Seeing the forest through the trees: visiting Kake, Alaska

J.P. Leous

“I want to work. My family needs me to work.”As these impassioned words hung in the air, much like the low-hanging clouds blanketing the town of Kake, Alaska, that morning, those gathered in the drafty gymnasium nodded their heads with empathy.

The gentleman then sat back down in quiet resignation. We were in a town that’s seen severe brain drain in recent years and unemployment estimated as high as 80%. For communities like Kake, nestled in the heart of the Tongass National forest (our nation’s largest national forest and home to the largest tracts of remaining old growth forest), poverty is the enemy of conservation.

You might not expect a group named The Wilderness Society would advocate cutting down trees— but sometimes this is just what nature needs to thrive, and what communities need to make ends meet. Towns like Kake live in the wake of boom years spent clear-cutting ancient forests. With the mills gone and many forests now in poor health, everyone from loggers to the mayor is searching for the fastest onramp to economic revitalization. These converging challenges create an opportunity for communities and the Forest Service to view forests through new lenses; The Wilderness Society is working to shift the paradigm from heavily subsidized logging to ecological forest restoration that will provide good paying jobs to the local community.

Across the Tongass many large stands of forest now suffer from an ironic twist: they have too many trees. Years ago, the clear cut forests quickly sprouted a dense cover of new trees. This new generation’s canopy acted like a sun-shielding umbrella, limiting understory growth and a host of other important ecological forest functions. While from afar this new growth certainly appears green, upon closer inspection even the layperson can see these are far from healthy forests. Experts agree that properly “thinning” certain stands (in other words, strategically removing certain trees while leaving others standing) can improve forest health while creating local economic opportunity.

Sitting in the Stewardship Workshop in Kake a few weeks ago, I became aware of how TWS’ work in the region could be categorized as community economic development. In fact, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu during several discussions—the conversations among stakeholders and the various issues at play brought me right back to the challenges I saw communities face during my service as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer years ago. Upon mentioning this observation to colleagues around the table, two other Returned Volunteers remarked that they had the same reaction. Struggling indigenous populations; poverty; lack of local capacity; strained relationships between stakeholders; a sense of desperation peppered with an optimism rooted in a sense of place that dates back generations—these sentiments accurately describe communities many Peace Corps Volunteers work in, and they certainly capture the range of frustrations and desires around the Workshop in Kake.

Because of our ecological understanding, economic expertise, and relationships with key stakeholders, including the Forest Service, The Wilderness Society is uniquely positioned within Southeast Alaska to create space for communities to work with key players to protect natural assets while creating local wealth.

Experts including Karen Hardigg and Evan Hjerpe help find workable answers, challenging outdated and unsustainable land management strategies with equitable and environmentally sound solutions that can help drive economic growth in the region while repairing impaired lands for future generations.

Here in D.C. “green jobs” is a political frame used to chart a new course for the American economy. In places like Kake “green jobs” has far more intimate connections to the land, particularly in relation to cultural knowledge and traditions. Kake, a tiny town most from the Lower 48 have never heard of, is at the crossroads of resource exploitation or restoration. The Wilderness Society will continue to work both in D.C. and the Tongass helping local citizens, businesses and agencies make sustainable decisions that put bread on the table today while protecting valuable natural assets for future generations.

Read more from JP Leous and follow him on Twitter @TWSjp