These conservation projects restore and enhance access to Alaska’s wilderness

SPONSORED: Explore grant-winning projects from the ConocoPhillips Alaska Spirit of Conservation Program.

Presented by ConocoPhillips Alaska

From developing a world-class science center in Prince William Sound, to connecting 500-miles of trails through Alaska wilderness, this year’s recipients of the ConocoPhillips Spirit of Conservation Grant Program are pursuing unique projects that will benefit residents and visitors while restoring and protecting Alaska’s environment.

“The wide range of projects selected this year will make a valuable impact on our state’s key fish and wildlife habitats and improve some of Alaskans’ favorite recreational areas,” said Director of Environmental Sustainability and Permitting at ConocoPhillips Alaska, Robyn McGhee.

Four local organizations that received a ConocoPhillips Spirit of Conservation Grant this year include Alaska Trails, Alaska Songbird Institute, Anchorage Waterways Council and Prince William Sound Science Center. These nonprofits represent the award’s mission to restore, enhance, and provide access to Alaska’s key fish and wildlife habitats and populations.

For McGhee, reviewing and helping select grant winners is a highlight of her work at ConocoPhillips Alaska, which has invested more than $6 million into the Spirit of Conservation initiative over more than a decade.

This year, $282,500 was granted to 16 organizations, McGhee said. The selected projects have broad impacts in a wide range of statewide locations, as well as strong community ties and an impressive army of volunteers.

“In addition to supporting these impactful projects, our hope is that we can help shine light on organizations doing great work around our state, and maybe even spark an interest for Alaskans who want to get involved,” McGhee said.

Here, four grant-winning organizations explore projects that protect and restore Alaska’s ecosystems and increase access to the state’s pristine wilderness.

Alaska Trails: A 500-mile trail ‘with a lot of heart and character’

Proponents of the Alaska Long Trail have a vision: They see a 500-mile trail system weaving from Fairbanks to Seward, connecting communities with a trail unlike anything in Alaska.

Imagine other famous treks, such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, said Steve Cleary, executive director at Alaska Trails. Those hikes bring millions of people, of all ages and abilities, to traverse some or all of those paths each year. Hiking is a fast-growing pastime for Alaska visitors — one reason the organization believes that showcasing Alaska’s stunning wilderness is “long overdue.”

“We’re excited to have a trail with a lot of heart and character that people can access in different ways,” Cleary said.

The envisioned Alaska Long Trail would highlight the state’s stunning wilderness and grow local economies, Cleary said. It would bring new visitors to the state, encourage visitors to stay longer, and provide sustainable development for small communities.

Alaska Trails is celebrating 20 years in operation, and the organization says local support has been crucial during its two decades of work.

Local, state, and federal funding have helped fund a statewide trails conference, development of the Long Trail and local projects, including improvements on the popular South Fork Eagle River trail.

“Each of these projects is worthwhile on its own, but if we can connect all the dots, it will be a real asset,” Cleary said.

ConocoPhillips Alaska has been “very generous” and a key part of these projects’ funding for the last decade, Cleary said.

In the past five years, Alaska Trails has grown its staff and volunteer base thanks to partnerships with the Anchorage Park Foundation Employment in Parks program and the Municipality through the CARES Act. Today the organization has 16 seasonal staff and six full-time employees.

Alaska Trails helps locally, too. Visitors to Anchorage’s vast trail system may not consider how the paths stay clear of brush and debris. For the past several years, those duties have been entrusted to Alaska Trails staff and volunteers.

Working in four- to eight- hour shifts, the teams cut down bush alders and help repair parts of the trail affected by erosion, Cleary said.

By providing access to Alaska’s wildlife habitats and trail projects, “the goal is to provide people safe and fun access to their outdoor recreation resources,” Cleary said.

Volunteering with Alaska Trails is “fun and easy, and will often take you to a new place or a new trail that you haven’t been to before,” Cleary said.

“There are always more trails to explore,” he said.

