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Charting a Course for Prosperity in Rural Alaska

 

Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska Business Monthly

Dennis Gray Jr. sets his fishing gear with a calm and practiced rhythm in the Gulf of Alaska, south of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.  “My ancestors have fished these waters since the last Ice Age,” Gray says as he slides his knife through the crimson gills of a coho salmon.

Gray is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. He’s also the city administrator for Hoonah, a Tlingit village carved into the slender coast of Chichagof Island.

Aboard his humming freezer troller, Gray relies on a time-tested strategy: selecting hoochies and flashers, adjusting depth and speed to catch salmon. But back in town, he and his community of 800 concentrate their efforts on another silvery target: building prosperity in rural Alaska.

Challenges confront hundreds of isolated villages across Alaska. Despite being just seventy miles west of the state capital, Hoonah remains accessible only by boat or small plane. Goods and services are barged in, and that’s costly. Energy prices are more than double what Juneau residents pay. And the unemployment rate for the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area, which includes Angoon, Hoonah, Gustavus, Tenakee Springs, and Pelican, was more than twice as high as the state’s average in 2015, due in part to a lack of year-round jobs. Still, many Alaska Native families in Hoonah trace their ancestry back for centuries with roots anchored to specific shorelines, forests, and fishing grounds.

And despite its isolation, Hoonah’s location helps. There are bountiful fisheries and the town’s position between Juneau and Glacier Bay makes it a strategic and attractive stop for cruise ships plying the Inside Passage from Seattle or Vancouver. According to the city of Hoonah’s 2016 economic report, the number of available jobs and average annual wages have all risen since 2010. The median family income jumped 15 percent and Hoonah’s sales tax revenue jumped 46 percent, according to the report.

While every rural Alaska town and village has its own unique economic challenges, the way Hoonah is facing theirs can offer insight and inspiration to others seeking development options.

Adapt with Authenticity

“Adapt or die,” says Gray with a smile as he captains his freezer troller past a brightly lit cruise ship pulling into town. “Hoonah has always done a good job of transitioning from one industry to the next. We are good fishermen, we were good loggers, and now we are good tour operators.” Icy Strait Point, established by Huna Totem Corporation in 2004, is a cultural ecotourism port built on the site of Hoonah’s historic cannery, which operated until 1953.

Gray vividly remembers the energy in town when Hoonah decided to invest in Icy Strait and tourism—even though it was contentious. “I was twenty-two, new to the city council, and scared as heck,” he says. Huna Totem requested city support to connect the historic site to city water and electricity. Some Hoonah residents were not convinced. “I’d say the community was about 40/60 against developing tourism. People were like: ‘What? That’s never going to happen. A little Indian village, why would tourists even come to Hoonah?’ Eventually, we spent our last savings to put in a waterline… because we believed in … what it might do for Hoonah.”

Before Icy Strait, tourists seldom visited. Today, according to the city, Icy Strait Point supports one-third of the city’s sales tax base. Huna Totem Corporation says more than 156,000 visitors arrived this year on eighty-three cruises, including Disney Cruise Lines—a number the company expects will exceed one hundred next year. And Icy Strait’s workforce is 80 percent local.

According to Russell Dick, CEO of Huna Totem Corporation, authenticity and community buy-in led to Icy Strait’s success. “If there is any place we are going to invest our money, it is going to be at home, putting our people to work,” Dick says.

“It’s not Disneyland. [Icy Strait Point] is an incredibly authentic port and done in a way that meets the expectations of the cruise lines without having to compromise our values.”

Sharing Home and Culture

Britney Jack began working with Icy Strait Point while in high school. Today, the twenty-two year old is the company’s logistics coordinator. “I take a lot of ownership and pride in working here and so [do] a lot of other local people … This is our home and our culture. We want to share it,” Jack says.

Gordon Greenwald is a master carver in Hoonah who also sits on several city boards including Hoonah’s economic development committee. Since Icy Strait opened thirteen years ago, Greenwald has seen progressively more tourists wander into the center of town, some visiting the carving shed where he works.

