Alaskans are salmon people. We depend on the return of these magnificent creatures every year to feed our families, our state’s economy and our vibrant cultural heritage. Like wild salmon, life for people in Alaska ebbs and flows with the cycle of the seasons.
In my family, like most Alaskan families, the land tells us what we need to be doing. We fish, hunt, and berry pick on nature’s schedule. Our activities and lifestyle change with the color of the trees and the snow on the mountains. The lands where we harvest and play are our most precious community assets – they hold our identities.
I believe land trusts are our country’s best kept secret. They play an important role in protecting our way of life.
Today there are 1,700 land trusts in the United States, many formed in reaction to disappearing local farm and ranchlands. Although its expanded in scope, at its heart the land trust movement is about protecting food resources for people. 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of land trusts in Alaska, where we have been tirelessly conserving our most valuable lands to forever protect our wild foods.
From working family farms to our world-class salmon streams and Native subsistence lands, Alaska’s six land trusts are working in voluntary partnership with private landowners in communities across the state. Collectively we have conserved over 40,000 acres of wetlands, open space, wildlife habitat, and areas for hunting, fishing and gathering; over 50 miles of wild salmon streams; and eight farms.
The history of land ownership in Alaska is complex and affects our relationship with food to this day. For many Alaskans, food still comes from the land and not the supermarket down the street. Skills and traditions like preserving fish in a smokehouse and knowing the best berry patches to go to are still being passed down from generation to generation. If we lose our lands to development, we lose our culture and our identities.
In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed, granting 44 million acres of land to the Native peoples that had lived in Alaska off the land for tens of thousands of years. 12 regional corporations and 200 local village corporations were created, each serving Native Shareholders.
Today, these Alaska Native Corporations are among the largest private landowners in the State, owning some of the most spectacular habitat and wetlands for fish and wildlife in Alaska. Their challenge lies in balancing the goals of generating revenue for Shareholders with protecting the traditional lands for future generations.
The Great Land Trust in Southcentral Alaska has found a natural partner in Alaska Native Corporations, as we have shared goals of protecting the lands we depend on for nourishment. We have been able to purchase development rights from Native Corporations, meaning development and subdivision of these lands is permanently restricted, but the land remains in Native ownership. Solutions like this are pragmatic as well as visionary.
Land trusts give me hope for our future. May they ensure people grow and gather, catch and harvest food on the same lands as their ancestors for generations to come.