The Tongass National Forest is an amazing resource to its inhabitants and to the entire nation. It produces salmon to populate our fisheries, energy to fuel our 21st century lives, beautiful scenery to drive our tourism industry, and wilderness bursting with adventure. The U.S. Forest Service, arguably the most influential federal agency in Southeast Alaska, brings talented people into the Tongass to manage our valuable resources. What is surprising is how few Forest Service employees are members of the Alaska Native community. The Tlingit and Haida peoples have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years, and their traditions and culture all depend on and revolve around the Tongass National Forest.
The Alaska Native Student Internship is a new program aiming to raise the Alaska Native community’s interest in the Forest Service as a career opportunity. The program uses a week-long field experience to introduce Alaska Native youth to the role of the Forest Service in managing the many resources of the Tongass. This July, two high schoolers from Sitka, Reba Dundis, age 15, and Austin Bacon, age 17, were selected through the intern application process to participate in the summer program.
The centerpiece of the internship was a five-day trip to the South Baranof Wilderness with Wilderness Manager, Jennifer Mac Donald, and Sitka Zone Archeologist, Jay Kinsman. Prior to the trip, Austin and Reba had the opportunity to learn about the many different careers the Forest Service has to offer, and they each conducted an interview with someone in a position that interested them. Once we were out in the wilderness, Reba and Austin told me that, before this internship, they didn’t really know what the Forest Service was. They laughed, saying they always thought the Forest Service was the same as the National Park Service. Looking back, Austin realized there is a relationship between the Forest Service and the Forest Service cabins he enjoys using — a connection he had never made before.
Our first morning in the field was spent learning about wilderness management. MacDonald’s goal as Wilderness Manager is to ensure that everyone entering the wilderness can feel like they are the only person in recent history to have been there. She wants everyone to have the opportunity to completely leave civilization and experience uninterrupted nature. The intern team took note of every float plane, jet, and boat seen during our visit, to contribute to the Forest Service’s data on noise intrusion and visitor experience in the wilderness. Information like this helps the Forest Service monitor opportunities for solitude and remote recreation in the South Baranof Wilderness. Mac Donald says there are some wilderness areas in the Tongass where visitors can have zero contact with signs of civilization.
On day two of the trip the interns had the opportunity to experience field archeology. They shadowed Kinsman and his intern Brandon Foster on their search for a cabin site around the corner from our base camp. “You don’t see many right angles in nature,” Kinsman told us as he explained what he was looking for to Reba and Austin. Once the cabin was found, now just a mossy rectangle hidden in the beach fringe, the three of them talked about what the structure was used for, and the area’s history of fur farming. Austin and Reba have a lot of local knowledge about introduced species, and they brought up stories they have heard about farming on the islands around Sitka.
On our last day in the area, we paddled across the cove, past a group of noisy sea otters, to spent the morning doing a beach cleanup. We covered a mile of shoreline, and ended up with a huge amount of marine debris. When we headed home the next day, we felt like we were leaving the place better than we found it.
This summer internship opportunity for Alaska Native high school students was initiated by the Sitka Ranger District in partnership with the Sitka Conservation Society. The two organizations now have a solid relationship built on their shared goal of promoting conscientious stewardship of the land. After running a successful program this summer, the Alaska Native Outreach Internship is sure to become a yearly collaboration. Austin and Reba both agree that they want to return to Alaska, and even to Sitka, after college. Austin loves hands-on work and being outside, and Reba is passionate about coming home to support the communities of Southeast Alaska. The Forest Service could be the perfect opportunity for them, and now they have a better understanding of what the agency does. More importantly, this experience has given them new ideas about what they are interested in pursuing in the future. Whatever they end up doing, it is comforting to think that we have two more wilderness stewards in our midst, ready to protect and enjoy the daily gifts of the Tongass National Forest.