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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

“Let it exist forever, Ch’u tleix áwé kugaagastee."

The Tlingit phrase serves as a uniting motto for a partnership between environmental scientists, park rangers, hunters, former timber harvesters and tribal council members in Southeast Alaska. 10 years ago, these groups may have been at odds. But today, they are harnessing a combination of Indigenous knowledge and local input to improve the region’s forest management. 

It’s only the beginning for these types of community-based programs. 

The Alaska Native Regional corporation Sealaska and the non-profit The Nature Conservancy recently donated a combined $17 million to the newly established Seacoast Trust, a fund which will support Southeast Alaska projects like the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership mentioned above. The Nature Conservancy pledged to match Sealaska's initial $10 million contribution by raising an additional $3 million for the fund, bringing the projected total amount to $20 million. Financial oversight will be conducted by Spruce Root, a Juneau-based non-profit.

The fund aims to promote a new type of conservation -- one based on trust and relationships, and centers Indigenous-led stewardship.

“It’s very much tied to healing and wellness,” said Joe Nelson, Tlingit, Chairman of Sealaska. “We're hoping that we're able to help be part of this shift from a fight or flight mentality with everybody waking up every day looking for the next kind of battle, to… more of a growth mindset.”

For years, the Tongass National Forest has been the center of a fierce conflict between the timber industry and conservationists, with Alaska Native corporations and tribes often caught in the middle. As more non-Alaskans got involved with the dispute, nuanced, region-led solutions were increasingly overlooked.

"The history of Alaska in my lifetime has been a pitched battle between industry that wanted to extract everything and conservation that wanted nothing to change. Neither was right. Our generation is prepared to do the hard work of integrating ideas to re-make something healthier and long-lasting for our home,” said Alana Peterson, Tlingit, the Executive Director of Spruce Root, in a 2018 report

The decision signals Sealaska’s commitment to new economic models, as they make the transition away from large-scale, old growth timber harvesting. This past January, the regional corporation announced they would be ending logging operations after more than 40 years as an industry powerhouse. It was a monumental shift for the company, which derived a significant portion of its revenue from logging and had more than 360,000 acres of usable land in its portfolio.

“Logging created value for our Alaska Native shareholders for decades, and it brought us to where we are today. We’re grateful for the commitment and professionalism that led to our success,” Sealaska CEO Anthony Mallott said in a statement on the decision. “But we’ve now built an organization that can thrive well into the future, and that means engaging in activities with more enduring benefits for our communities.”

Funding announcements aren’t anything new for non-profits and community organizations, says Mallot, Tlingit. What makes Seacoast Trust different is the approach -- by establishing a sustainable source of funding, organizers are hoping they will move away from the grant to grant survival mentality they’ve experienced in the past. The annual revenue from the trust will ideally allow the organizations to focus more on their long term strategy and impact, rather than where they will get the next source of funding.

“We're the caretakers of the land, and we can't take great care of the land if we're always kind of in that mode of needing to fight another fight,” said Nelson.

The Seacoast Trust will initially support the Sustainable Southeast Partnerships, known as SSP, a decades-old network that seeks to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska.

Impacts On the Ground

The Sustainable Southeast Partnership has been operating in Southeast Alaska for around 10 years, promoting collaboration in a region separated by extensive waterways, dense temperate rainforests, and a lack of roads. It links together about a dozen villages and their various community projects, supporting everything from innovative solar energy installations to immersive culture camps.

The network has been able to assist the vastly different programs by elevating their one similarity: local people know the solutions to local challenges best.

“It highlights that communities are experts of their experiences. And it really prioritizes communities being involved in building the future that they want to see,” said Jennifer Nu, SSP’s Food Sustainability Regional Catalyst, who represents the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition.

The SSP network is partly run by community catalysts such as Nu, a group of people chosen to lead projects based on their expertise with a region or subject matter. The list includes teachers, scientists, small business owners and tribal leaders. Catalysts are locals who know the village well, and are able to build genuine relationships throughout the network, in an attempt to avoid the sort of development project that sees people come into a community, set something up, and then leave. “Finding balance at the speed of trust,” is how they describe the approach.

“As a catalyst, we're not necessarily the experts, but we're there to facilitate the right interactions and nurture the right resources to make things happen. We work with the existing strengths there are in the community” said Nu. “Each individual is valued for contributing their own skills, knowledge, and unique story to a collective vision, a vision that honors the indigenous wisdom of these lands to guide innovation and an inspiring future.”

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Southeast Partnership, 2021

This is essential in a region like Southeast Alaska, where villages may face similar obstacles and have similar characteristics, but experience a disconnect from one another due to geographic distance or financial limitations.

“A lot of times these community development-type projects end up happening in silos, independently from each other. I think what SSP wants to see is that there's cross pollination between different areas,” she said. “A lot of local leaders end up working in isolation. But they have a vision. And it's about bringing others onboard into that vision.”

It can be difficult to quantify the immediate impacts of long term strategies. But many involved with the SSP have already witnessed its influence.

Nu’s food sovereignty initiatives focus on creating a reliable food supply in a region that often depends on costly grocery shipments from hundreds of miles away, despite the natural abundance nearby. Some of these projects are emergency responses, like food drives after a salmon shortage. Others are solutions that harness the surrounding resources, like composting fish waste in villages with large fishing industries, hosting traditional plant symposiums or implementing gardening tactics made for the area’s soil type.

