The Alaska Forum on the Environment held its 15th annual conference last week in Anchorage, bringing together people in business, rural and urban Alaska, science, and tribes. Sessions covered everything from oil spill response, and youth-led projects, to invasive species.
Moderator Justin Wilson, a retired Cheeshna tribal council member, says the goal of a session on climate change was to let tribal participants know that the kinds of events they’re seeing are part of a widespread pattern:
“People have a tendency to live in silos. And this discovery is so new they don’t talk about it. But today, people have come out and started saying it’s here and it’s all over the state,” Wilson says.
In his own area, eastern Interior Alaska, Justin says warmer temperatures are allowing plants to grow at higher altitudes:
“Over the years, long-term, we’ve watched the vegetation go up the sides of the mountains a thousand foot at a time. When I was about fifteen, we’re talking 3500 foot level for greenery, now at 5500 foot, which is near the passes where the ice used to be. That’s one change,” Wilson says.
Tina Tinker, of the Aleknagik Traditional Council, in the Bristol Bay region, remembers when fish were so plentiful nets quickly became heavy with salmon:
“One year they had a really good salmon subsistence. Our net was sunk and we had to have three skiffs bring that net up to Aleknagik. That was more than two hundred fish. It fed the whole village. Now we get 20 fish here, 30 fish there,” Tinker says.
Mike Brubaker, of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium says surveys of villages across the state are showing changes that can affect health:
“We see new challenges for water safety and supplying water and building sustainable infrastructure to provide water all across the state and a really big issue for Alaska Natives is the ability to harvest foods,” Brubaker says. “We’re seeing around the state harvest failures and more and agencies and the research community is looking very closely at climate change as one of the contributing factors.”
Brubaker says surveys in communities across Alaska also show mental health effects — such as anxiety, fear, and grief over flooding, forest fires, storms, and food loss.
Victoria Hykesteere, an Alaska Pacific University assistant professor of Alaska Native studies, says different communities are going to be facing different issues. She urges people to start conversations in their communities to come up with local solutions:
“The pride in taking ownership of finding our own solutions is really critical long term to how we adapt to what’s happening. It’s a great way to encourage our young people to see themselves as capable, as real human beings with their own kind of knowledge and beauty. We don’t have to mimic what everybody else is doing. We don’t have to be everybody else. We can keep our communal society intact but we have to choose to do so,” Hykesteere says.
The Alaska Forum on the Environment conference wrapped up Friday.