Isabel, Tristan, Noelani, and Gloria are four Alaskan teens who traveled to Washington DC as representatives of the Chugach Children’s Forest.
The occasion? To celebrate the lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, which made a 4,000-mile cross-country journey from Alaska’s Chugach National Forest to the nation’s capitol.
In addition to participating in the festivities surrounding the lighting of the tree, the teens had the opportunity to present to the Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell, and an array of other USFS staff in Washington DC, about their personal connection to the Chugach National Forest and their participation in Chugach Children’s Forest programs. The teens shared about the transformative experiences they had on Children’s Forest expeditions, their passion for stewardship, and their ideas on how to engage more diverse youth in the outdoors.
(Tristan is pictured here with a totem pole at the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service’s Office in Washington DC)
Tristan presented on how he was shocked to discover marine debris in Prince William Sound (a region of the Chugach National Forest). He had expected to see a pristinely beautiful and untouched Alaskan wilderness, like the one portrayed in the photos of Alaska’s landscapes he’d seen throughout his life. He explained how he and the other teens on his expedition helped the Forest Service collect and dispose of “NAPA oil bottles, plastic water bottles, pieces of Styrofoam, computer chips, fishing nets, and an oil boom” and that this was “a life changing experience because now I have a passion for helping keep places like this clean. I want to spread the message about marine debris to raise awareness and mobilize other youth to think about our oceans and what we are doing to them. I have a vision that all people will know the truth about our wild places and know they’re damaged and know we need to address this.”
(Gloria is pictured here at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in front of an exhibit about marine debris)
Gloria, an Alaskan artist, commercial fisherman, and Chugach Children’s Forest alum, presented on her involvement in Alaska Geographic’s effort to collect 4,000 handmade ornaments from across Alaska to adorn the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. She explained how she collected marine debris while she was commercial fishing along the Alaska Peninsula and later used these materials to make ornaments and also helped lead high school students at her former high school in making similar ornaments. She explained how her ornaments expressed her “concern for Alaska’s oceans and for every ocean around the world.” Her message was, “We should feel a sense of ownership in our oceans and show respect for them by keeping them clean and healthy. Having healthy oceans also keeps our forests and wildlife healthy – like salmon, which is so important to my summer job as a commercial fisherman, as well as my Alaska Native culture.”
Noelani explained how at first she didn’t want to participate in a Chugach Children’s Forest expedition because she was nervous and scared. She said, “I felt like this opportunity wasn’t for me because I’d never done anything like it before and I had no experience in the outdoors.” Yet since she was specifically nominated, she was empowered to take the leap and go on the expedition. In the Chugach, she found that she loved kayaking, she learned an array of backcountry skills, she fostered a connection to Alaska’s public lands, she became more confident, and she developed leadership skills. She implored the staff at the Washington DC office to use similar methods of recruitment, explaining that teens who aren’t already engaged in the outdoors won’t opt to participate in outdoor experiences like expeditions unless they’re specifically reached out to and nominated. Noelani concluded her presentation by saying, “If I was not given the opportunity to experience wilderness through the Chugach Children’s Forest, I don’t believe that I would be the same person that I am today.”
(Isabel is pictured here at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History with giant gypsum crystals from her home state of Chihuahua, Mexico)
Isabel moved to Alaska from Mexico about three years ago. She shared with the Forest Service about the fact that transitioning from Mexico to Alaska was difficult for her and her family. At one point in time she didn’t feel at home in Alaska, nor did she feel like Mexico was her home anymore either – she was in between. Her experience on a Chugach Children’s Forest expedition introduced her to Alaska’s public lands (and outdoor experiences in general) for the very first time. Once she was immersed in the wilderness, she felt a sense of belonging in Alaska that has remained with her to this day. She explained that the summer after her first CCF expedition, she was hired by the Youth Employment in Parks program in Anchorage and that it was deeply fulfilling to spend a summer completing hands-on stewardship projects and giving back to the land that had given so much to her.
These teens impressed the leadership of the US Forest Service, including Associate Chief of the Forest Service, Mary Wagner, who said after their presentations that “the Chugach Children’s Forest gives me hope for the future of conservation.”
(CCF teens and students from the iTREC program take a selfie with Chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell)
In addition to their powerful presentations to US Forest Service staff, the teens had the opportunity to meet a variety of other Washington DC leaders and decision-makers, such as Butch Blazer, the Deputy Undersecretary of the USDA with USFS Oversight, and Robert Bonnie, the Deputy Undersecretary of the USDA for Natural Resource Management. The teens also met their Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as well as their Congressman Don Young.
The group also had a fabulous time exploring all that Washington DC has to offer from Smithsonian Museums to National Monuments to learning how to use the public transit system in a big city! Check out the Storify social media article to see the full adventure!
The teens’ trip to DC was also featured on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s blog. Check out the post here!
This trip was made possible by a variety of partners including the Chugach National Forest, the Alaska Humanities Forum, Choose Outdoors, and Alaska Airlines.