This photo shows an Aleutian tern. Intentionally scheduled during the “slow season” to help boost the economy between the steelhead and sockeye runs, the Yakutat Tern Festival is a celebration of Yakutat’s natural and cultural resources, highlighted by the area’s Aleutian terns. The Yakutat Nature Society will host the 12th Annual Yakutat Tern Festival in Yakutat, from June 1 through June 4 — with a more robust schedule of events compared to recent years. (Courtesy Photo / Nate Catterson)

This photo shows an Aleutian tern. Intentionally scheduled during the “slow season” to help boost the economy between the steelhead and sockeye runs, the Yakutat Tern Festival is a celebration of Yakutat’s natural and cultural resources, highlighted by the area’s Aleutian terns. The Yakutat Nature Society will host the 12th Annual Yakutat Tern Festival in Yakutat, from June 1 through June 4 — with a more robust schedule of events compared to recent years. (Courtesy Photo / Nate Catterson)

12th Annual Yakutat Tern Festival is not just for the birds

Southeast Alaska Birding Trail & Guide offers regenerative ways to see state, boost rural economies.

The Yakutat Nature Society will host the 12th Annual Yakutat Tern Festival in Yakutat, from June 1 through June 4 — with a more robust schedule of events compared to recent years.

The boost of momentum comes in part from this being the third year out from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Yakutat Tern Festival was canceled to prevent the spread of the virus in Yakutat, an isolated coastal community with limited medical resources.

While the 2021 and 2022 festivals occurred through the efforts of YNS coordinators and key community members and volunteers, festival-goers saw a downscaled schedule of events focused on local community members including youth, led by and featuring local residents.

In preparation for the 2023 festival, however, coordinators have already begun scheduling events at a level on par with pre-COVID-19 festivals.

“It has been too long of a break from our normal festival events and I’m looking forward to spending time with the community of Yakutat and the visiting festival participants that are making the trip this year,” said YNS Secretary and Festival Coordinator Mary Glaves.

The 2023 Yakutat Tern Festival’s organizers are especially excited to be hosting Audubon Alaska’s GIS analyst and app developer Tory Elmore as the festival’s keynote speaker. On Saturday, June 3at 6:45 p.m., Elmore will be sharing the relaunch of the Southeast Alaska Birding Trail, a virtual guide to 200 birding hotspots across the Alaska Panhandle.

“The Southeast Alaska Birding Trail has always been about contributing to an economy in Southeast Alaska that is built around the bioregion and its healthy and functioning ecosystems,” Elmore said. “The goal of the new web and mobile applications is to increase visibility and awareness of the trail and to make planning for and visiting the trail easier and more accessible to everyone, from seasoned local birders to bird-curious tourists.”

A birding festival in an Alaska village known primarily for its sport and commercial fishing may seem an odd placement, but the Southeast Alaska Birding Trail’s economic goals for communities are backed by research.

A 2022 study funded by the Edgerton Foundation found that in 2016, nearly 300,000 birdwatchers visited Alaska and spent $378 million, supporting around 4,000 jobs.

The study states, “If co-designed with local communities, regenerative approaches to nature-based tourism development can lead to social and economic empowerment of indigenous communities and sustainable long-term outcomes.”

In other words, birding in Alaska is the way of the future in terms of boosting and supporting local economies—an annual goal of the Yakutat Tern Festival.

Established in 2011 by the Yakutat Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Forest Service, and other partners, one of the primary goals of the Yakutat Tern Festival was to promote non-consumptive tourism.

Intentionally scheduled during the “slow season” to help boost the economy between the steelhead and sockeye runs, the festival is a celebration of Yakutat’s natural and cultural resources, highlighted by the area’s Aleutian terns.

YNS President and Treasurer Susan Oehlers said, “Walter Porter [now deceased], a Tlingit elder and then president of the Yakutat Chamber of Commerce, was one of the key community leaders who worked tirelessly to make the festival a reality. Since the initial festival in 2011, the festival has grown to become an established and largely community supported annual event. Our youth program is particularly popular.”

Oehlers, Glaves, and vice president Teresa Swanson founded the YNS in 2020 with the assistance of other key board members and Yakutat resident Samantha Lobdell, who walked the organization through the process. Their eyes were on one set of initial goals for the new organization: House the festival and provide an additional avenue of support for the community of Yakutat. Establishing YNS as a nonprofit organization expanded their ability to secure funds to support the festival as well as other community needs.

This year, festival attendees will have the option to participate in traditional events, including but not limited to: Hubbard Glacier Tours, the opening BBQ and softball game and a performance by the St. Elias Dancers.

The YNS also intends to include pre-COVID-19 events such as bird banding for children and adults, as well as interactive programs presented by the Alaska Bird Treatment and Learning Center.

This year’s Featured Artist is Dustin Newman Unignax, who will be hosting art workshops on Friday, June 2, and Sunday, June 4. Newman intends to hold workshops for both children and adults, bringing unique and valued cross-cultural connections to Yakutat.

The festival will also host a nature and wildlife photography workshop, presented by Sitka resident and professional photographer Don Kluting on Saturday, June 3.

New activities will include an independent scavenger hunt which will take place across Yakutat, treating festival-goers to some of Yakutat’s most scenic and accessible trails. The Yakutat Nature Society will also partner with the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and Ocean Conservancy on a marine debris beach cleanup and art workshop, which will be open to festival participants.

“The local community looks forward to this event every year,” Glaves said. “I’m so glad they continue to invite me back in my coordination role, to help grow the festival into what we hope will be a non consumptive source of business opportunity, as well as cultivate connection not only to the rainforest we reside in, but the deep, cultural roots still present here today.”

Visit yakutatternfestival.org for more details on the 12th Annual Tern Festival, including schedule of events, speakers, and links to social media pages.

• Nicole Hebel is a Yakutat-based writer.

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