Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a shift in policy direction on the Tongass National Forest to better respond to the social and economic realities of Southeast Alaska. The agency is tapping local leaders to set that new course, including the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
This new policy, called the Southeast Alaska Sustainable Strategy, includes increased consultation with tribes, Alaska Native corporations, community partners and an investment of $25 million in financial and technical resources for sustainable economic growth and community well-being. The agency will also recommend opportunities for longer-term investments that are responsive to Tribal and local priorities for sustainable economic development.
The new policy transitions the Forest Service out of large-scale commercial old-growth sales on the Tongass and onto a path towards more holistic management of the many resources the forest provides, including investments in fisheries, forest health, carbon sequestration, subsistence needs, traditional and customary resources, habitat restoration, young growth timber management, tourism, recreation infrastructure, and renewable energy. Small old-growth sales will continue for community and Alaska Native cultural priorities including totem pole and canoe projects.
The new Forest Service policy seeks to complement ongoing regional efforts including the Indigenous Guardians Network, Hoonah Native Forest Partnership, and better collaboration with Alaska Native Corporations, Tribal Governments, Southeast Conference, and community-minded partners. These are all partners of, or programs catalyzed through the Sustainable Southeast Partnership — which was directly called upon as part of the USDA’s path forward.
The SSP is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska.
This homegrown network includes Tribal governments, community-minded organizations, local businesses, Native corporations and entities, culture bearers, educators, state and federal agencies, storytellers and more. SSP partners envision 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.
With this historic announcement, the Forest Service policy is following the lead of local SSP partners who have worked for more than a decade to invest in rural development in a way that builds towards long-term sustainability while honoring and amplifying Haida, Tlingít, and Tsimshian values and knowledge. At its core, the SSP is about supporting the communities of Southeast Alaska in achieving their goals. Priorities include entrepreneurial support, workforce development, community forest projects, food and energy security, youth programs, and cultural healing and reconciliation.
“Since time immemorial our people have stewarded the Tongass and Tlingit & Haida continues to carry the responsibility of protecting it in perpetuity,” says President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
“Tlingit and Haida is a core partner of the SSP and the leader of the Indigenous Guardians network that hosts a full-time position between the Forest Service and the Tlingit and Haida.
“We stand in our sovereignty and will work in a government-to-government relationship with our federal partners. While administrations may change, our commitment to the Tongass does not. We will continue to fight to protect it. We are glad to have a developing relationship with the USDA and Forest Service. We are excited to engage and our Guardians program will be able to integrate our traditional knowledge in protecting our lands and seas.”
Following this announcement, a great deal of work lies ahead, including strategic investments in communities that stand to lose salaries and revenue from the closing of timber operations.
In order to better understand what this announcement means for Southeast Alaska, we sought the perspectives of regional leaders in rural development through the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
We ask: Where do we go from here?
Alana Peterson, Executive Director of Spruce Root Inc.
Alana Peterson is a business owner and the executive director of Spruce Root, Inc.. Spruce Root supports entrepreneurs across the region and serves as the supporting organization for the SSP. Her latest business, Xút’aa Hídi Gallery she opened this summer with her brother Will Peterson, Alana comments on the entrepreneurial spirit of Southeast Alaska as a model for what a more diversified economy can look like.
“When we bring our cultural values into economic development efforts, the result is a future that leaves our communities and environment stronger. The people in our region continue to amaze me with their ingenuity. It is these business innovations that are modeling the new economy — one where people remain connected to the land, training and job opportunities are growing new industries, where resources are being utilized in a sustainable manner, technology is leveraged to create more high-quality jobs, and regional networks are built on trust and strong relationships.
“Spruce Root and the SSP have been building this new narrative for the past 10 years, and it is exciting to see the current administration take this necessary next step that demonstrates their willingness to walk alongside us. This funding can support efforts and projects like the Alaska Youth Stewards which trains rural youth for natural resource careers, it can help build infrastructure for our regenerative tourism businesses to prosper, and more.”
Andrea Cook, T’saak Ka Juu, Haida Artist
In 2020, Sienna Reid of Sitka and Andrea Cook, T’saak Ka Juu of Hydaburg, worked with the First Alaskans Institute, Sitka Conservation Society, the Pacific Northwest Research Lab , and SSP to document the social, economic, and cultural value of red and yellow cedar to Alaska Native artisans and communities. Through research, apprenticeships, and interviews with artists and other stakeholders from across the region, Cook and Reid helped to elucidate the difficult-to-quantify value of cultural wood for land managers on the Tongass.
Andrea Cook T’saak Ka Juu explains the value of cultural wood and what the USDA announcement means to artists like her.
“Red and yellow cedar is a resource that has provided so much for my people for thousands of years.
“It has been a part of our identity for a long time. It’s been our art form, it tells our stories and our traditions, and it holds our identity. The idea that this resource can run out because of mass logging or climate change, is why it’s so important to me that these trees are protected. It’s a resource that needs to be there for the next seven, eight generations.
“The USDA announced an end to large-scale old growth logging sales on the Tongass and a commitment to providing cultural wood to our people. This is long overdue and a start. What happens next is that we must continue to invest in our communities, our youth, our artists, and tribal leaders to ensure that our reciprocal connection to the forest remains strong for another ten thousand years.
“What this looks like on the ground includes investments in community carving sheds, steady streams of wood made available to our communities, addressing inequities in land management, advancing Indigenous representation in the Forest Service agency itself, and so much more.”
