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Training a Future Natural Resources Workforce: the Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership

By Miakah Nix and Andrea Watts

Miakah Nix headshot.jpgKake is a Tlingit village of 500 people, nestled deep in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. Although rich and vibrant with culture, Kake has been a victim of the boom and bust economy of logging. Unemployment rates hover around 80 percent, not considering the current effects of covid-19. The island village is highly remote—only accessible by boat or seaplane—and the community relies heavily on local and subsistence foods for their livelihoods. Despite Kake’s intimate and dependent relationship with the local lands and waters, local people have had little, to no say, in management and planning decisions.

In recent subsistence hearings, the community expressed their desire to see the US Forest Service (USFS) pivot away from timber production, since the second growth won’t be harvestable for decades, and instead focus on targets that include food production and wildlife habitat for subsistence and recreation. Focusing on these targets will require management activities, such as inventorying, stream restoration, and forest thinning. A sufficiently trained workforce drawn from Kake could do all of this and more and the Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership (KKCFP) is training their crew members to have these exact qualifications.

Changing the management dynamic

The KKCFP is the second partnership of its kind in Southeast Alaska. The project is modeled after the successful Hoonah Native Forest Partnership that SAF member Brian Kleinhenz helped start during his time with Sealaska, an Alaska Native Regional Corporation. The KKCFP is a five-year, $1.7 million, 165,000-acre watershed restoration project funded by the National Rural Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The partnership is comprised of three major landowners, Kake Tribal Corporation, Sealaska, and the USFS, as well as other entities including the local tribal government the Organized Village of Kake (OVK), Southeast Alaska Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Subsistence Division, nonprofit SEAWEAD, and Ecotrust.

The KKCFP is creating a seat at the table for tribal leadership and community voice, working to shift management authority and economic growth back into the hands of the tribe and community—the rightful stewards of Keex’ Kwaan lands. The goals of the KKCFP are to develop spatial data for the project area using LiDAR, conduct restoration activities based on community priorities, and develop an environmental workforce which can provide ecosystem management services on both public and private lands. Building local capacity first requires training. In 2019, five crew members who were selected participated in an intensive three-week Natural Resource Academy hosted by Kai Environmental, Spruce Root, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and the USFS. Each week was spent learning road and water-crossing surveys, conducting timber and non-timber vegetation surveys, and stream habitat surveys the third week.

Last year, the field crew inventoried the logging roads that comprise the road system, which provide access to the entire project area and are used so often by the community that they are considered a vital resource. The crew surveyed the roads under the following classifications: Open All, 4-Wheel Only, ATV Only, Walk Only, Overgrown, Failed, or Closed. Project technical team member Bob Christensen is using this data to create maps for community use, so that they know which roads may be accessible or inaccessible. The biggest part of what we are doing is creating this spatial data inventory and using the LiDAR to assess the health of the watershed and establish an environmental baseline—the first to ever exist in Kake. This way we’re able to work with the community’s priorities and identify restoration projects for implementation during the last two years of the project.

By years four and five, the crew will have the training needed to undertake restoration projects. The type of project will depend upon the community’s priorities but anticipates that stream restoration to improve salmon habitat and second growth thinning to improve wildlife habitat and food production are likely candidates.

What’s next?

For the 2020 field season, the crew size was reduced significantly because of covid-19 and safety considerations. With more applicants than positions, the two who were selected were return applicants from the previous year. That the community’s youth are interested in spending their summer surveying roads and learning about stream restoration and creating wildlife habitat bodes well for the success of the project. It means the Tlingit community of Kake will eventually have a workforce that will both steward its natural resources and grow the economic viability of the community.

Linked into the short-term goal of building the workforce capacity is the long-term goal of the KKCFP. Together, we’re enhancing OVK’s ability to run an environmental services workforce. With how the project is set up, the tribe hires the workforce and manages the crew as an LLC, under which they can then bid on government contracts. As we do this work, the tribe is developing their own environmental services contracting company—in an effort to create a more sustainable program of work after the completion of funds by the NRCS. Also, the cost of mobilization for any company on another island, to get their equipment and workforce here, those costs are high. It would be in the USFS’ and the state’s best interest to contract with local companies. The KKCFP intends to bridge that gap.

As a testament to OVK’s successful environmental programming, OVK also hosts a USFS Youth Conservation Corp./Training Rural Alaskan Youth Leaders and Students (TRAYLS) field crew [See What is TRAYLS? sidebar.]. Four of our five past and current crew members have come out of the youth programs. We have three crew members on the youth crew who have all said that when they turn eighteen, they can’t wait to apply for our project. The interest is growing, which is a very good sign. Even more encouraging—three of the past and current young adult crew members are on career tracks as environmental science majors.

Miakah Nix can be reached at mnix@ecotrust.org. To learn more about the Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership, visit https://ecotrust.org/.

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