photos by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society 
Many hands help to get the work done. Participants of the Alaska Youth Stewards program in Kake install a Lingít/English road sign, a project in partnership with community elders and the U.S. Forest Service.

photos by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society Many hands help to get the work done. Participants of the Alaska Youth Stewards program in Kake install a Lingít/English road sign, a project in partnership with community elders and the U.S. Forest Service.

Resilient Peoples & Place: A year of building and reconnection

Investing in Southeast Alaska by continuing to place relationships first.

The first snow of the year for the northern panhandle of Southeast Alaska came on a late October day. Light wisps crept down the slopes of the upper Lynn Canal toward the ocean, and eventually coated the trees, streets and shoreline in a heavy white blanket. A group of 30 partners from across the region was gathered in Deishú Haines, tucked into a small conference room as the flakes fell outside. It was the Sustainable Southeast Partnership’s fall retreat, bringing the efforts of this collective impact network under one roof for a week of face-to-face collaboration, reflection and strategic planning for the year to come.

The Sustainable Southeast Partnership includes tribal governments, community-minded organizations, local businesses, Alaska Native corporations and entities, culture bearers, educators, state and federal agencies and more — all working together to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska.

Bethany Sonsini Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership 
Marina Anderson, deputy director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, applies sticky notes to a window at an SSP convening.

Bethany Sonsini Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership Marina Anderson, deputy director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, applies sticky notes to a window at an SSP convening.

While it might not seem particularly newsworthy to have 30 people in a conference room smattering sticky notes across the walls, 2022 was the first year many groups were able to safely gather in person again. Gah Kith Tin Alana Peterson, Executive Director of Spruce Root Community Development (SSP’s backbone support organization) emphasized the importance of this reconnection. “Being able to resume our in-person gatherings reminds us of the connections that make our network strong. When people put in the effort to show up, they share ideas, which spark new projects and innovations, they face difficult but necessary conversations, and build stronger relationships. A small but dedicated group of people is all it takes to create a significant and real impact for our communities and region.”

Though new faces often join these convenings, one fresh face representing the U.S. Department of Agriculture was a big step for federal government participation in these retreats.

“Spending this week in Haines made it clear to me just how essential investing in the process of this work truly is,” explained Barb Miranda. Miranda is the program coordinator for the USDA’s new Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy — an approach to land management and development in Southeast Alaska that prioritizes relationships, community-driven collaboration, and meaningful consultation with tribal governments and Indigenous organizations.

“It takes time to listen, learn, and build relationships. That investment of time is necessary, though, for the USDA and Forest Service to be successful as we move forward continuing to deploy this strategy and the initial 25 million dollars of investment that came with it,” Miranda said. “As the year closes we’re celebrating all of the dedicated work that has gone on behind the scenes just to get us to the starting line heading into 2023.”

Miranda reflected on the countless hours of meetings, planning, and navigating backend obstacles, “It demonstrates the dedication that not only agency staff have for making this work for us in Southeast, but also how committed our regional partners are to working with us to make it a reality.”

The shifting current

Alana Peterson adds context to this pivotal moment where federal management is starting to align with local priorities and Indigenous values, “By leading through example, and striving to make lasting change over the past decade, we’ve been able to unite as a Partnership and focus our efforts to the collective reality that the health and well-being of people, economies, and communities are inseparable from the health and well-being of the environment; something Indigenous people have always known and continue to bring to the forefront of conversations. All people in this region, of all backgrounds and demographics, with varied agendas and priorities are refocusing and honoring this Indigenous reality with thousands of years of wisdom and reciprocity rooting us here.”

Peterson shares how the consistent investment in relationship based work is influencing the region more broadly, “Now we are starting to see policies and larger initiatives within the region that are inspired by those efforts, our way of working and the values that guide us are catching on. This year we’ve widened our reach through the launch of the Sustainability Strategy in partnership with the USDA.”

The USDA Forest Service, Rural Development, and Natural Resources Conservation Services turned to Southeast Alaskan organizations in order to execute the Sustainability Strategy. These cooperative agreements, signed with the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Spruce Root, and Southeast Conference further demonstrate the strength in federal agencies working with and through trusted community-based entities.

