Last Stands Leads us to Learn More About the Places We Love and Speak With Strong Voices

On the final day of my trip with Elsa and Mara for Last Stands in 2017, we were sitting under ancient red cedars on the edge of the Old Tuxekan village site after following wolf tracks along the beach.  We collected golden chanterelles for our ramen lunches, and ate beach greens while we waited for the boat to pick us up.  I felt like the adventure could not be over yet-we had too much left to do.  We talked about awareness campaigns in Washington, D.C., media coverage in print and film.  I returned to Montana with a list of ways to champion the ground truthed realities of the Tongass in new ways.  So, after the school year was complete, I packed my bags, left Montana, and came north, back to Alaska, the Tongass, and home.  I spent the next two months tracking the Alexander Archipelago wolf as part of a long-term study to understand the diet and home ranges of these island carnivores.  Once again, I found myself crawling through alder, devil’s club, and sometimes under the canopy of cedars. 

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At times, wolves roamed so frequently along the same path that I could follow their trail as I circumnavigated an entire island.  We learned new lessons from them-wolves eat sea otters in southeast Alaska, but they also eat mountain goats.  They travel up to 30 miles in one day from ocean to glacier and back again, searching for food and denning sites. This is beautiful work-biological investigation in its purest form.  I lived in a cabin and my only job was to understand wolves in the rainforest.  I watched fall become winter with a simple rhythm of waking with sandhill cranes, walking in wolf tracks, and saying goodnight to resident moose and their calves as they contemplated the coming change in seasons.

I was also contemplating change as the Tongass transitioned around me. The land transfer bill that led to our walking protest across Taan Island had been left to gather dust, but threats to the Tongass increased.  Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was pushing the state of Alaska to rescind protections for roadless areas on the Tongass.  At the same time, she was crafting legislation to transfer additional lands from public ownership to private trust through alternative mechanisms.  The largest timber sale in 25 years was being fast-tracked by the Forest Service on Taan Island, through some of the very last stands we had ground truthed.  State officials and the Alaska Congressional delegation were driving an incorrect narrative of timber values on the Tongass.  The public was left out of every decision.  I could not watch this happen from the comfort of an academic position, or from the quiet of a cabin in a forest.  The power of education lies in its application to real world actions.  Actions lead to learning, which can lead to change.

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Fast forward to spring 2019.  As I prepare to join Elsa and Mara on the boat for another transformational ground trothing adventure, I am also being humbled every day by my new role as the executive director for Audubon Alaska.  As I write this, I am flying back to Alaska from a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with members of Congress about our national rainforest, the Tongass.  I carried with me the photos, stories, and drawings from our Last Stands adventure. I also carried the promise that I will continue to strengthen my voice for our last stands, to crawl on my belly through these places that teach humility, empathy, community, and dialogue, in the age of increasing disconnect and division.  I welcome everyone to come with us on this journey.