Claire Colegrove, Alaska Representative
Of all my significant life choices, I’ve never made one that elicited such strong looks of concern and confusion than when I decided to move to Anchorage, Alaska in January. The bizarre nature of my choice seemed to hit people on two fronts: first, why Alaska and second, why move to Alaska in the dead of winter? My response generally came in the words of the great explorer and mountaineer George Mallory: “because it’s there.” There indeed. Despite being our nation’s largest state by far and containing some of the most stunning and diverse ecosystems in North America, Alaska is quite often literally left off the map. Sitting 500 miles north of Washington, Alaska appears to many a remote wilderness. Alaska had always been a place I fantasized about getting to know and, as always, there’s no substitute for just going there.
After I became Defenders of Wildlife’s new Alaska Representative, things moved quickly. I arrived in Anchorage with a few too many bags and no place to live. And what I experienced in my first week has carried through every day I have been here. Yes, Alaska is a place of extremes – the coldest weather, the tallest mountains, smallest population density – but these factors have helped cultivate a culture of endless generosity and kindness. Life is hard in Alaska, so people rely on each other. The challenge also weeds out most people who would rather not be here, and it has been my experience that those who settle here unconditionally love it. And there is a lot to love. I can ski to work, wave hello to a moose when I walk out my door, and everywhere I turn there are stunning views of the mountains and ocean. Never before, have I lived somewhere that I felt so immediately connected to.
From my backyard, I can see the mountain range surrounding the Chugach National Forest, one of our nation’s most magnificent treasures. It is the second largest national forest in the U.S. and a crucial habitat for many important species, from brown bear to salmon to marbled murrelet. Often referred to as the “backyard” for half of Alaska’s residents, it provides nearly endless opportunities for hiking, skiing, biking, wildlife viewing, fishing, boating, and many other forms of outdoor recreation. This vast forest is home and playground to wildlife and humans alike. It is also a place of industry, from commercial fishing to gold mining to adventure tours. As with many places in Alaska, it is a land with vital interests to a broad range of people. Ensuring this forest remains a place of pristine habitat for wildlife is a priority of Defenders’ and a focus of my work. And this is what I came here for, the opportunity to work in my own backyard. Tune in next week when I’ll be sharing more about how we work with the Forest Service to keep wildlife a priority as they begin to develop a new management plan for the Chugach National Forest.