way to calm aching muscles than by sliding into a warm tub, the whole time gazing out at an uninterrupted panorama of alternating mountain and ocean?
Yet while we relaxed at night, the days we worked were long. At it by 7:30 every morning, the next nine hours were spent carrying rock, hauling gravel, sawing logs, digging steps, constructing bridges, and brushing overlying vegetation from the trail. It was hard work, but equally rewarding. A week ago I had never even seen a crosscut or heard of a Pulaski. I now know how to use both, along with a slew of other tools. But in addition to the technical skills I gained while building trail, what I most appreciate about the trip is that it allowed me to experience and engage with wilderness in a completely new way.
People who take issue with wilderness often level the charge that it's wasted space, that it's land that's been cordoned off from humans, that it leaves no place for people. But what I saw out at White Sulphur was quite the opposite. Far from being a place that excludes people from the land, I saw the extent to which the wilderness can facilitate positive human interaction, can foster camaraderie and companionship. These things I felt with my fellow crewmen, with the individuals we met out there who thanked us for our hard work, and even – on a more abstract level – with the many people who I knew would in the future walk this trail, enjoying the product of our labor. Thus, although wilderness, by definition, is a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man," wilderness's definition by no means completely excludes man. People, when exercising respect, need not be seen as antagonistic or antithetical to these places. To the contrary, I conceived of our work at White Sulphur as being to the benefit of both people and place. Mending a trail system begun over 75 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps, we were making it easier for people to come to, have contact with, and care for these wild areas. Thus, within wilderness, within these "areas where man and his works do not dominate the landscape," there clearly remains at least some room for man.
Still, people often take issue with the 1964 Act. In particular, I have often heard people, even ardent supporters of wilderness, angry over the line in which man is defined as a "visitor who does not remain," arguing that man should not suffer exclusion any from these places. But to make this critique seems, at least to me, to ignore the broader context of the act, in which wilderness is being designated and defined as public land. And put into conversation with the notion of "the public," the definition of wilderness starts to seem less restrictive, less exclusive, less qualitatively different than other public spaces. Think of the last public park or beach you were at. It probably wasn't open all hours of the day, and if it was, there were most likely, at the very least, some rules or restrictions posted. And that's because public space – be it a road, a park, or a wilderness area – does to some extent require the monitoring and control of human use. It's not meant to exclude. Rather, it's how the preservation of these places into perpetuity can be ensured.
Thus, when it comes to the definition of wilderness and man's place in it, it strikes me as a glass half-full or half-empty situation. You can interpret the law as having written people out of wilderness, or you can see it as having explicitly written people in, allowing and inviting man to visit and enjoy these places. What I saw out at White Sulphur was unmistakably the latter. It was people experiencing not exclusion from the land, but communion with it, working hard at a trail so that others will similarly be able to experience such harmony between self and space, person and place.
Be sure to visit the wilderness page of our website for more information on upcoming trips!
There were XTRATUFS everywhere! Though, a few souls did venture into the tide pools without them. On a foggy and misty Sunday morning, some brave adventurers, sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society, ventured to Kruzof to learn about intertidal species. The shore was spotted with sea stars and there was quite a bit to learn about this wilderness that presents itself just a few hours every day.
Did you know there are 2,000 species of sea stars?
Not all live here in Southeast Alaska, but this region has the highest amount of diversity of these species.
Sea stars - sometimes referred to as starfish - are not actually fish. They do not have gills, fins, or scales. They pump nutrients through their body with salt water because they do not have blood. They have at least 5 legs, but some have as many as 40!
This is a sunflower sea star. These guys can be up to 3 feet wide and weigh as much as 60 pounds. They feed on clams and crabs and can move pretty quickly through the water. Well, they are no cheetahs, but they get around.
The biggest predators of sea stars are other sea stars. When sea stars feel threatened, they have the ability to shed one of their legs (which they will regrow later) so that a predator might eat that leg and leave them alone.
We hope you enjoyed learning as much as we did!
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.
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.
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.
by Sarah Stockdale
I am in a land of light. Alaska is alive in the summer, and in southeast, the rainforest is abundant with green foliage. As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation Summer internship program, I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend three months here in Sitka as a media and storytelling intern with SCS. And in the three weeks since I arrived here, I've found Alaskans themselves to be not unlike the native flora and fauna that surround them in the summer. They take advantage of their daylight hours, knowing that winter will bring plenty of time for hibernation. The fisherwomen from whom I rent sleep only three hours a night, especially when they're on their boat and alert for King salmon snapping at the line. Karen Schmidt, an attorney who hosted me in Anchorage for the ACF intern orientation, was the same way. She worked tirelessly during the day, but was still happy to spend the late evening down at the beach until midnight, treasuring every last glimpse of light that bounced across the Cook Inlet mudflats.
As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation internship program, I attended a weeklong orientation in Anchorage before heading off to my internship placement site. There, I met with young folks interning with conservation organizations across the state. We heard from conservation leaders on a variety of topics, from organizing to Alaskan history and GIS. While in Sitka, it's easy to feel like one of only a handful of groups concerned with issues of conservation. In Anchorage, however, I was able to experience the interconnectedness of all the conservation movements across this enormous state. We certainly need one another.
In my first three weeks in Sitka, I've been able to sit back and breath in the Tongass, orienting myself to the sites, smells and culture. And when I look around me I see… green!!! For a New Mexican like me, you can't imagine my awe at the density of life that the rain brings to this unique and hidden corner of the world. As one of the Alaska native speakers commented during the orientation, it's less like subsistence out here, and more like abundance. And the Tongass is certainly abundant. Food prices may be high, but looking around, I see nourishment on ever corner from the salmonberry bushes to king salmon coming into the harbor on trollers.
I couldn't feel further away from the suburban desert where I grew up. Yet it's clear to me that maintaining and protecting the future of these natural resources is an issue that is not just important to Alaskans. With almost 80% of wild-caught salmon in North America coming from Alaskan fishermen, campaigns like the fight to protect Bristol Bay impact people all over the United States. Recently, New Mexico senator and congressman Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich spoke out against the Pebble mine. People are concerned, even down south.
And while a lot of people have a stake in the future of these lands, the people in southeast who have the time and energy to work on these issues are few. This is both overwhelming and deeply hopeful. It reminds me of the way a friend from Southern Colorado once described ranch culture. On a ranch, everyone's help is needed. Nobody is turned away and everyone's contribution is welcome. When there is a job to be done, you need all the hands you can get. Southeast Alaska feels similar to me. Every person's energy adds to the greater goal. It's nice to feel that you can really make a difference.
As a Media and Storytelling Intern, my job is to capture the ways that people in Sitka live in relationship with their natural environment. By sharing these stories, SCS hopes to connect people with their own sense of place in the Tongass, and their personal reasons for contributing to the fight to protect it from abusive extraction practices. There is certainly no shortage of stories here in Sitka. Every person I have spoken with has a relationship with the rhythms of the rainforest, whether through fishing, hunting, foraging, hiking, wood-work, etc. From artists, students, carvers, fishermen, elders to avid gardener, everyone has an appreciation for their home. And I'm falling in love more quickly than I'd imagined.
While my job here is to inspire others to recognize the singularity of the Tongass and the importance of protecting it, I'm not surprised to find that I'm the one being inspired. As the intern coordinator for ACF, Claire Pywell, commented: people come to Alaska for the landscape, but they stay for the people. And I'm starting to believe her.
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!