Anthony Mallott, CEO, Sealaska
Anthony Mallott is the President and CEO of Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation owned by more than 23,000 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian shareholders. Sealaska, who announced their corporate transition out of old-growth logging earlier this year while celebrating their largest revenue on record, is a lead supporter of the SSP. Mallott welcomed the news while identifying the need to leverage additional funding and support into the progressive development of Southeast Alaska.
“The USDA announcement is, to us, a step in the right direction. But a one-time commitment of $25 million will not be enough to transition rural Southeast communities to the just outcomes they deserve in the wake of decades of resource extraction and conservation efforts on our traditional homelands with little effort to develop rural economies along the way.
“Sealaska is committed to help in this transition through rural, community-focused workforce development and regional collaboration via networks like Sustainable Southeast Partnership. But to achieve just outcomes for our shareholders and descendants, we will need the support of many other partners who share our vision for regional economic growth through industries like tourism and fisheries and for decreasing extremely high costs of energy, transportation and food while honoring Indigenous approaches to stewardship and traditional harvesting, hunting and fishing that is the way of life for our Native communities.”
Marina Anderson, Tribal Administrator, Organized Village of Kasaan:
Marina Anderson is the Tribal Administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan. Earlier this spring with support from the SSP, OVK hosted a Cultural Wood workshop with local Forest Service agency members to discuss cultural wood resources on the Tongass. Anderson explains her perspective on what this announcement could mean for Tribal sovereignty.
“Tribal governments have a fiduciary responsibility to our citizens that we take very seriously. With our land being ripped out from under our feet a few generations ago, our current generation is using the tools in front of us as we flex our sovereignty as independent sovereign nations.
“For our citizens, this means that access to our traditional foods, medicines and tools will continue to be abundant. We will continue to push forward to be the local land managers of our traditional territories so that we can properly heal ourselves and our ecosystem. Most strategic plans are three to seven years, ours stretches beyond 10,000 years.
“In 10,000 years we will be speaking our traditional languages, thriving off our foods and medicines, hitting the shores to trade with neighbors, and managing the lands and waters that our ancestors had stewarded before western contact and attempted genocide. This is the only way to beat the battles of suicide, alcoholism, missing and murdered Indigenous women, economic gaps, social disconnect and more.
“The announcement by the USDA has been the longtime work of tireless advocates. What happens next, is the need to translate the words and commitments of an official announcement into tangible actions that are felt every day by the people who live closest to the Tongass National Forest. Tribal Sovereignty has always existed, but as we go forward tribes will be exercising our land sovereignty on the Tongass and it will mean the Tongass will be stewarded in a balanced manner.”
Andrew Thoms, Executive Director, Sitka Conservation Society:
Andrew Thoms is the Executive Director for the Sitka Conservation Society, one of the founding partners of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. Over the last decade, Thoms and SCS have worked through SSP to better understand what holistic development can look like in Southeast Alaska that balances conservation with social and economic priorities. Pictured here, building birdhouses with the 4H-Alaska Way of Life program that SCS hosts with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension to provide experiential learning and leadership opportunities to Sitka’s youth, Thoms reflects on the work ahead.
“It is no surprise that reciprocity, respect, and balance are core values and practices of the Indigenous people of Southeast Alaska: the nature of the place demands that in order for communities to survive, community members need to work together. Those values are the foundation of the SSP and have guided us as we continue to build relationships and trust where there was once division. Now the USDA is calling on us to help envision what a transition on the Tongass will look like.
“Old growth timber harvest was never going to continue forever at the scale it has been happening on the Tongass — 1,000 year-old trees take 1000-years to grow. So, if you log them all in 60 years, you run out. The people who are committed to the communities of Southeast Alaska will work together to heal from the conflicts around timber harvest. We’ll work together to restore the forests, the watersheds, and the ecosystems that were damaged by past management decisions, and we’ll lean into the challenges of the future together.
“I am highly confident that we’ll take the best of what past generations and traditional knowledge can teach us and pair it with new knowledge and technology to find the pathways to a sustainable and prosperous future. It won’t be easy, but by working together, we can overcome the challenges.”
Ralph Wolfe, Program Director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership
Ralph Wolfe is the Program Director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. Wolfe shares optimism for how the existing collaborations in Southeast Alaska are poised to work with the USDA to build regional prosperity.
“The SSP has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development on the Tongass for a decade. From addressing affordable housing needs, to developing community forest partnerships that are shaping the way collaborative land management can look like in Southeast Alaska, to simply building the trust needed to make any of this work possible on the ground.
“Our relationship with the Forest Service has progressed each year, through efforts like the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership and the Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership. A milestone of this progression has been the creation of a joint position in 2020 between Tlingit & Haida and the Forest Service to improve communication and collaboration between the federal government and tribal entities through the establishment of an Indigenous Guardians Network. That Network and this announcement from the USDA shows that important groundwork has already been laid.
“What’s next is that we need to move past a false dichotomy of there being either old-growth timber or economic strength and recognize that timber has played a small role in our economic portfolio for years. Of course I don’t want to pretend that nobody will feel negative impacts from this announcement. But rather than focusing so much attention on conflicts around timber, let’s invest our energy, resources, funding, brainpower, and workforce in Southeast Alaska on moving forward and looking at the new path we are navigating. Let’s find ways to return sovereignty through representation, through access, through cultivating community leadership, to build the region up for the Tongass’s original and continued caretakers. Let’s recover from this pandemic in a way that builds long-term resiliency, not band aid fixes. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it. Whether you are Indigenous or not, work for a federal agency or run a local coffee shop, are an elder or are still in high school, there is a role for you too.”
• The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. We envision 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. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.