The economy in Southeast Alaska is as evergreen as the lush temperate rainforest the region is known for. Regeneration occurs not only in the ecology of the place, but also in the economic prosperity of the people. In Southeast Alaska we are digging deep and rooting ourselves in the values of our region’s Indigenous peoples and centering our economy around the proven methods of sustainable ways of being. Mass old-growth timber harvesting was momentarily the driver of the financial wellness of the region, but similar to the vast array of vegetation that makes the forest thrive, the wealth of the region’s economy now lies in the diversity of growing sectors that intertwine.
For decades, many economists and legislators fixated on the Roadless Rule as a central cog in the wheel of our economy, but the constant back and forth and polarization this fixation has woven into our region distracts from the true needs of our communities.
From kelp farming to commercial fishing, the arts economy to the visitor industry, our urban centers to the smallest villages, and all the entrepreneurs innovating in between, this is a region full of ingenuity and economic grit. The interconnectedness of Southeast Alaska is found everywhere, from where the forest meets the ocean to how tribal governments and organizations in their territories work together to enhance the economy.
In July 2021 the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy. This strategy transitions Southeast away from a fixation on Roadless, toward a path that recognizes the complexity and interconnectedness of economy building in Southeast Alaska. It focuses on diversifying our industrices, enhancing community resilience, and conserving natural resources.
First and foremost, it is a capital investment in community-led projects including infrastructure for recreation and visitor industries, workforce development initiatives for locals, mariculture processing facilities, entrepreneurial support, biomass energy investments, climate monitoring, salmon habitat restoration, local food production, and much more.
The SASS focuses on interrelations, partnership building, diversification, integration of Indigenous values, and a community-first approach. We are excited for the future this investment will help catalyze.
In the wake of this transition, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership caught up with several regional leaders to discuss challenges and opportunities for economy building in Southeast Alaska and how the SASS fits in.
Southeast Conference: A regional outlook
Robert Venables has been the executive director of Southeast Conference since 2017. His work with the state and federally designated regional economic development organization, began 20 years earlier as a Southeast Conference member through the Haines Chamber of Commerce. He then served two terms on the board of directors. During his tenure, Venables has kept his hands busy in many sectors of the regional economy including energy, transportation, housing, natural resource development, mariculture and more.
When he hears the words ‘Roadless Rule’ he immediately redirects.
“I don’t even use those two words together in the same sentence anymore, it’s so far in the rearview it’s counterproductive,” Venables said. “It’s divisive and distracting. You don’t look for stale bread and expect that to be satisfying do you? If you have concerns about forest management, let’s talk about forest management then. It seems like more and more there is a tendency for policymakers to just be polarizing and that’s not where the communities are at.“
So where are our communities at? According to Venables, the opportunities abound.
“One thing we’re really excited about right now is mariculture—it just checks so many boxes on both sides of the aisle. There’s job creation, ocean health and environment benefits, opportunities for equity and developing the industry in ways that start with underserved communities.
“Also, we’ve made a lot of advances on the energy side with ongoing hydro and biomass projects. Of course transportation is the cornerstone of our economy and we don’t have reliable or affordable transportation at the moment. So we need to work on that.
“Workforce development is also essential and we’re not talking about wanting to train our young people so they can only work on the slime line or on a boat. We also want to empower, educate, and equip our region and young people to be the owners that are employing- not just being employed.
“Full utilization is also key for sustainability. We have bycatch issues, a lot of forest waste that is staying in the forest that can be utilized to create local jobs.There is existing infrastructure in our rural communities that can be transformed and repurposed. And that’s another reason why I value our partnerships with Tribes because their knowledge and how they define resource utilization is so deep.
“With regards to the SASS investments, it’s the first in the nation, as far as I can tell, where the agency is saying that we want to take a look at the value chain and what matters and what’s important to the communities, and we want to support those champions to get it done by cooperating and participating and partnering rather than trying to cram a square proposal into a round hole of government programs. So it’s novel and it’s exciting.”
Healing and honoring a multi-generational approach to economic thinking
President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson of Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, centers healing, multi-generational thinking, and tribal sovereignty, as core components of economy building in Southeast Alaska. Tlingit and Haida is a sovereign tribal government representing over 33,000 Tlingit and Haida people worldwide. Through SASS, Tlingit and Haida will be supported on a variety of initiatives including the Alaska Youth Stewards workforce development program, cultural interpretation work, a Wildland Fire program, monitoring and evaluation of culturally significant cedar trees and more.
“Since time immemorial our ancestors have understood the importance of stewardship and living in balance in order to provide for future generations. Today, our communities are working to balance the need for economic sovereignty and conservation of resources,” Peterson said. “We have the answers within us, our Ancestor laid that framework for us. As we work to heal our communities and stay connected to what makes us Tlingit and Haida people, we must remember where we come from in order to ensure future generations can thrive in our homelands.”
Growing a regenerative visitor industry
Mary Goddard is an Indigenous artist, entrepreneur, jeweler, food blogger and the founder of the creative agency MidnightRun. She also leads the Regenerative Tourism work of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership — an initiative that catalyzed the Visit Southeast marketing campaign, cultural tourism business plans, a Heritage & Cultural tourism conference, and more. The program also prioritizes working with rural communities on strategies and planning for the visitor industry including on Prince of Wales Island, which is readying for increased cruise ship traffic.