“It's that knowledge and relationship to the lands and waters that's going to be critical in shaping the future of the food system. We're in Southeast Alaska -- we cannot replicate things from the Lower 48, where they have gigantic farms,” she said. “And so I think it's important for Indigenous ways of life and ancestral knowledge to be leading that effort.”

In certain cases, the project itself could end up acting as a network catalyst. One local favorite is the mobile greenhouse, a plant-covered vehicle which travels to different villages and schools, teaching people how to grow their own food along the way. Nu has observed how it draws people in and inspires all ages of community members to become more involved.

“It’s intergenerational -- from the youth to to the elders. It's a funding source that is about strengthening relationships, and really training the next generation of leaders,” she said.

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The large network also helps elevate voices and create a united front for a disparate region. This is something that Clay Good, the SSP’s Regional Energy Catalyst, especially noticed.

“Energy can be monolithic and hard to change at times, because of the invested capital, infrastructure and businesses in place,” he said. “And that's one of the reasons why the SSP is important. Knowing that there's folks united in a common cause for a better economy and ecology helps Southeast Alaska to counterbalance the inertia of some of those institutions.”

Good’s projects seek to bring clean and affordable energy access to Southeastern villages, where the associated costs can be disportionately high. It’s a large task, but even small milestones can make a difference. A recent achievement he highlighted is the final design plan for a biomass district heating system in the village Kake. The new setup will harness the area’s renewable residual waste wood, replacing thousands of gallons of the pricey non-renewable heating oil that they import each year. The switch is projected to save around $100,000 for the village annually, while simultaneously creating more local jobs.

“As we go through this energy revolution, this transition to renewable energy, it's important to recognize that communities that have been left behind and passed up should be first in line to receive the benefits of new energies and new renewable energy,” he said.

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Other SSP programs are less focused on building networks to tackle complex problems, and more geared towards providing necessary grants for local programs or small businesses.

The impacts are noticeable there as well.

One example is the Yakutat Surf Camp, a summer program for local kids. Cut off from road systems and perched on the Gulf of Alaska’s northwest coast, the Tlingit community Yakutat has had a long relationship with the nearby ocean. The town is known for its fishing, which makes up its primary industry. The powerful waves are also perfect for surfing, drawing professional surfers used to sunny beaches to southeast Alaska’s icy shores.

But while surfers from far flung locations have been able to make use of the great conditions, the sport hasn’t been as accessible to those who live in the immediate vicinity.

“We know we're a fishing community. It's dangerous to just go in the water. And so I never learned to surf,” said Gloria Wolfe, Tlingit, the Cultural Heritage Director at Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.

Around three years ago, surfer Ryan Cortes thought it might be time to change that. Noticing that expensive gear, time consuming instruction, and harsh conditions prevented kids from taking the sport up on their own, he began teaching informal lessons for the community.

Seeing as he was relatively new to the town, he approached Wolfe to help him build up the camp. Soon, the enrollment soon grew from around 5 students to more than 40. The outdoor-based recreation became a much needed escape during the isolation brought about by the pandemic.

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“Some people think we’re just a surf camp, but we actually focus a lot on strengthening relationships between each other and Tlingit culture,” Wolfe said. “It’s about working towards a goal, and encouraging yourself and others. You fall down, you get back up.”

The camp’s impact has been unmistakable, says Wolfe. By the last session, even the youngest of the group could stand on their board. But the results were more than just an increased skill level. The camp also proved great for strengthening mental health, physical well-being, and community bonds. Some students have found a calling with surfing. Others were inspired by the mentorship from older surf instructors.

Above all else, the camp centers the community’s connection to the water and land.

“There's a really big cultural component. I'm always asking the kids, what is the cultural lens to the water? Why is it important for us to be advocates of the land and the ocean? What does it mean to be a Tlingit person? What does it mean to be an advocate of the Tlingit people?,” said Wolfe.

Its value was summed up on the camp’s final day, during a celebratory picnic. Wolfe recalled the heartwarming sight: 40 kids, ages 7 - 18, playing in the waves, while parents, aunties, cousins, and siblings gathered at the beach to celebrate their progress.

“It's amazing to see their faces, when their families are able to see how far they've come in learning to surf -- something they have to figure out on their own,” she said.

Looking Ahead

With a funding source secured for the foreseeable future, many in the community are feeling optimistic about upcoming plans for the region. Overtime, Sealaska hopes to increase Seacoast Trust’s amount. Mallot says $40 million would mean more direct jobs in the community, while $60 million means they are able to operate in every Southeastern Alaskan village. And $100 million would allow for more comprehensive plans relating to regenerative tourism, resource stewardship, and renewable energy. 

But the project’s ultimate goal is more ambitious: to ensure that one hundred years from now, the forests and waterways are still intact and Indigenous peoples and cultures are thriving.

“Every time I get to talk to community members, I'm always reminded of how hard everybody is working towards a better future,” said Nu.

One doesn’t have to live in the specific village to see value in the program’s success. Mallot believes the hyper local, community based focus has benefits for all shareholders.

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“Whether you live in Los Angeles, and your grandparents are from Angoon, you're gonna care about Angoon, you're going to want that community to be successful,” he said.

The SSP also highlights the potential for community based programs to create positive change elsewhere. And while each initiative was formed based on the specific resources and needs of the location, Seacoast Trust leadership hopes that some of their findings could be applied in other villages, cities, or states.

“There are more good projects happening in our communities than there have been in many years. And they are projects that are going to lead to cumulative progress,” said Mallot. 

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