Indigenous Communities Chart a Path for Sustainable Future

The Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, comprises the northernmost part of the Emerald Edge—a 100-million-acre expanse of lush forests, rivers, islands and mountain streams spanning from the Pacific Northwest through British Columbia to Alaska. These lands are the ancestral territory of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples—Alaska Native communities that have long relied on and stewarded the forest for traditional practices, commercial fishing, visitor services, and other cultural and economic uses.

boat carrying vegetation with a person onboard

© Bethany Sonsini Goodrich

For decades, timber harvesting in the Tongass rainforest has caused deep divides between environmental organizations, industry groups, and Indigenous communities, often villainizing native communities that were strapped by limited economic opportunities. Understanding that a new path was needed, TNC has worked with local tribes and institutions, including Sealaska, the Alaska Native corporation that is the region’s largest owner of private timberlands, to launch a regional network based on a collective impact model. The resulting Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) has successfully reshaped how the region works together on shared goals.

“For too long has Southeast Alaska been a place of environmental conflict. This region has unparalleled ecological values and globally significant carbon stocks. But the solutions to conserving these lands and waters for future generations must come from the communities.”

— Christine Woll, TNC’s Southeast Alaska program director

When the Sealaska Native Corporation as well as the USDA Forest Service both announced recently the decision to phase out old-growth logging in the Tongass, the SSP also identified the need for alternative economic opportunities that support people, nature and increased climate resilience. Together with TNC and Sealaska, the SSP has created an innovative financing model for conservation, known as the Seacoast Trust. Launched in 2021, the Trust is designed to provide ongoing support for economic development and stewardship in the region, including restoring salmon streams and traditional use areas, strengthening food security and investing in a diversified local economy.

© Bethany Sonsini Goodrich

Based on traditional Indigenous values and led by the community, the Seacoast Trust demonstrates an approach to conservation in the Emerald Edge that speaks to the interconnected nature of people and their environment. For the first few years, the Seacoast Trust will support and expand proven regional programs of the SSP. But far beyond the local impact of Alaska and the Emerald Edge, the Seacoast Trust shows the world what is possible when Indigenous peoples have the authority and capacity to care for their land and waters.

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