Photo by Michele Cornelius
2020 is the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council’s 50th year and it looks very little like what we’d anticipated in 2018 and 2019. We reflected on our history and we planned celebrations for this milestone, but the global pandemic that 2020 brought has delayed these events. The larger political and cultural context of the Trump administration also calls for deeper reflection about our trajectory for the next five decades of protecting the Tongass National Forest and Waters of the Inside Passage.
When we originally made our plans for the fall of 2020, the SEACC staff and I imagined convening a big public event, part conference, part festival, part research symposium, that would celebrate and articulate Southeast Alaska’s transition to a more regenerative, local, sustainable regional economy. With lots of partners at the table, many longstanding and, hopefully, many new, we would work to elevate and celebrate what many close observers see as the undeniable new economy of Southeast Alaska, and the true “transition” that has been, and is, taking place every day on the Tongass. In anticipation of an organizational move to proactively advance and celebrate this new narrative, we took time to reflect on the role of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council as a truly grassroots regional nonprofit, working to build people power through issue education and activism. We reflected on our work and serious commitment to living, working, and being in a relationship with each of you, and on our role as an advocacy organization, which uses policy and advocacy tools to help bring about new opportunities for Southeast Alaska.
When we imagined our celebrations and program work for this fall we likewise anticipated a big, in-person, retreat-style board meeting to affirm our strategy for advancing these evolving priorities, bringing the board’s deep experience in advocacy, and knowledge of our region and its people, to bear, to put flesh on the bones of our vision for the 50 years yet to come.
Neither in-person meeting will happen this fall, given COVID-19, and this Ravencall lands in your mailbox in a moment that is filled with both great potential and great risk for the world and country that will emerge from 2020 and, eventually, the pandemic. When the Ravencall arrives in your homes we’ll be just weeks from what is sure to be the single most important, most defining elections of our lifetimes – the presidential election of 2020. The days and perhaps weeks following the election will likely be fraught, but perhaps also burgeoning with the opportunity for change, finally within reach.
So, instead of sitting together this month to share plates of fall foods and summer fish stories, charting a path forward for our region, we’ve devoted the centerpiece article in this Ravencall, themed “The Next 50 Years,” to some of the big ideas, developing plans, and long-term envisioning that we hope will make future SEACC supporters, staff, and board looking back from our centennial, in 2070 proud.
THE NEXT 50 YEARS OF SEACC
A True Tongass Transition
In 2011 the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, announced the intent to move away from logging old-growth and toward logging “young growth,” previously logged forested areas, in their Tongass Transition Framework. This transition is widely referred to in conservation and land management circles as the “Tongass Transition.”
At times over the years since, the desirability of this transition has been contested by a few loud voices with a stake in maintaining the status quo and continuing to cut Southeast Alaska’s diminishing number of old-growth trees. Nonetheless, the Southeast economy and slim minority of our earnings and jobs numbers related to timber have trended faithfully toward the transition’s completion, with or without official government sanction and the endorsement of powerful individuals.
But a true Tongass Transition to logging younger trees in lieu of old growth is not without risk – the most mature and desirable young growth stands that could be logged today are in places that hosted the best growing conditions and access when they were logged historically. An unfettered young growth transition risks lighting up the map of logged areas across the Tongass to be logged yet again, just as some begin to return to the ecological and aesthetic characteristics of a maturing forest. Where those areas are in proximity to communities, the forestry industry may find robust pushback from participants in a local economy that benefits more from those young growth trees continuing to mature and provide benefits to tourism, protection of key salmon streams and wildlife habitat, or mitigation of climate change, as these forests grow and store carbon in their trees and soils.
Rather than prioritizing a Tongass Timber Transition, then, we at SEACC seek to expedite an already well-underway regional economic transition, which re-centers the regional economy of Southeast Alaska on a foundation of fishing, tourism, and governance.
In other regions of Alaska and at some of our peer organizations this has compellingly been described as a “Just Transition,” emphasizing the importance of economic justice as our economy changes. The Alaskan Just Transitions Collective, or Kohtr’elneyh (“We Remember” in the Benhti Kanaga’ language of the lower Tanana Dene peoples), describes a Just Transition” as “a framework for a fair shift to an economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable and just for all Alaskans.” They beautifully articulate the economic transition and resulting implications that we see beginning to manifest in Southeast Alaska:
For us a Just Transition means uplifting Indigenous place-based knowledge systems while we shape regenerative economies, steward lands and waters, and build more just and equitable communities for all.
Alaska is experiencing an unparalleled moment of systemic political, economic, and ecological crisis — one that requires us as Alaskans to rethink how we balance our current and future needs. The economic system that has sustained Alaska for over 40 years is unraveling. Since the 1970s, an oil-based economy has dictated the speed and sectors of business growth. Over this time our state government has implemented a tax structure that furthers dependence on one main revenue stream — oil revenues. Over the past few years we have experienced the harm caused by our state’s economic dependency.