The SASS, though grounded in the healing work of listening, learning, and building relationships, is also focused on tangible efforts on the ground, with much of the work happening on or around the US Forest Service managed Tongass National Forest. The projects that are currently invested in include restoration of lands and waters, increasing recreational opportunities for locals and visitors, bolstering food systems, developing youth programs, cultural revitalization, diversification of economic opportunity, Indigenous co-stewardship, sustaining cultural wood use, establishing second growth wood use, and refining forest management.

In fall 2021, Quinn Aboudara (left) and crew members Wade Hulstein (center) and Jon Carle walk along a road to access a stream for monitoring work near Klawock Lake. Today, Quinn Aboudara is the Natural Resource Stewardship Coordinator for Shaan Seet Inc., Wade Hulstein is the Klawock Community Catalyst for the SSP at the Klawock Cooperative Association, and Jon Carle is the Indigenous Stewards Coordinator with the Prince of Wales Tribal Conservation District.

In fall 2021, Quinn Aboudara (left) and crew members Wade Hulstein (center) and Jon Carle walk along a road to access a stream for monitoring work near Klawock Lake. Today, Quinn Aboudara is the Natural Resource Stewardship Coordinator for Shaan Seet Inc., Wade Hulstein is the Klawock Community Catalyst for the SSP at the Klawock Cooperative Association, and Jon Carle is the Indigenous Stewards Coordinator with the Prince of Wales Tribal Conservation District.

Examples of how these cooperative efforts are already making progress are through new and existing community forest partnerships and youth stewardship programs, which are being grown across the region as work in which restoration of relationships and landscapes intertwine. Returning stewardship to Indigenous forestry crews working on their homelands is an act of healing and reciprocity to the waters and forests that sustain us all.

Quinn Aboudara, Natural Resource Stewardship Coordinator for Shaan Seet Inc. has fielded many iterations of community forestry crews on Prince of Wales Island in years past. This year, he and his crew members are celebrating the launch of the Klawock Indigenous Stewards Forest Partnership with support from SASS. The partnership between Shaan Sheet Incorporated, Klawock Heenya Corporation, Sealaska Corporation, Klawock Cooperative Association, the Prince of Wales Tribal Conservation District, Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service, KISFP shows that it takes many hands to raise deeply collaborative programs.

“With new funding comes year-round job security, more training opportunities to further crew skill sets, and the ability to expand our capacity to take on more projects.” Aboudara goes on, outlining how this year the crew has been completing monitoring work, thinning dense overgrown forests with an eye towards berry and deer habitat, restoring salmon streams, and participating in community salmon harvests to share with neighbors and elders. He emphasizes, “It is not just a job, it’s our way of life.”

Jennifer Nu, the SSP Food Systems Catalyst, points to how food and ways of life have underpinned how we’ve navigated the pandemic. “It has taught us to appreciate the incredible abundance that we have in Southeast Alaska of fish, forests, clean water and air, cultural wealth with our Indigenous communities, and knowledgeable and skilled people whose lives and livelihoods are interconnected with the lands and waters of the region.”

In addition to the wild foods that we harvest from the waters, shores, and forests, there are also community gardens across Southeast from Yakutat down to Metlakatla that are increasing community self-sufficiency by alleviating reliance on barged and flown in food. Many of the funded SASS investments reflect the local emphasis on food security, sovereignty, and regeneration. These projects include tribally run greenhouses, gardens, and composting facilities.

Bethany Sonsini Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership 
Gardening, composting, and farming efforts are among some of the widespread focus areas for the USDA’s Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, helping to build food security where much of the food currently is barged or flown in.

Bethany Sonsini Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership Gardening, composting, and farming efforts are among some of the widespread focus areas for the USDA’s Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, helping to build food security where much of the food currently is barged or flown in.

Gardeners, farmers, and regional food network partners, are also excited for reconnection in conjunction with increased SASS support. Starting on February 22, 2023, Farragut Farms and many other dedicated Southeast Alaska farmers will be hosting a 3-day Farmers Summit in Petersburg (the first in-person since 2019) with support from Spruce Root.

Jennifer Nu is excited for the opportunities for connection that the summit will bring. “The heart of a sustainable and regenerative food system is relationships. Relationships to where the food comes from — the sources of the abundance. Relationships between those who are transporting and transforming the food to those who consume it.” With food at the heart of so much in Southeast Alaska, Nu concludes “Working together will be the key to resilience for any future biological, environmental, or political disruption.

