Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), Alaska
In Southeast Alaska sits Sitka, a small coastal town in the heart of the largest national forest in the US – the Tongass. The town relies on the Tongass for sustainable livelihoods and food security in the form of subsistence hunting and gathering, fishing, and tourism. However, Sitka is experiencing longstanding inequities compounded by a series of climate-related planetary and environmental risks. The devastating human impacts of climate change, logging and deforestation has led to habitat degradation, invasive species and threats to community resources. While these resource extraction projects which generate up to 60% of state revenue many are unsustainable: in Sitka they are undermining local food security and economies for Sitka communities and contributing to inequalities. These inequities manifest in the wealth gap in Sitka, with many individuals living below the poverty line.
The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is a grassroots NGO located in Sitka that strives to protect the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest while simultaneously supporting the development of economically, socially and environmentally sustainable communities. The life of communities is intimately connected to the Tongass, as the lands fuel local economies and the thriving of forest species is intertwined with the thriving of human health and wellbeing. As such, SCS protects the growth of the rainforest and the array of ecosystems existing within it. Through this, SCS is invested in environmental education for youth, creating robust local food systems, and promoting Sitka’s hydroelectric capacity.
COVID caused a huge loss of employment and income within Sitka, in part related to the loss of tourism and the herring season. Additionally, the loss of income for fisherman was exacerbated by the crash of the restaurant market and a tough season in terms of catches due to the environmental impacts on fish. However, organizations in Sitka worked to rapid response to COVID and its impacts – with many taking charge on decisive action to set the tone for the town. SCS pivoted their capacity immediately to address pressing needs during the COVID pandemic, including by establishing a mutual aid network to facilitate community efforts to address food insecurity. It also provided direct grocery assistance through flexible gift cards and a Summer Food Service Program to feed up to 400 youths a week. SCS also prioritized food insecurity facing the youth of Sitka, conducting a USDA Summer Food Service Program which provided meals to all youth during school summer closers.
Beyond COVID responses, SCS have supported local efforts to protect the habitat of wild foods, traditional and harvest lifestyles and created access to nutritious local produce considering community dependence on imports. SCS has also highlighted the pathway to sustainability is dependent on the engagement and care of younger Sitkans. The incredible natural beauty of the Tongass forest offers an engaging classroom for the youth to learn respect, skills and knowledge of the land. Students have thus become connected to the local environment, further driven by SCS initiatives to increase knowledge around the aquatic ecosystems of the Tongass and Science Mentorship Programs. SCS have also hosted a transnational employment program to stimulate jobs to improve community assets, while simultaneously teaching soft skills for other employment sectors.
SCS described their work as helping to deepen relationships within the communities of Sitka as many individuals came together as part of their mutual aid network. Beyond this, SCS environmental protection work appears to have helped revitalise people’s appreciation of the natural environment, strengthened relationships and trust within the community and increased the reputation of the organisation in building sustainable communities.
As is the case of other civil society organisations within the Translocal project, Sitka’s youth are driving the sustainable change to protect the planet and catalyse a healthy future. SCS empowers young people to lead sustainable change and most importantly thrive within the natural ecosystems of the Tongass. Through fostering the sharing of intergenerational knowledge of conservation, providing skills in leadership and engagement Sitka youth are prepared for the challenges the future may bring. Through caring and preserving the natural ecosystems within the Tongass, Sitka delivers a gift to future generations that will now experience the beauty of the wilderness and all beings who reside there.