Alaska's Chugach National Forest is a "Children's Forest" - here's why

Charles Money,Joe Meade

On the first day of school this year, Cordova teacher Adam Low noticed something different in a handful of his students. Excitement. New energy. A sense of purpose that hadn't previously been quite so apparent. About one student in particular, he said: "She was a different person-engaged, enthusiastic, really wanting to share her experience."

Across Prince William Sound in Anchorage, 17 year-old Angel was feeling accomplished. This summer, with a crew of other high school students, she flagged a new trail to the top of Explorer's Ridge. While planning the trail, Angel offered new perspectives to adults who listened, then recalibrated the route based on her ideas. From the top, she looked down and said, "yeah, I'm creating something important."

Ninth-grader Randall had never seen all that Alaska has to offer. For the past two years, he and 15 of his peers have participated in the Home Base After School program in Fairview, which is designed to support elementary and middle school students in science, math, and technology.

Two summers ago, Randall and his classmates saw a side of Alaska that tourists travel the world over to experience. They took the train to Spencer Glacier. They kayaked among icebergs, photographed humpback whales, traded off learning to drive a boat with teaching each other to calculate distance and latitude. On the way home, Randall wrote in his journal, "I learned you can overcome any fear you have. You just have to believe."

These youth have helped shape the Chugach National Forest's and Alaska Geographic's response to two emerging and interconnected challenges. There is growing concern that in an urbanized world our youth are increasingly disconnected from their natural inheritance, and there's a need for an engaged citizenry and trained workforce to address the many complexities of climate change. In the past year, dozens of students, organizations, and volunteers have participated in the Chugach Children's Forest, a hopeful new initiative that empowers our children to grow into leaders for Alaska's public lands, communities, and climate.

Recently, the Chugach Children's Forest was inaugurated at a national kick-off celebration. The Children's Forest is a symbolic designation by the U.S. Forest Service for the entire 5.5 million acres of the Chugach National Forest. The designation is underscored with new programs. Some aim to improve long-term health by connecting youths to the outdoors and a more active lifestyle. Others invigorate K-12 education or open new career pathways in science, technology, and innovation. And over time, with its thousands of glaciers covering a third of its landscape, the Chugach Children's Forest will connect the public to the personal and global implications of climate change in the state that's seeing that change first.

Crew members in the first Chugach Conservation Corps, like Angel, now consider careers as wildlife biologists or forest kayak rangers. High school students from King Career Center understand statehood, subsistence, and fisheries from their work designing the Forest's "youth managed section" in Portage Valley. Still others are inspiring their peers and educating the public using the video, audio, and web-based technology they were trained to use during the first "youth media expedition." Next year, four expeditions will pair youth with leading scientists in climate change research.

With each experience, these youth become more connected to one another, to adult mentors, and to their own potential in the changing world. As an upcoming National Geographic article says, "their world has grown larger, and their future is now filled with new hope, aspirations, and careers to explore." But Angel's words show a deeper truth: "We are being trusted. We are being told we are capable and valued. With this trust, there is room for us to grow into the people we want to become."

Through the creation of the Children's Forest, Alaska Geographic and the Chugach National Forest recognize that it's our children's climate and our children's world to inherit. We think their leadership is a hopeful message for Alaska's future.

Charles Money is Executive Director of Alaska Geographic. Joe Meade is Supervisor of the Chugach National Forest.