“Honestly, I was not in favor of it [Icy Strait Point] in the very beginning because I thought it was going to change us and we would end up like South Franklin [Street] of Juneau or Ketchikan. I don’t want that for Hoonah and I’m afraid that’s the direction they are going to go,” says Greenwald. “But in the meantime, it’s a positive thing and an employment base. Yes, it’s a service industry [and] it’s not a $35-an-hour job, but it’s better than nothing, and I think it has helped put Hoonah on the map.”

Since Icy Strait launched, nineteen new locally-owned businesses have opened in Hoonah, most catering to visitors. Tax revenue from Icy Strait is being invested in community assets such as sidewalks, a youth center, and the school system.

“Hoonah in the past had a lot of male-dominated employment opportunities with fishing and timber,” Gray says. “Tourism presents more widespread opportunities for women with kids and even grade-school students who work after school or dance when ships are in.”

Collaborate and Diversify

Some 150 miles of old logging roads weave throughout the forests, rivers, and valleys surrounding Hoonah. These roads, maintained by the US Forest Service, support local subsistence users as well as tourism guides and charters. They’re also important to a collaborative land management partnership called the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership that includes Huna Totem Corporation, Sealaska, the City of Hoonah, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and the US Forest Service.

According to Robert Starbard, tribal administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association, some of these entities—particularly environmental nonprofits and Alaska Native corporations—have not always seen eye-to-eye.

But the organizations have adopted “this new collaborative way of working. This is the… future of how to do natural resource work effectively, efficiently, and sustainably,” says Starbard. “It is possible to have all stakeholders at the table building an effective private-public partnership for land stewardship and watershed management.”

A core goal is to create career opportunities in natural resources and land stewardship for locals.

“[It’s] about diversifying the economy in Hoonah,” adds Dick. “Tourism is not for everybody, but doing things like harvesting commercial blueberries, for example, are great opportunities.”

“Alaskan blueberries, black huckleberries, dwarf blueberries, bog blueberries,” rattles off Donovan Smith, who belongs to the partnership. “We’ve learned a lot about all the different plants and types of habitats where they thrive.”

This year, local pickers sold blueberries to Goldbelt Corporation, as well as ice cream and coffee shop, Coppa, in Juneau. Juneau’s Amalga Distillery also purchased one hundred pounds of blueberries for its blueberry vodka.

And while harvesting blueberries doesn’t bring in anywhere near the money that the commercial fishing fleet earns, it creates economic options for Hoonah. And the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is about far more than just blueberries: the field crew traverses across the landscape from Sealaska watersheds to US Forest Service lands to map and monitor salmon streams, report on road conditions, thin forest stands for timber production, and restore salmon habitat.

“In terms of our youth and early career residents, the partnership creates professions for land use management. If you want to work with fish, you don’t have to be a commercial fisherman, you can be a fisheries biologist and can come home even if you went out to college and studied science. You can bring that expertise back to Hoonah,” says Starbard.

Strategic Infrastructure

Kristi Styers dishes up a holistic view of her hometown’s economy while bouncing her daughter Alfie on her knees at Fishermen’s Daughter, the restaurant she opened in 2011.

“Everyone has to eat,” says Styers. “[So] we really see how the economy is doing. When fishing is good, we feel it. When it is great weather or a full cruise ship is in town, we feel it.”

Styers also felt it when Hoonah secured federal economic development agency grants and state legislative grants to invest $5.5 million in a boat haul-out that attracted more outside revenue.

“[Now] the boatyard stays full in the spring and the fall. It really stretched out our season,” says Styers, who keeps Fishermen’s Daughter open May to November, three months longer than during her first year. And when Huna Totem Corporation and the city installed a $22 million deep-water dock, more cruise companies could stop in Hoonah, and Styers saw even more diners.

That’s no accident. According to Gray, the city invests purposefully in infrastructure that catalyzes far-reaching economic impact in town for new industries like boat repair, old industries like fishing, and ancillary businesses like Fishermen’s Daughter.

Thinking Outside City Limits

Hoonah can’t do it alone and is looking to surrounding villages to ease some of the costs associated with isolated island living. “Savings can happen region-wide if we collaborate,” Gray says.

Hoonah hired a consultant to look at the feasibility of Angoon, Hoonah, Tenakee, Pelican, and Kake forming a borough. “That would help us with school costs,” says Gray. “Neighboring towns have schools of the same size and have the same overhead costs of a superintendent and principal and in theory we could share.” A flourishing school system can help Hoonah cultivate homegrown leaders.  

