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Stanford student aims to open field school for science near his SE Alaska hometown

  • Author: Lisa Maloney
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 14, 2014

You could spend your entire life in Alaska without ever really experiencing what it means to live as part of the land. But if the founders of the Inian Islands Institute -- one of whom is Zachary West Brown, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate from Southeast Alaska -- get their way, up-and-coming scientists and future policy-builders will have a chance to do that and much more at a field school near Gustavus.

The Inian Institute is a non-profit which was founded to create the Alaska Field School at the "Hobbit Hole," a five-acre private inholding in United States Forest Service wilderness land. The Hobbit Hole's three houses, workshop and dock are located on a 35-acre harbor in the Inian Islands near Gustavus, where Brown lived from age 6 through high school.

"For students who believe that food comes from the dining hall, water from the tap and power from the wall, coming here is a truly eye-opening experience," he wrote in the Institute's fundraising materials. "Learning to live at the Hobbit Hole with limited resources teaches us the kind of thinking we need to apply to sustainability at a global scale."

Perched as it is between Glacier Bay National Park to the northwest and the Tongass National Forest to the southeast, Brown said the Hobbit Hole -- which he fell in love with as a child -- can provide unparalleled access for studying the socio-ecological interactions that create a sustainable lifestyle. Not only is the Hobbit Hole off-grid, it's also perched at the confluence of land and water resources in a part of the state where many people live a subsistence lifestyle.

"Southeast Alaska and Alaska in general is such an illustrative place... because you do have these communities that are unconnected by roads, unconnected by power grids... so you can see these (resource) connections in ways you can't when your resources are piped to you in urban settings and you have no connection to them whatsoever," Brown said by phone from his Stanford office.

In addition to Brown, Institute founders include two other Stanford Ph.D. candidates and a recent Ph.D. graduate in the Stanford Department of Environmental Earth System Science. Along with their faculty adviser and 12 Stanford undergrads, they visited Southeast Alaska for three weeks last September as part of a course on sustainability and human-environment interaction. There, they studied the complexities of managing the region's resources -- forests, fisheries, energy and tourism -- starting in Sitka and ending up at the Hobbit Hole. They talked to fishermen, studied the rainforest, toured hydroelectric facilities and ate local seafood, venison and vegetables. It introduced a dimension to science they would never get from a textbook.

"Learning at the Hobbit Hole was unlike any of my previous classroom experiences... it wasn't until I got there that I truly understood the countless important connections among the complex systems at play," wrote undergraduate student Melanie Langa about the trip.

"There is no better way to learn about glacial advance and retreat than by observing the Brady Ice Sheet from the water, no better way to understand the geology of an area than by kayaking up to exposed bedrock on the coast, no better way to comprehend the process of tidal flow than by paddling among the Inian Islands."

The current residents of the Hobbit Hole, Greg Howe and his wife Jane Button, good-naturedly refer to the visit as "The Invasion" and said they were happy about the homestead's potential fate. (Howe owns the homestead along with his brother, Fred.) "We are so excited about this possibility of the place being sold and becoming a field school; it's the best possible legacy we feel we could leave," said Button when reached by telephone.

Of course, for that to happen, the Inian Islands Institute must raise the as-yet-unknown purchase price for the Hobbit Hole. Button said the appraiser has already been there, but they're still waiting for the results of the appraisal. In the meantime, the Institute completed an IndieGoGo fundraising campaign with a target of $40,000. They received $24,397 and will use the money to help pay for the homestead appraisal and bring investors to visit the Hobbit Hole.

After that, "We're going to have to find that one person or a couple [of] people, that angel who believes in this and can help us make it happen," Brown said.

In late April, Brown will make a particularly Alaskan commute. Once he finishes his Ph.D. in biological oceanography, he'll trek from Stanford to the Hobbit Hole by foot and kayak in hopes of raising additional funds and awareness of the Alaska Field School project. He expects to spend about five months hiking up to Puget Sound and then kayaking from there to the Hobbit Hole, stopping to give presentations along the way. The trek will cover about 1,700 miles in all, with Brown blogging and tracking his location by GPS. Once the journey is complete, he hopes to establish a home base in Gustavus and begin work at the Alaska Field School.

"The biggest difference I could make when it comes to this kind of thing is to teach... and by showing people a place like this, maybe even help inspire them to have a different outlook."

For more about the Inian Islands Institute, visit


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