Although the slow, very public death of Alaska’s oil-reliant economy can trigger overtures of fatalism, this moment is ripe with opportunity for the state to stop allowing itself to be treated like a neocolonial banana republic with resources to plunder, and to demand a more sophisticated economic model from our elected leaders.
In 2020 and years to come, we plan to add SEACC’s considerable weight to this effort, already advanced by leaders in the Just Transitions Collective up north, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and 350Juneau in Southeast. This will include providing our grassroots bench strength and advocacy ability to help draft and enact policies and laws that support the conditions that enable growth of our regional economy, not at the cost of our environment, but buoyed by it.
To do that, we will support specific policies that are not intuitively environmental, but that protect the environment by advancing the pace at which our economy is diversified and regionalized — also providing stability during periods of economic downturn, like the one we are now experiencing, in years to come.
Bringing SEACC’s expertise at grassroots power building and advocacy to bear in expediting the Just Transition is where we see a clear role for our organization. SEACC will continue to be — will always be — an organization whose mission prioritizes conservation of the land and water of Southeast Alaska, but now with an expanded toolset for doing so.
Moving the Needle on Climate Change
Just as Alaska must diversify its economy while weaning off oil, SEACC must diversify its labors to meet the exigencies of the next half-century. Our program pillars, Tongass Forest and Inside Passage Waters, will grow in coming years to include more extensive engagement in work around climate change. Our effort on climate change must be articulated and strengthened, with more resources supporting it, if we are to move the climate needle in Alaska. In 2020 and beyond that work will necessarily expand to include joining and organizing regional and statewide groups in sophisticated, targeted campaigns to compel the Legislature and the Governor to act on climate.
A More Diverse, Equitable, Just, and Inclusive SEACC
To achieve a Just Transition, we will prioritize incorporating justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into everything we do at SEACC. We’ve taken concrete steps to address these values in recent years, but can do more, including by committing to help underrepresented members of Southeast Alaska’s communities to enter the pipeline to become conservationists and leaders, themselves — for their leadership is needed.
We are preparing a statement on SEACC’s commitments to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, jointly developed by staff and board, which will express our internal commitments, priorities, and pathways for advancing this work, with metrics for accountability. Our work toward being an explicitly anti-racist organization is deeply reflective, time-consuming, important work that will not be concluded overnight, or even this year, but our engagement in a larger, ongoing process feels good to us and our staff, who have clamored to be better allies in the face of overt injustice.
Justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion also manifests at SEACC in our external work. As we contemplate landscape conservation, the Tongass, and the waters of the Inside Passage, we see clearly that there are no lingering “unclaimed” lands, and that the lands that were historically treated as unclaimed or unoccupied, were in fact stolen from Alaska Native peoples. In the 50 years to come, few conservation objectives will be advanced without the explicit participation, collaboration, and support of the Indigenous peoples that were historically displaced from those lands, and who seek to have their sovereignty recognized and engage in land management and ownership now. Explicitly acknowledging the theft of these lands will feel daunting and hard to sit with, for some, but there is beauty in the reckoning that we finally take on by making this acknowledgment, and an opportunity, for us all, to pivot together to ask what we do next.
In the next 50 years, landscape conservation that prioritizes special places and acreage will necessarily and appropriately shift to prioritize opportunities that are advanced in partnership with Alaska Native Tribes and leaders. Conservation will finally and necessarily expand to include lands where people continue to live, and will be realized by all those who are committed to careful stewardship of our shared home.
Looking back, in 2070
As I contemplate the organization that we will create together in the next 50 years, I feel hopeful, and find myself thinking about the many members who were here at our organization’s founding, who still work with us and support us today. Their early efforts catalyzed a lifelong commitment to conservation and to SEACC.
I hope that in 2070, I’ll look back proudly at a legacy that included increasingly homegrown and local leadership for SEACC, from the staff to the Executive Director, especially with regards to Indigenous leadership. I hope to reminisce about how we redirected federal subsidies, once used to rationalize logging, to instead restore the Tongass and retrain forest industry workers. I hope to fondly recall how our team improved water quality standards to protect fish and aquatic habitat even as our region moved away from overreliance on another extractive industry — mining — and toward opportunities that nascent industries created for our region. And I anticipate meaningful and collaborative progress on climate, without which all else will founder.
Most of all, I hope I’ll look back 50 years from now and reflect with joy on the power built by a coalition of increasingly diverse and visionary grassroots leaders who worked collaboratively across organizations, and trusted one another. I hope to reflect on how they pushed Alaska to become the best state it could be, and helped Alaskan elected officials to change the state’s leadership model toward one of inspired and compassionate governance. I hope to reflect on how we charted a path for a Just Transition in Southeast, together.
I hope that when we all take the opportunity to look back on the work we did to get there, 50 years from now, I’ll see each of you working, striving, advocating, and organizing right along with the staff, the board, and me. It’s going to take all of us, and the time to push for and create the economy for the next 50 years, is now.