The work ahead

In his Sitka office on a cold December day, Keith Perkins, Southeast Alaska Area Director of USDA Rural Development, smiles about all of the effort that has gone into making SASS a reality in the last year. “What I love about this, is asking ‘How can we help these communities thrive? How can we help them be the best they can be?’ Which is such a fundamentally different approach for the government to be asking what we can do.”

In addition to committing an initial $25 million investment to local priorities and community-rooted projects, the SASS also aims to end large scale, clear-cut logging of old growth forests, reinstitute the 2001 Roadless Rule, identify and support opportunities for investments that reflect the needs in the region, and place a priority on earnestly consulting with Tribal Governments and Indigenous organizations to make decisions in the region.

“SASS is really one of the biggest sparks of my career,” Perkins continues, “What we are doing here has implications across the whole country. What if we can implement this in Western Alaska, Appalachia, and so many other rural regions? Communities are facing similar but uniquely complex challenges, that really only they know best what is needed to overcome those obstacles.”

Although the SASS is currently being pursued in Southeast Alaska, Perkins is not the only one who sees the potential that this rural economic development and land management strategy contains for communities that are located adjacent to federally-managed lands across the nation. After issuing a joint secretarial order in November 2021 instructing their respective agencies to advance the practice of co-stewardship of public lands and waters with Tribal nations, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior announced that eleven co-stewardship agreements have been signed between the U.S. Forest Service and 13 tribes across the country, including three on the Tongass National Forest.

The Hoonah Indian Association, Organized Village of Kasaan, and Organized Village of Kake are all party to agreements with the Tongass to support work that was in part catalyzed through the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and other collaborations years ago.

Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society 
Keex’ Kwáan Kake, Alaska — one of the many coastal communities in Southeast that have deeply influenced the partnership work throughout the region.

Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society Keex’ Kwáan Kake, Alaska — one of the many coastal communities in Southeast that have deeply influenced the partnership work throughout the region.

The agreements include thinning work conducted by the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership, Alaska Youth Stewards projects in Kake, and a framework to sustain culturally critical resources and forest products like monument cedar trees in Kasaan. These co-stewardship agreements will also support integrating and sharing traditional ecological knowledge into forest management, increasing workforce development efforts, and protecting areas that are culturally significant to the Tribes.

In the past two years, the USDA has taken significant steps to align funding, agency resources, and management actions to make fundamental pivots in the agency’s approach. These efforts are the necessary initial steps forward needed in recognizing the historical injustices that have characterized the federal government’s interaction with tribes thus far, and working towards healing through truth-telling, collaborative capacity building, and restoration of self-determination.

“We are at a unique moment in time where we can make a positive difference in the relationships between the federal government and Tribal Nations across the country.” U.S. Forest Service Chief, Randy Moore, was quoted in the recent co-stewardship announcement, “We do this by building trust and demonstrating our commitment to uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities to Indian Tribes with concrete actions. We’ve made a lot of good progress already, and we will continue to embed this commitment within our agency and organizational culture.”

Quinn Aboudara synthesizes it to the local level, “We’ve always known that we need to have local and traditional knowledge recognized and included in management of lands and waters, and it is something we’ve been trying to get back to for years now.”

2022 has ushered in a coalescence of effort spanning from local to national levels, where home-grown action has continued to push the tide of momentum and results — with refined clarity through the lens of the pandemic — to positively influence and weave together with state and federal engagement. This year, growing this groundswell has been about partners across the region building local capacity, filling new positions created by new projects and funding, and making strategic plans to actualize the important work that are made possible by collective impact networks such as the SSP and collaborative policy initiatives such as the SASS.

Quinn Aboudara finishes: “It’s happening now. It’s gaining traction. Through SASS and other mechanisms, the doors are opening and we’re doing it. It is the first step in empowering ourselves and having our sovereignty recognized because really for a lot of us, this is our ancestral homelands, so of course we should be the ones managing it.”

• Living in Sheet’ká Ḵwáan Sitka, Lee House works to creatively communicate stories that embody respect, collaboration, stewardship, and positive change throughout the region. House is currently working at Sitka Conservation Society in collaboration with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and the U.S. Forest Service to share stories around the USDA’s new Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy.

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