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Reflections on Public Land After a Season of Guiding in Alaska
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Reflections on Public Land After a Season of Guiding in Alaska

Alaska sunset

by: Alaska Guide Sheri Saari

“In the end, we will conserve only what we know, we will know only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” – Baba (Senegal)

As the whirlwind of another season guiding Alaska Tours winds down and termination dust sprinkles the high peaks, a bittersweet nostalgia washes over me. While the fireweed turns to seed and northern ground squirrels cache thousands of sitka spruce cones for winter, I’m hit with the same feeling I encountrered at the age of twelve returning from the excitement of YMCA Whitewater camp where I want to go back and slow down one of the preceeding weeks to savor the sweetness—to find meaning in its depth.

It occurs to me as we pack up to leave the Chugach Mountains and permafrost-laden landscape of the north that this is incredible. All of this.

The changing landscape, the myriad of ecosystems and abundance of habitats, the vast wilderness that stretches out before us. The marmot eating on the side of the road, the black bear sow and two healthy yearlings crossing the road—their healthy bellies nearly hitting the pavement, full from a summer’s bountiful berry harvest. The lone bald eagle sitting in an open field, the coyote. The geese flying overhead as I write this. I am overwhelmed with a profound appreciation for wilderness and for habitat.Food-water-shelter-space.

It’s about Habitat: Providing habitat for wildlife and protecting public lands

alaska kenai peninsula vacationWe have been incredibly blessed to see all that we have seen this summer.

We had some tremendous moments in Alaska’s public lands: Chugach National Forest, Kenai National Park and Chugach State Park. And some of the moments I will remember for all of my days: Trumpeter Swans – cob and pen and cygnets…wow! That calving at Holgate Glacier, oh my gosh. The sea otter pup resting on mom’s belly, the Fin whale, the sea jelly smack. The Humpback whale that swam under the bow of our boat. The Coastal Mountain goats as we rounded the top of the cliffs at Exit Glacier. The howling Harding Ice field storms, the eagle that dropped the salmon above us on the bike path. The beaver at Tern Lake. The sweet smell of cottonwood.

And so it hits me. In the haste of trip facilitation and detail, I may have missed the whole point of why I do this job in the first place. I may have forgotten the most important message of all. I want to go back to the last 11 weeks of closing circles with our guests, especially our young guests and share this, inspired by the sentiment of Austin Adventures guest, Mark Murphy.

We have been beyond blessed, lucky and privileged with opportunity to see all that we have seen. And with that blessing of opportunity comes responsibility.

Bestowed upon all of you now, the responsibility to become ambassadors for public lands, for wildlife… to become stewards of the land. To keep wild spaces wild. To help protect public lands in perpetuity. To adopt what Aldo Leopold called a “Land Ethic.”

Alaska flowers hikingIt’s a responsibility to engage and participate, to become stewards of wilderness—in whatever capacity that means for you.

Now that you have been to Alaska and learned a thing or two, you have a responsibility to act on that knowledge.

An excerpt from Wallace Stegner’s famous letter to introduce the Wilderness Act comes to mind:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste . . . ”

A recap on a few things we learned and some possible action items

Preserving Public Lands

For all of you that spent time in Alaska this summer, you may remember learning that 322,000,000 acres of the 366,000,000 acres of land in Alaska, a staggering 88% of Alaska’s lands are in public hands. Now that’s a WOW!

hiking alaska kenai penninsulaYou may also remember learning that some 30,000 people submitted comments regarding the management plan for Chugach National Forest. That’s a lot of people who give a darn about their public lands and spoke up about it!

According to the National Wildlife Federation, “Habitat loss—due to destruction, fragmentation or degradation of habitat—is the primary threat to the survival of wildlife in the United States.”

When an ecosystem has been dramatically changed by human activities—such as agriculture, oil and gas exploration, commercial development or water diversion—it may no longer be able to provide the food, water, cover, and places to raise young. Every day there are fewer places left that wildlife can call home.”

We can all learn from the people of Alaska who get very involved with their public lands—for subsistence, for spiritual connection, for recreation, conservation, and preservation.

Although the population density in your area is surely greater, and you may not have a 500,000 acre state park in your backyard, there is always a place to play and pray, and a place to steward, a place to protect.

Public lands are up for grabs right now

family vacation to alaskaRight now in the U.S., wildfires burn across the west, some of them human ignited. The planet grows warmer and unprecedented storms rage across the globe.

A whopping 27 of our national monuments created under the Antiquities Act are under federal review by the current administration.

After reading this, I encourage you to please take action to protect wild places. I challenge you to get involved in the political process by making calls or writing letters to your local congress representatives, asking for the protection of wilderness places from development and exploitation.*

Climate Change

For some of you, visiting the glaciers in Alaska may have inspired a desire to learn more about climate change and finding ways to reduce your own carbon emissions.

For others, it will be a simple donation to an environmental organization with dedicated leaders and scientists already working on this issue.

Sustainable Fisheries

You may also remember learning that the Alaska Salmon Fishery is the most highly managed, regulated and sustainable fishery in the world.

Hopefully you’ve become inspired to do a little more research on the importance of eating wild-caught salmon. And maybe you’ve even decided to use your purchasing power to support wild-caught salmon vs. farm raised salmon!

Habitat Restoration

hiking in alaska kenaiPerhaps after learning about the importance of wetlands as habitat and staging areas for migratory birds, you are inspired to create resting habitat in your very own neck of the woods.

Maybe learning about forest succession has inspired you to learn more about the forest in your own backyard.

And some folks may even choose to participate in local grassroots habitat restoration efforts: plant native trees in your neighborhood, participate in a local stream restoration project, clean-up your local beach.

“One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the lakes, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space.” —Edward Abbey

Wherever you are when your own Alaska nostalgia washes over you, when you are flooded with heart-felt memories of your time in The Great Land and missing that special place, may you remember the blessing of your opportunity to experience Alaska’s pristine wilderness. And may you feel the immense responsibility you now have to become a steward of Alaska and all great lands.

Written by Austin Adventures’ Alaska Guide Sheri Saari

*National Public Lands Day is coming up (September 30th) and is a great time to start advocating for your public lands.

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