Building Leaders and Supporting Community Through TRAYLS Program

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This summer, the TRAYLS (Training Rural Alaskan Youth Leaders and Students) crew in Kake continued a solemn but purposeful task — improving trails on Grave Island.

The work started in 2019, when the death of a local resident who was to be interred on the island prompted a request of the TRAYLS crew to clear overgrowth and level walking paths to ensure that Elders could more easily walk from shore to gravesite.

The project was in many ways not unlike the trail maintenance work TRAYLS crews have been doing on U.S. Forest Service land in and around host communities since the program’s inception in 2017.

But this project was different.

“It really made an impression on me,” said Bob Christensen, one of the founders of the program who works for Sustainable Southeast Partnership as a regional catalyst for fisheries and forestry. TRAYLS is coordinated by SSP, the U.S. Forest Service, and partners in Hoonah, Kake and, in most years, on Prince of Wales Island. The program is funded through a combination of grants, in-kind support from tribes, and Sealaska contributions.

“I could see how much more meaningful it was to the students to do something that mattered to the community,” said Christensen.

That experience in 2019 was a bit of a turning point for the program, according to Christensen. Crew members, who are generally teens in need of job experience and on-the-job skills training, have always done work that was important to their communities. The crews are hosted and administered by local tribes, which receive program funding (usually from grants and some corporate support, like that provided by Sealaska) and issue paychecks to the workers. The tribe also has an important voice in the type of projects crews are doing.

As Christensen explained, because the funding has primarily come from grants, much of the work has been prescribed by the funders. What’s fundable isn’t always what’s most relevant locally, he said.

The pandemic this season brought many challenges, including the cancellation of a planned crew in Klawock and a much smaller crew than usual in Hoonah. But it also provided some freedom to lean into the perspective shift that Christensen describes.

Typically, TRAYLS crews spend time with various outside experts in fields like archaeology, forestry, watershed management and ecology. Usually, these experts are employees of the Forest Service or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — they come in to assist with a project and teach for a few days at a time, introducing potential career pathways to the youth crews. Because of the travel restrictions in place throughout the region this summer, crews were unable to receive much of that outside instruction beyond a few Zoom sessions, so their work became even more locally focused.

“We’re making this more and more central to the TRAYLS program, just giving the young people a chance to have an impact in their communities,” said Christensen.

“They definitely feel good when they pick up the litter,” Christensen said, referring to work that is often performed in and around host communities, “but it’s a bit ephemeral. There’s always more litter. If we can find one project a year where they can have a lasting impact on the community, I think we’ll be doing a really good job.”

Another way the program seeks to make a lasting impact on communities is through preparing local youth for careers in the region. Bob Girt is the senior environmental compliance and liaison specialist with Sealaska Timber Company (STC), based on Prince of Wales. Girt explained that his involvement with the program began at the behest of the Sealaska board of directors, which was encouraging STC leaders to play a more meaningful role in local workforce development.

“They wanted us starting earlier; not just trying to hire somebody to be a logger,” said Girt.

Girt said the program extends its impact beyond the handful of individual crew members who work in each community during the summer by introducing a natural resources curriculum into local schools to help expose more young people to the opportunities that exist to work in the forests and waters close to home.

That’s exactly what happened for 15-year-old Ted Elliott, who was part of the TRAYLS crew in Hoonah this summer. Elliott and the Hoonah crew got to participate in two snorkeling expeditions to assess the biodiversity of local waters, and now he wants to become a professional scuba diver.

“I don’t even know how to describe what I saw,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

Elliott said his mom encouraged him to apply for the program. His interest was primarily about earning money — TRAYLS crews are full-time, paid employees for the length of the program — and gaining some work experience.

But the experience also helped clarify for him what he wants to do in his future career. “I do want to work some type of environmental job,” he said. “I want to see how I can help others.”

The crew in Hoonah this summer was small but busy. Hosted by the Hoonah Indian Association Environmental Program, crew members worked on projects including water sampling to monitor for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP); shellfish biomass surveys; taking core samples from trees to determine their age and other characteristics; working with the Forest Service in a project to determine the value of wood products that are used for culture and heritage; and harvesting, preparing and preserving traditional foods.

Arianna Lapke led the TRAYLS crew in Hoonah this summer and said she was thrilled to see her teen crew members go from apprehensive about scientific data analysis to interested and engaged.

“In the beginning, they seemed intimidated,” Lapke said. “They wanted to be hands-on, building things and being outside. But as the summer evolved, we were collecting hard data and I saw it transition. They were interviewing people, asking questions, learning about the area they grew up in, and tromping through the woods.”

Lapke said the crew’s biggest pandemic-related challenge this summer was the forced cancellation of the beloved annual Traditional Foods Fair, which is typically the culmination of the Hoonah TRAYLS crew’s summer season. As in prior years, the crew put up hundreds of jars of traditional foods like beach asparagus, salmon, deer, blueberry and fireweed jams, and spruce-tip syrup. Normally, those foods would be shared with the community at the festival, and the student workers would give a presentation about their work. Instead, the crew pivoted to deliver food to Elders at their homes.

“It was nice giving back to the community,” Elliott said.

Although this year’s TRAYLS program was limited in scope by the pandemic to two communities, Girt and Christensen are both hopeful it will be able to expand. In prior years, programs have been held in Kasaan, Klawock and Sitka. It’s a scramble every year to come up with funding for each community, and to line up partnerships with various land managers, conservation initiatives and tribes. But a full-time staffer has recently been dedicated to that task: Laurel Stark is the program manager for workforce development with Spruce Root, the Juneau-based nonprofit community development financial institution. Spruce Root received seed money from Sealaska when it was founded, and along with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, forms a web of connections and resources in communities throughout Southeast Alaska with a shared interest in strengthening local economies and working with communities to support the projects and initiatives that make life in Southeast better.

For example, this summer’s crew in Kake developed a proposal for the cleanup and enhancement of the local site known as Soderberg Camp. The site is a former logging camp in the heart of downtown owned by the Forest Service that is now an overgrown but popular strawberry patch.

“We spent a week looking at the property and coming up with ideas to enhance the berry picking and build a tribal community center, an exercise trail and a totem park,” Christensen said. Working with the tribe and the mayor, the crew formalized their plan and wrote a letter to the Forest Service tactfully explaining that Kake is “extremely underrepresented” compared to communities in the region that are not predominantly Native when it comes to recreational development of Forest Service lands.

It remains to be seen whether the Forest Service will fund the project, but Christensen said the process of surveying locals and imagining the possibilities was, in and of itself, a valuable exercise.

“What I really love about that is it’s work that enhances the community directly,” Christensen said. “It gives (crew members) a sense of hope that they matter, their ideas matter, and they can improve the world in general through their actions and initiative.”

Hiring for TRAYLS crew members begins in the spring for the upcoming summer season. More information can be found on the Sustainable Southeast Partnership website at sustainablesoutheast.net.