a cabin near a riverbank
Koeye Big House in the Great Bear Rainforest, the site of a community exchange between Southeast Alaska and Bella Bella, B.C. © © Bob Christensen / Sustainable Southeast Partnership

Conserving at Scale

Alaska, Meet Great Bear

What happens when you bring together people across a 100-million-acre rainforest?

For 10 years, Michael Reid has worked on the central and north coast of British Columbia (or the Great Bear Rainforest) on resource management, planning and capacity-building. Mike joined Nature United in 2014 and coordinates our work with communities across the Emerald Edge (Alaska, British Columbia and Washington), including supporting local and Indigenous leadership and stewardship initiatives. He has a M.Sc. in Environment and Development from Kings College, University of London.

We're facilitating connections across the Emerald Edge—a massive ecological system with strong, vibrant communities.

Michael Reid Community Conservation Coordinator for Nature United

On a clear, cool night gathered around a crackling fire in the middle of a rainforest, it was as if the 800 kilometers between southeast Alaska and the tiny coastal community of Bella Bella, in British Columbia, had melted away.

One by one, young voices joined together in traditional songs that had been handed down through generations. Using kindling as drumsticks, they carried the rhythm as the outer circle of onlookers—including educators, leaders and conservationists from three Alaskan communities and two B.C. First Nations—sat silently, mesmerized by the spirit of these young people. That is until one child started giggling, setting off a chain reaction and bringing the song to a cheerful end.“I haven’t been this inspired in a long time,” whispered Chandler, who’s from Sitka, Alaska. She was part of a delegation from the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP), a network of communities and organizations working together to build healthy prosperous communities in southeast Alaska. Earlier this month, the delegation traveled to this spot in the Great Bear Rainforest, called Koeye, to see and experience first-hand the youth leadership and stewardship programs that First Nations in Great Bear have been championing for almost a decade.

a canoe on a still river near wooded land
The Koeye River The Koeye River, which flows through the Great Bear Rainforest on the remote mainland central coast of British Columbia about 30 nautical miles south of Bella Bella, Canada. © Mark Godfrey / TNC

Connecting Across a Whole System

We call this landscape—the world’s largest intact coastal rainforest, spanning the coasts of Washington, B.C. and southeast Alaska—the Emerald Edge. By looking at this scale, Nature United has facilitated connections between First Nations who are striving to ensure the well-being of their communities and the resources they depend on.

“We’re all the same people, sharing culture, water, and resources, and dealing with similar challenges,” summed up Carrie, a delegate who lives in the Haida village of Kasaan, in Alaska. “It only makes sense that we work together.”

Koeye was an extra special place to host the cross-border exchange: It is the site where First Nations youth gather to learn about their culture and traditional lands, as part of an initiative called SEAS, or Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards. As Bob, an SSP resource manager, recounted,

“Over the three days we spent at Koeye, I had conversations with young people and teachers that spoke volumes about the value of the SEAS program to them personally, and to the present and future vitality of their culture and communities.” 

behind view of young people looking from a deck out towards a sunset
Alaska Delegation A delegation travelled to Bella Bella, a coastal community in the Great Bear Rainforest, to learn how the Heiltsuk Nation manages resources and connects youth to the land. © Mike Reid/TNC

Salmon, Bears, and People

The camp at Koeye was founded by the Qqs Projects Society, a Heiltsuk non-profit based out of Bella Bella (Qqs means “eyes” in Heiltsuk and is pronounced kucks.) The Koeye River is also where all five species of Pacific salmon spawn throughout the year, and consequently, it is critical bear habitat. The Heiltsuk are engaged in long-term research and monitoring to better understand and manage this place. The watershed was designated by the Heiltsuk as a conservation area through the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, the final phase of which was completed this past February.

In Bella Bella, the delegation also spent time with the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, learning about how the nation has done extensive mapping of traditional use data and influenced resource development in their territory. The delegates shared stories and successes from Alaska, including forestry partnerships, business competitions to spur economic growth, and salmon habitat restoration. 

Learning Through Connection

“A trip like this really drives home our connection to one another through the land and the sea, and our common interests in cultural diversity, youth education, wild food gathering and the awe-inspiring beauty of the Emerald Edge,” wrote Bob, following the exchange.

Back to the campfire. After the third song, one young man suggested that they dance. A few brave ones got up and circled the fire. They moved with a confidence and pride that seems rare for children this age. It was a moment that reflected the cornerstone of SEAS: fostering a connection to place, culture and identity. It was a moment of deep connection and learning that could not be described, that had to be experienced—and fortunately, the Alaskan delegation was there to witness it first-hand.

inside of a large wooden structure
Koeye Big House Inside the Koeye big house, a gathering place for the community and where we spent time sharing stories and lessons, singing and dancing. © Bob Christensen / Sustainable Southeast Partnership