Jimena Cuenca is a Student Conservation Association intern for the Chugach National Forest! She coordinates outreach for the forest with a specific focus on increasing volunteerism and engaging new audiences. Prior to working on the volunteer program, Jimena did field work related to migratory birds out of the Chugach National Forests’s Cordova Ranger District as an Environment for the Americas Intern. Originally from Los Angeles, Jimena has fallen in love with the Chugach and with Alaska. We recently interviewed her to find out more about what she does!

JC: Jimena Cuenca

AG: Tell us more about the program that originally brought you to Alaska, Environment for the Americas

JC: I first came up to Alaska from Los Angeles to serve as an intern for the U.S. Forest Service out of Cordova. That internship was coordinated by a program called Environment for the Americas, which focuses  on  the conservation of migratory birds.  As an intern, I was able to do so much. When I first arrived, I helped out with the Copper River Shorebird Festival. Then I jumped into shorebird monitoring… I reached out to the community and I was able to gather a few volunteer citizen scientists to join me, and we drove around Cordova to three different sites and counted shorebirds. In the beginning we would count maybe 18-30 birds and by we were counting around 50,000 birds!

AG: Were you interested in shorebirds before the internship?

JC: Actually I didn’t know a lot about shorebirds before the internship, and the internship is what got me more interested in the topic. During the training at the beginning of my internship (where all of the Environment for the Americas interns gather before going off to their sites across the country), I learned more about how birds are really important indicator species for things going on in the environment. That’s when I really started getting into the topic and also when I realized how crucial these types of internships are in terms of bringing awareness to conservation topics.

AG: The Environment for the Americas internship specifically selects young Latinos and Latinas for their program. What is the importance of having this specific target audience?

JC: I’ve talked about this with some of the other Environment for the Americas interns… we’ve talked about the fact that it is so crucial for opportunities like this to exist for Latinos because a lot of us were never exposed to career paths in natural resources and science when we were growing up. Because this internship specifically outreaches to Latinos, the program ends up engaging young people who wouldn’t have otherwise pursued an internship like this. So it reaches a whole new audience. And these interns are then also to effectively outreach to diverse communities and get them engaged in natural resources and the environment. It bridges a gap.

AG: So after your internship in Cordova was over, you moved to Anchorage to serve as an SCA intern at the Chugach National Forest Supervisor’s Office. Tell us more about your current internship…

JC: As the Volunteer Coordinator on the Chugach I’m working on completing a situational analysis of the current state of the volunteer program and developing recommendations for how to improve it. I’m focusing on increasing our outreach and also improving our methods of reporting. I also do outreach and promotion about the Chugach as a whole.

Recently I’ve been networking with different organizations like Audubon and other bird conservation organizations. I’m going to be working with them to coordinate more citizen science projects!

AG: What is your vision for volunteerism on the Chugach?

JC: My personal vision is that people in Anchorage – and in other cities that are near National Forests – become more engaged in their local forests. Especially in terms of youth. I want local youth to know that they do have a forest, and I want them to know more about what they can do to recreate on the forest and also how they can contribute meaningfully to the health of the forest.

During Bat Week in October I went to the Fairview Recreation Center and I set up a little booth about the bats in the Chugach National Forest and I was so surprised by how many people I met who didn’t know that we had bats in Southcentral Alaska, and how many people didn’t even know there is a national forest nearby! And it’s right there.

AG: Trends show that as our country is diversifying, demographics in public lands aren’t following suit. Despite demographic changes, the majority of public land users and employees are white. Is this consistent with what you observed growing up in Los Angeles, and is this something that you also see in Anchorage?

JC: Yeah, in Los Angeles, we have the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. For a long time my friends and I would notice the mountains – they were always right there, and in the winter we’d see snow and  we’d think it was really cool. But in 20 years, we never went up there to hike. It wasn’t until we were in college that we said “Hey! Let’s try to get up there!” I think it was because of the lack of information available, the lack of knowledge, and our lack of connection to people who would know that information that we didn’t feel encouraged to visit the mountains and explore.

In Anchorage, I see a similar thing.  I know that information about exploring the Chugach National Forest is available, but we need to also make sure that people from all backgrounds know how to access the information. It needs to be promoted.

Jimena leads Chugach Children’s Forest teens on habitat restoration projects in Prince William Sound

AG: What are some major takeaways from your two internships on the Chugach?

JC: One of the big things I’ve learned during my internships on the Chugach is how valuable it is for young people to do hands-on projects in an outdoor setting. It’s really powerful when they can complete something and see the impact of their work like a trail project or a habitat conservation project. They can see the impact they’re having – and that makes the experience meaningful for them. Like when I was one of the Forest Service staff on a Chugach Children’s Forest expedition in Prince William Sound, it was so cool to see how much fun the students were having removing invasive European black slugs. The teens could see the difference they were making on the environment… it stuck with them. Experiences like this keep young people coming back and wanting to do more outdoors.

That’s why I really want to engage more young people in citizen science projects. Especially because I wish I knew more about science and natural resources programs when I was younger!

Another major takeaway is… You know before these internships, I didn’t even know that opportunities like this existed! That, as a job, you could spend time outdoors and do field work and collect data that is going to be really important for research. That was a real eye-opener for me.