“For a community to thrive you need to have committed people … in leadership positions [who] are around for the long term,” says Gray.

But Dick sees a Catch 22.

“How do you invest in local leadership? You have to create employment opportunities for good top-notch people to come back. And, if you don’t have that kind of leadership, how do you create those opportunities? It’s really a challenge.”

Cultivating prosperity in isolated Alaska is not easy. However, the coastal community of Hoonah remains dedicated, leaning on collaboration, diversification, adaptation, strategic investments, creativity, and a focus on cultivating local leadership to meet the challenge.

“My biggest hope is that in twenty years, Hoonah remains this place we can all be proud of,” says Styers.

 

Learning Exchange with the Pacific Northwest: Sustainable Southeast Partnership Invites Puyallup Watershed Initiative

This is a reflection piece written by the Puyallup Watershed Initiative about their recent participation in the spring Sustainable Southeast Partnership retreat. 

The Puyallup Watershed Initiative (PWI) is all about building community. It turns out the PWI itself belongs to a community.

It’s not a big community – yet.

“The pool of people doing backbone staffing to support this work is pretty small. There are not a lot of peers, so it’s valuable hearing another community trying out an initiative like this, learning about their successes – because you might be the only group in your region,” said Jennifer Chang, Acting Director for the PWI. The Puyallup Watershed Initiative is a new model for community-centered change. Our mission is to improve social and environmental conditions throughout the region, which comprises more than 1,000 square miles from Mt. Rainier to Commencement Bay in Washington State. 

Thanks to the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) in Alaska, and with support from The Nature Conservancy, the community of place-driven locally-led change makers just grew a lot stronger in the Pacific Northwest. Like with many such connections, this one started with an email.

Back in Fall of last year, Aaron Ferguson, Regional Sustainability Catalyst for the SSP, emailed the PWI with some intriguing questions about impact and sustainability. As noted in the first article on Learning Exchanges, this topic is a major focus for the PWI as it enters the second half of its 10-year project span. The SSP was in a mindset, and Aaron’s questions hit home with the PWI team: does PWI rely on philanthropy to sustain its work? Memberships? What is the PWI’s organizational structure? Is it a nonprofit? A for-profit? A mix of the two? How did the PWI preserve its mission while balancing funding considerations?

Amidst all that brainstorming and conversation, one question naturally popped up for Jennifer: “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a Learning Exchange?” The idea was that one organization would host the other to share and ideate together. Face-to-face meetings, facilitated discussions, patient listening – for two organizations focused on community engagement and action, that could be the only way to communicate.

Knowing that the Nature Conservancy was keen to see such exchanges occur, Aaron at the SSP reached out to them and, together with the PWI team, submitted a proposal to fund a community learning exchange where PWI staff would fly out to southeastern Alaska to meet with the SSP team. The proposal was accepted, and within months, the SSP and the PWI had planned the learning exchange; it would occur from March 7 to March 9, 2018, alongside SSP’s spring retreat.

Jennifer Chang, Acting Director for the PWI, Community Relations Manager April Nishimura, and Alisa O’Hanlon for the City of Tacoma’s Office of Government Relations office, packed up their warmest winter gear and headed north for the three-day session with SSP. Jennifer and April are part of the PWI staff, but Alisa’s involvement was especially interesting. Besides being her first time in Alaska, Alisa had served on the PWI’s Transitional Board to guide the PWI toward creating a permanent Community Board. Alisa’s knowledge and understanding of the mechanisms that would help the PWI endure would be hugely relevant to this trip.

The PWI and the SSP’s two teams shared about their successes in building community and creating a communication culture that prioritized relationship-building and community-level input. They discussed their similarities and did not shy away from sharing deeply felt challenges, like the few number of organizations working in this space, the focus on a process-driven instead of outputs-driven model, the delicate balance between effective decision-making and governance structures, and the sometimes overwhelming question: What exactly does your organization do?

The various answers to that question revealed why organizations like the PWI and the SSP are crucial for community-building. For Alisa, one answer is communication. How are we signaling to each other in the community about emerging needs? How are we communicating together as a team to share information freely? Using a team sports analogy, how are we helping inform our teammates about our position so they can pass us the ball? “Both of our organizations are trying to figure out how to keep up that communication in a timely manner that keeps pace with the work,” Alisa said.

