U.S. Forest Service manager Tim Lydon was a bit nervous as crowds gathered at a boat dock in Whittier last weekend. Ready to embark upon a day trip into the fringes of the Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study area in celebration of the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday, Lydon and a host of multi-agency bigwigs were hoping for a big turnout.
They got it.
Sponsored by a variety of agencies and organizations, the event drew 125 fortunate people to Prince William Sound for a day spent sailing with experts from the National Park Service, Forest Service, Alaska Sea Life Center, Alaska Geographic, Alaska Sea Life Center, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, Chugach Alaska Corporation, the Wilderness Society, and Gulf of Alaska Keepers. Never before, Lydon thinks, has such an audience been assembled for a common goal such as this; learning about and rooting for Alaska’s designated Wilderness areas. Seats sold out quickly, and the eclectic mix of humanity on board was a testament to the depth of support for Alaska’s wild places. Little kids, big kids, parents, grandparents, scientists, and advocates, all with particular interests ranging from birds to geology; all on one boat for five hours of informational bliss.
When Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964, he allowed for more than 100 million acres of forestland to be “the earth and its community of life…untrammeled by man,” meaning left alone as wild space, without control or manipulation by people. In Alaska, this translates to two main areas of focus; 5.8 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, and about 2 million acres of land surrounding western Prince William Sound in the Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area (where, I learned, lots of study is indeed going on).
But back to the day, and why it is important.
Wilderness is one of those things that needs to be managed, and in order to ensure its longevity as intended, reliable stewards are a necessity.
Enter the Chugach Children’s Forest and Alaska Geographic’s youth; middle and high-school students from southcentral Alaska committed to sustaining the vision of wilderness, wildness, and their own inner voice. A vanload of kids, some with previous experiences hiking, kayaking, camping; many without any such memories at all, but every single one there for a reason, even if he or she didn’t know what it was quite yet. The Wilderness Act provided the platform, the kids’ sense of awareness, the vehicle.
There was Zoe, 17, who has a vision of building sustainable housing after college, and loves anything connecting the outdoors to fine arts.
Anna, 16, who loves Biology and people, and is still trying to figure out how to combine those two attributes into a career she loves.
Breanna, also 17, who was working on calculus homework during our chat, ready for an upcoming year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to pursue an engineering degree. She loves seeing how things fit within the scope of the world, and would rather work “behind the scenes” to help her environment.
All of the 20+ kids who joined us aboard the Stan Stephens Cruises boat last weekend have been, or will be going on trips sponsored by Alaska Geographic and the Chugach Children’s Forest as part of a concerted effort to inspire, mentor, and tap into creative energy found in kids like Zoe, Anna, and Breanna. Through 10-day kayak or 10-day boat excursions, the teens will conduct studies, meet staff from agencies operating within the Forest, participate in stewardship activities, and get to know their own levels of comfort and discomfort with kids situations they’ve not met, before.
It’s amazing, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and it’s perfectly right.
I can’t wait to see what happens.