Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined, and our beaches are home to marine mammals, birds and other wildlife. Unfortunately, Alaskan beaches also gather derelict fishing gear and other marine debris. Removing this debris can seem like a daunting and thankless task. Each of us, however, can play a role, and this story, of a Youth Conservation Corps in Alaska that is working to restore the natural habitat around them—is a beacon of hope and a sign of ocean optimism.
We had the pleasure of talking to Kiley Heth and Josh Orem—two of the Youth Leaders in Alaska to learn more about their work and how they are helping in their communities.
Kiley Heth and Josh Orem recently wrapped up their second season as Youth Conservation Corps leaders in Angoon, Alaska. This summer was their second in Alaska, and it was a big adjustment moving from Chicago, Illinois to Angoon, a remote village of roughly 400 inhabitants. Josh and Kiley have extensive backgrounds as social workers with a focus on inner-city youth and the homeless population. Compared to the urban jungle, every day spent in the Southeast Alaskan wilderness is breathtaking and educational.
Here is their story, in their own words…
Created in 1970, The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) is a summer youth work program for federally managed lands. YCC employs local youth to work on projects primarily designed to restore, rehabilitate and repair the natural, cultural, and historical resources protected as federally preserved places. Our crew is based in and consists entirely of youth from Angoon, a small Tlingit village in Southeast Alaska.
Angoon is the only community on Admiralty Island. Admiralty is a landscape of more than one million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service primarily as National Monument and Kootznoowoo Wilderness. Since the establishment of the National Monument, the Forest Service and Angoon community have worked together to protect and preserve the invaluable subsistence and wilderness resources. Admiralty Island’s Tlingit name is Kootznoowoo, which translates to Fortress of the Bears, and it has around 1,600 grizzly bears living on the island. Growing up in the Midwest, we never had to worry about being bear-safe when thinking about meals or while camping, now it’s all we think about!
Since 2015, the Forest Service has partnered with the Chatham School District to facilitate a Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) summer program in Angoon that employs youths between 15—18 years of age. Over the last several seasons, the YCC crews have completed projects including building a greenhouse for the Angoon community garden, maintaining the community garden, picking up litter in community clean-up days, and designing and creating Tlingit themed conservation signs to post around the village. Although the environment was quite a change for us, the one common denominator across our move was working with teenagers. It surprised us how similar Angoon and Chicago teens are—particularly in their music choices and technology addictions.
We feel that employing the youth on their native land helps them learn about and feel more connected to their Tlingit culture. We love seeing the students get excited when they find a culturally modified tree or historic fish weir! In addition to the field work, we try our best to connect the youth to elders in Angoon to share some cultural history of the land and locations that we spend our summer. When possible, we have the crew assist in town with community events, attend beading classes to share their experiences with the group, and help out with the annual culture camp as youth leaders.
The primary focus of the crew is in the wilderness, and the youth spend much of the summer conducting campsite inventories, solitude monitoring, invasive weed treatments, and the crew’s favorite: shoreline clean-ups. In previous seasons, we have monitored and cleaned up Favorite Bay, Mitchell Bay, Kanalku Inlet, and Hood Bay. We get to these places by kayak.
This season, we focused our shoreline cleanup efforts on Kanalku Inlet, Mitchell Bay, Whitewater Bay and Chaik Bay. Our typical method of operation is to walk as much shoreline as possible, spreading out from inside the treeline down to the water’s edge to maximize coverage. Whenever it becomes too rocky or unsafe to walk, we board our kayaks and paddle along the shore looking for marine debris and getting out only when debris is located. If we find more debris than is safe to transport by kayak, we typically make a pile above the high tide line, GPS the location and return with a larger boat to collect and dispose of the debris properly.
Over the course of this season, we traveled either on foot or by kayak and cleared twenty-three miles of shoreline around Admiralty. We collected and disposed of approximately 400 gallons of marine debris during this time. Some of the more interesting things that we found were laundry baskets, a Japanese glass float and a DVD that looked almost in working order. The most common types of debris that we removed were plastic bottles of various types, rope, netting and buckets. As a crew, we watched the documentary, “Plastic Ocean,” on Netflix, which ignited a passion for the crew to think of ways to educate the village on making choices that do not add more plastic to our fragile environment.
For us, the major accomplishments of the team are the lifestyle changes that were inspired by working for the YCC. Students told us that they have made tangible changes in their lives, such as no longer littering or using disposable plastic water bottles. Teachers, parents and other community members have shared that they have seen changes in the youth from better grades to increased confidence.
We look forward to coming back to SE Alaska next summer, to cleaning more shoreline and to teaching more youth.
Ocean Conservancy applauds all the teens and the crew for their hard work towards Trash Free Seas®! We hope that their efforts will inspire others to get out into their communities and make an impact. Thank you!