While many productive meetings occurred indoors, a key lesson presented itself to the PWI team outdoors as well. Like the SSP, the PWI is a place-based organization that is deeply invested in its environmental health and influenced by its location. The PWI team learned how southeastern Alaska’s conditions of low population density and lengthy travel shaped the way SSP staff intentionally build relationships and networks. “You don’t have a lot of people around you so you have to be conscientious about reaching out,” said Jennifer. “When you need help, you have to have that support system in place.”

Jennifer believes place-based, community- driven learning will drive our push toward sustainability. “At heart, we believe as community members of our community, we have the answers,” she said.

Both sides came away from the session impressed with the other: the PWI appreciated the SSP’s “Community Catalysts” as connected, direct points of contact in communities participating within SSP who support and further local action, while the SSP felt the PWI’s Community Board was a real step forward in creating an independent entity that can realize its own vision and values.

So while the start of this discussion has answered some questions and raised even more, perhaps the best takeaway is: in this work, we are not alone.

For more information about the Puyallup Watershed Initiative’s vision for community-centered change to address environmental and social inequities, visit: http://pwi.org

 

 

Southeast Garden Conference 2018

Join  gardeners of Southeast Alaska in Haines Feb 16-18th, 2018 for a 3 day conference on growing local produce in our short challenging growing season.  Focusing on home use and small-scale farms, topics will include soil health, gardening practices, storage and preservation, composting, and food security.. Jeff Lowenfels, acclaimed long-time Alaskan garden author and writer, will be the keynote speaker. Format will include break- out sessions with local experienced growers, community extension personnel and sharing forums.. There will be many opportunities to network and share knowledge. 

February 16- 18, 2018

More information and sign up at:

http://bit.ly/2Bo0s6J

Brought to you by Southeast Gardener’s of Alaska”

Wanted: Yakutat Home Energy Leader!

Start: January 22nd, 2018 End: July 31, 2018 Pay: $100/home assessment

We are seeking a self-motivated individual to educate community members on energy efficiency by participating in the Home Energy Leader Program (HELP). This program is offered through the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) and sponsored by Yakutat Tlingit Tribe (YTT) Environmental Department. Home Energy Leader will attend training and use those skills to educate community members. The position will be paid on a per home basis for the outreach.

Duties:

  • Attend one-day training on January 23, 2018 in Juneau 
  • Solicit community participation and advertise program 
  • Conduct individual home assessments, which may include the following:  Analyzing utility bills and consumption use, Light bulb savings comparison, Use of kilowatt meters to assess appliance draw, Eliminating phantom power consumption & using power strips, Installation of weather stripping and reduction of air infiltration, Programming and using programmable thermostats, Testing water temperature, Checking air filters and refrigeration coils, Installing faucet aerators and low flow showerheads
  • Minimum Requirements:  18 years of age or older,  Self-motivated and comfortable interacting with people
  • Preferences: Desire to help community members, Experience with community outreach

 

For further details on the HELP program, please direct inquiries to: Shaina Kilcoyne | Renewable Energy Alaska Project | Sustainable Southeast Partnership | s.kilcoyne@realaska.org |907-331-7409 Decision will be made by January 3, 2018 so apply today! Stop by YTT Environmental Department to obtain/return an application 

Click here to download the application

 

Our Youth, Our Future

Written by The Nature Conservancy, Sarah Dybdahl, and Tis Peterman

Focussing on youth leadership in Southeast Alaska, First Alaskans Institute assisted in facilitating our time together by creating a space for youth, community leaders, local and regional organizations to share and discuss opportunities to address the wants and needs of youth, their communities and the surrounding region with special emphasis on catalyzing leadership behaviour.

Youth and communities leaders (or organizational representatives) participated from the communities of Kake, Hoonah, Kasaan, Juneau, Yakutat, Wrangell and Klawock.

