Local priorities and USDA funding strategies meet up in Southeast Alaska

The Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy shifts how the federal government finances the region’s rural development projects.

During a lower-than-usual tide this summer, the rocks on the beach were exposed on Southeast Alaska’s Chichagof Island. Ralph Wolfe went down to the shore to help young people — participants in Hoonah Culture Camp — harvest traditional Alaska Native subsistence foods. Together, they pried tasty mollusks, called gumboots, off rocks and filled plastic buckets with slick bull-kelp and bright green sea asparagus. 

“Just below the tide line is the sea asparagus that we harvested,” said Wolfe (Tlingit and Haida), a regional network director with Spruce Root, a nonprofit focused on economic development and job creation. He said young adults from Alaskan Youth Stewards helped kids learn to harvest the tasty greens with their hands and scissors. That kind of mentorship, Wolfe said, helps the younger campers better understand subsistence work. 


Caitlin Way harvests sea asparagus, a traditional Alaska Native subsistence food, on Chichagof Island during Hoonah Culture Camp.


Alaskan Youth Stewards trains high school and college-age leaders in Southeast Alaska in a variety of skills, from helping with culture camps like this one to salmon habitat restoration and building trails. It’s a partnership between several regional organizations, including Spruce Root. And it’s one of about 70 programs in the region that received a significant influx of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the last year as part of the USDA’s Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy. The $750,000 that Alaskan Youth Stewards received will allow the program to expand instead of having to focus primarily on its survival, Wolfe said.

Marina Anderson harvests bull kelp to be processed during Hoonah Culture Camp.

Similar rural development projects across the country have historically faced challenges accessing federal funding, even when it is available. It takes financial and staffing capacity for tribal governments, cities and local organizations to navigate the hundreds of federal programs across more than a dozen departments that offer money for economic and community development in rural places. “They’re facing a very fragmented set of programs,” said Tony Pipa, a global economy and development expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Projects in rural areas often end up competing against better-resourced communities for federal dollars, for example. “Many times, they’ll have a volunteer mayor or volunteer city council folks,” said Pipa. “So actually putting together competitive applications … is really challenging for rural government or rural leaders.”

In Southeast Alaska, Wolfe said that communities and tribal organizations were “drowning in opportunity” — meaning that they spent a lot of their time piecing together funding from various federal agencies, sending out multiple applications, and managing all the reporting processes for the money they did receive. 

Participants of Hoonah Culture Camp file into Xunaa Shuká Hít (Huna Ancestor’s House), built in Glacier Bay National Park, which is the traditional homeland of the Huna Tlingit.
Hoonah Culture Camp participants drum outside Xunaa Shuká Hít (Huna Ancestor’s House).

Last July, the USDA rolled out the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy partly to streamline federal development funding in the region and make it more responsive to local priorities, as well as limiting old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest. The department pledged to engage in meaningful consultation with tribal nations and spend up to $25 million on local projects. It held a series of listening sessions in the region and solicited project proposals. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced during a press conference in early September that the agency had met its investment goal.

The projects that have been funded, including Alaskan Youth Stewards, range from trail improvements and forest management to salmon habitat restoration and climate monitoring. About half of the money is going directly to the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Spruce Root and Southeast Conference, a regional development organization that partners with state and federal governments. 

“This (development) is happening at the local level. It’s really refreshing.”
Kids process harvested bull kelp into pickles to share with their families and elders in the community.


The level of local organizations’ involvement in determining development priorities impressed Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, the president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “So often we see decisions made at a national level that really don’t fit. We’ve got to shoehorn (projects) in.” Peterson said. “This (development) is happening at the local level. It’s really refreshing.”

Alaska’s community leaders helped the USDA hone its process for developing community-led investment strategies, Vilsack said during the press conference. And that framework could spread: “I’m excited about the potential for this model to continue to be expanded in other mission areas of USDA,” he said.

Hoonah Culture Camp participants gather in Xunaa Shuká Hít.

In addition to monetary investment, the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy also includes federal policy goals such as ending large-scale old-growth timber sales in the Tongass National Forest. That includes restoring the Clinton-era “Roadless Rule” in Alaska, which the Trump administration rolled back in the state. The rule limited logging, road building and other development in designated national forests. Early in his administration, President Joe Biden committed to reinstating those protections. The decision remains controversial in the state as people weigh the potential economic gain against the ecological damage caused by large-scale timber harvesting.

The USDA initially planned to finalize a new Alaska Roadless Rule by June 2020, but Vilsack acknowledged intense local interest in the policy had slowed down the process. The department received over 190,000 public comments on the proposed rule. “We anticipate issuing the final rule, if you will, before the end of this year,” Vilsack said. “I recognized this may not have happened as quickly as some would like, but I am committed to getting this done to conserve this important resource.”

Camp participants paddle a canoe. Dugout canoes created from large, old-growth trees, were the primary mode of transportation before colonization. Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy includes federal policy goals such as ending large-scale old-growth timber sales in the Tongass National Forest. Left, Lgeik’i (Heather Powell), the Director for Hoonah City Schools, developed Hoonah Culture Camp to better connect youth to their traditions. Middle, Ralph Wolfe, a regional network director with Spruce Root, a nonprofit focused on economic development and job creation.


Avery Lill is an Alaska-based staff writer for High Country News focusing on land and the environment in Alaska. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Note: A photo caption was updated to reflect that the area that is now Glacier Bay National Park remains the traditional homeland of the Huna Tlingit. Another photo caption was updated to remove reference to a first gathering at Xunaa Shuká Hít (Huna Ancestor’s House).