With visitors bustling around Sitka’s Centennial Hall, Goddard takes a seat on the bench she collaborated with local carpenter Zach LaPerriere to commemorate Elizabeth Peratrovitch. She reflects on the importance of diversification, interconnection and authenticity as the foundation of a strong economy.
“The visitor industry in Alaska is growing with so many people wanting to visit this beautiful place. There is opportunity to not only develop this economy, but to be proactive in defining what that looks like for Southeast Alaska in a way that is truly ‘regenerative’
“Whereas Hawaii has to really work backwards because they are already overwhelmed by too much tourism that is almost out of their control, we still have a chance to get in front of it and build this industry to suit the unique priorities, size, and needs of the region. But you have to be active! It depends on Alaskans being engaged in that process and it’s certainly complex.
“Everything is interconnected. How does tourism affect our environment? Our culture? Our livelihoods? Our housing market? ‘Regeneration’ is all about being considerate and thoughtful in how you develop this economy in ways that support, and create positive outcomes for all those areas- not just extract or deplete. We can do that when we put our heads together.
“And tourism is interconnected with so many other economies here- the arts, our seafood industries, land management and more. A strong economy is one that is diversified, that reflects the culture and needs of the people, and recognizes the interconnectedness between everything -from industry to industry, generation to generation, and community health and wellbeing to environmental health.”
Some of the SASS investments in the visitor Industry include new trail systems including a water trail in Sitka, cultural interpretation training, increased bear viewing and canoe route infrastructure on Admiralty, workforce development for trailwork and more.
Kasaan and monument trees
Down stretches of winding roads through Prince of Wales Island, sits the Haida community of Kasaan. Home to less than 60 year-round residents, Kasaan is a small but determined community. For decades, communities on Prince of Wales focused on old growth clearcut timber harvesting as a mainstay of their economy. Today, communities like Kasaan are moving their economies forward while learning from practices and values of the past.
Mike Jones is the President of the Organized Village of Kasaan — the sovereign tribal government responsible for land stewardship and community development. OVK will receive SASS funding to conduct an inventory of cultural use wood in their traditional territory, and will be setting aside trees for traditional carving activities-like totem pole carving.
Old growth trees that are quality enough for carving large projects, often called ‘monument trees’, are rare in their size and straight grain. Previously targeted by the timber industry and shipped out of the region en masse, one single monument tree being carved into a totem creates a multitude of benefits for the community. It can circulate money locally by employing carvers and bringing in visitors who wish to engage with authentic and reciprocal Alaskan experiences. The process also builds community, engages youth, and contributes to local healing.
Jones speaks to the excitement and significance of totem pole carving activities in town.
“I’d like to find some way to build the totem pole carving into something more. We come across an opportunity to replicate a pole every once in a while but we haven’t been able to in a while. Right now we’re working with the Forest Service and talking with them about watching out for culturally useful timber that can be used for totem poles. So I feel hopeful that we can get some funding to get more people employed, working on more totem poles in the future. This is especially important for the Haida people, who are the original totem pole people. As President it is important to me that the Kasaan Haida are actively doing what we are known for.
“For the first time in five or six years we have a log that is coming into the carving shed this week. We can finally start getting going on something and have the kids come down and tourists come in and see what we do. Once I told people we were getting a log again I could just feel the excitement going around. People were asking me about when it was coming. It feels like a really exciting time in Kasaan and I really believe that when we all lift each other up we will get to where we want to go.”
For Kasaan, a village without a store or active western economy, maintaining a strong carving program is one way of honoring a traditional economy while educating the next generation, stewarding the land, and providing workforce development and career pathways.
Energy is a foundation of economy-building
Ian Johnson is the Community Catalyst of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership with Hoonah Indian Association. Energy affordability and security, he points out, sits stubbornly at the foundation of economy building.
“Regionwide we pay a really, really high rate for electricity and heating and that presents a formidable barrier for businesses. In Hoonah the tribe has been working since 2017 on a biomass energy project that will connect several community buildings, including the school, through a heating loop that helps with efficiency and decreases wasted heat and electricity.
As we think about the young growth timber transition, milling operations and other industries that are going to be created around local wood, we want to try to utilize any off-cut product and waste for burning and generating heat- especially through centralized heating systems like what we are developing in Hoonah. We’re also looking at sourcing wood from forestry treatments like pre-commercial thinning and brushing —basically anywhere we can responsibly source material to operate that facility.
The idea is to localize your energy model. For Hoonah, this biomass project helps create a more affordable foundation for further economy and community building including a cultural museum, a commercial scale greenhouse and apartment style housing. The new facility will create new jobs and provide workforce training as well as lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.”
The SASS includes investments in energy including a million dollars towards developing a regional biomass strategy and pellet mill with Southeast Conference and a Tribal or municipal partner.
Interconnected and determined
Developing a robust economic future will depend on community engagement at all levels, from individuals of all ages, to land managers and local businesses, to Tribal and municipal governments and regional coalitions. Solutions should be led by local champions, and resourced and supported by regional, state, and federal investments like the SASS. For decades, the Roadless Rule has dominated the conversation. Today, Southeast Alaska is ready for a shift. Facing the complexities of economy building in remote and rural Alaska will take courage and collaboration but when have Alaskans ever taken the easy road anyways?
• The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.