Organizations in Attendance:

  • Alaska Crossing
  • Discovery Southeast
  • Forest Service – Tongas National Forest
  • Goldbelt Heritage Foundation
  • Hoonah City Schools
  • Huna Heritage Foundation
  • Organized Village of Kake
  • Organized Village of Kasaan
  • Sealaska Corporation
  • Sitka Science Centre
  • Southeast Regional Health Consortium, Kake
  • Southeast Sustainable Partnership
  • State of Alaska Community Economic Development
  • Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS)
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Yakutat Tlingit Tribe

Culture Camps

The first day of our time together we had the opportunity to have a series of catalyzing presentations. To start, the community of Kake outlined the years of work they’ve spent developing and creating their Annual Culture Camp. Another catalyzer presentation was provided by the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) program based out of British Columbia. The intent of these catalyzer presentations was to educate participants of current programs that exist to provide leadership development opportunities and generate thoughts, ideas and conversations

What is important for our young people?

The adults and elders representing their communities and organizations discussed amongst ourselves questions including:

  • What is important for our young people to know?
  • What would we like to see in our youth?
  • What could adults do to assist in the success of our youth?

Key takeaways included the need for more opportunities for youth to get outside, connect with elders and community members, and learn about their culture.

Developing Leadership Programs over the next 40+ years

The youth then had the opportunity to spend time together thinking about and sharing their ideas amongst themselves, lead by First Alaskans Institute’s guiding questions. The start of their conversation was looking ahead into the future forty years and discussing where they would like to see opportunities for leadership development.

Key takeaways included the desire to see more opportunities to learn about culture in school (tools, names, language), the preservation of traditional language and practices taught by elders and more consistent opportunities for cultural events like trips, native activities and dance group practices. These types of immersive learning opportunity allow the youth to connect with each other informally in the region.

How do we make that happen?

The youth were encouraged to share their ideas and thoughts on activities and actions that would need to take place to make their vision of 40 years from now come to reality.

Key takeaways included broadening the youth’s support system by allowing for time to visit elders and involve language instructors to assist in all aspects of culture. From learning stories, purpose and pronunciations to preparing foods and understanding the words of songs and practicing dance, learning their culture in context help the youth feel empowered and whole; confident in passing on their learnings to the next generations.

What is possible?

Participants were divided into groups to identify what methods of developing leadership programs resonated as most possible, with one youth leading the smaller group discussions. Providing the youth an opportunity to have a voice in what happens in the region ______

Key takeaways included regional cultural camps to bring youth together from their expanded regions (ex: British Columbia), providing structure to the educational experience by replacing existing SEAS curriculum to allow for more active engagement in school and time with elders (through the outdoors or specialized projects), and the creation of safe space/networks for students leaving community for post-secondary education.

Circle within a Circle – Adults working with Youth

A select group of adults who represented their communities or organizations were asked to sit in a circle with the remaining participants surrounding them on the outside. Those on the outside were to be active listeners while those in the middle shared their thoughts and ideas. Those sharing imparted many barriers both personally and professionally, along with reasons they are dedicated the youth leadership in their communities.

Key takeaways included an appreciation and sense of pride towards the youth that have stepped up into leadership roles to help the community and strengthen traditions and language. By providing the opportunities for the youth to work with elders to bridge the gap of knowledge from the past trauma, helps them appreciate things happening in the community – the more communities are connected, the better. Listen – Learn – Do.

Reflections of Leadership Development Lists

Participants were asked to take some time to review all the thoughts and ideas captured regarding youth leadership. Below are thoughts shared after having time to absorb and process what had been shared collectively up to this given point.

Key takeaways included more programs in school and jobs in the community with an emphasis on sharing among tribes, mentorship/apprenticeship opportunities to bring elders and youth together, diversification and support for the leadership in the community and motivating the youth by recognizing their achievements within the community.

How can we move forward?

The last activity of our two days together was to share what each participant could do now to ensure the thoughts and ideas would become a reality. What would each of us commit to within our communities and organizations, both personally and professionally.

Key takeaways included opportunities for youth to connect with each other informally at culture camps or other events in the region by creating events for them to connect with each other, opportunities for youth to have a voice in what happens in the region and more consistent opportunities for youth to get outside, connecting with elders and community members, and learn about their culture (year-round).  The collective group continually returned to cultural connection as the heart of what they wanted to focus on. Getting youth outdoors, involved in science, or on career development paths wasn’t enough – this must always be integrated into the idea of cultural connection as a whole.

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