Alaska Songbird Institute: A decade of educating youth scientists

Like many residents, Tricia Blake, executive director of Alaska Songbird Institute, never intended to settle in Alaska; but after traveling with friends to the Interior, she ended up building a new home there.

Blake helped found Alaska Songbird Institute a decade ago. The nonprofit is housed at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks, where sandhill cranes, geese and dozens of other species of birds pass through on their migratory routes.

The boreal forest is known as “North America’s bird nursery,” Blake said. “Our northern birds are some of our most extreme athletes.”

Songbirds — species such as warblers, sparrows and chickadees — have had declining populations for decades, Blake said. The data is stark: In North America, migratory bird populations have declined by 30% in the last 50 years, an estimated 3 billion songbirds in one generation.

Despite these shocking numbers, people can be empowered by their choices, Blake said.

“It’s not too late to make a difference,” Blake said.

Some ideas to support bird conservation include buying bird-friendly coffee which supports habitats for birds — including tree swallows that nest in Alaska’s boreal forests, and migrate across Canada, down the Mississippi River, to Central America.

Make sure windows are safe for birds, plant native species in yards and ensure cats stay indoors, Blake said.

Crucial to the Alaska Songbird Institute’s work is its migration bird banding station, the northernmost project of its kind in North America, and the only one in Alaska’s boreal forest.

“It’s been going on since 1992, so it’s a really rare, long-term picture of what’s going on with songbirds in the forest,” Blake said.

In a typical migration season, the nonprofit safely captures, bands and releases around 1,500 birds of up to 30 species.

At the nonprofit, research and education are integrated — scientists can be 10 years old, Blake said, with oversight of trained professionals. Alaska Songbird Institute offers upwards of 70 programs each year, including field trips for dozens of local classrooms and youth and teen STEM mentoring. Community support is also crucial to their efforts.

“Volunteers contribute over 2,500 hours annually working hands-on with birds,” said Blake. “The projects are supported by Alaskans around the state including the ConocoPhillips Spirit of Conservation grant program, which has provided steady support and helped these programs grow and thrive over the last decade.”

Community volunteers are crucial to their efforts. Beyond the K-12 field trips, youth mentoring is also available for kids ages 10 to 14. High school internships are available for youth ages 14 to 18.

“We’re helping train and mentor our next generation of scientists,” Blake said.

That’s what keeps her motivated and inspired.

Anchorage Waterways Council: A small but mighty team

For 39 years, Anchorage Waterways Council has been keeping the streams clean in Alaska’s largest city.

The nonprofit was founded in 1983 when fewer regulations governed discharge into public waterways — so much so that a popular Anchorage boat race in Campbell Creek had to be canceled due to concerns of bacteria in the water.

“Anchorage’s stormwater runoff flows into street drains and then directly into local creeks and lakes without treatment,” said Anchorage Waterways Council Executive Director Cherie Northon.

One of the biggest offenders to healthy creeks? Dog poop. The statistics are extraordinary: with an estimated 65,000 dogs in the municipality, dogs excrete roughly 42,000 pounds of dog poop every day. Many people pick up their dog poop, but Northon hopes those who don’t will recognize “it’s a health issue.”

Anchorage Waterways Council is a small organization with one full-time and two part-time staff. Despite its small size, the team is able to mobilize a large group of Anchorage residents every year to participate in their annual spring Creek Cleanup.

“About 40 teams have signed up this year – around 500 to 750 people,” Northon said. “We get a lot of calls from people seeing weird stuff.” Refrigerators and mattresses are par for the course.

Creek Cleanup is one of their programs that ConocoPhillips Alaska has funded for many years. Anchorage Waterways Council also has a volunteer monitoring program where volunteers test creeks, as well as a “Creeks as Classrooms” program funded by ConocoPhillips Alaska. The program strives to introduce youth to their local waterways and how they can be good stewards.

Finally, the group’s newest program is promoting the recycling of monofilament fishing line. In 2015, an Eagle Scout built several bins that are still in use. The program has now expanded to include reducing the use of lead fishing weights, which are poisonous to birds that ingest them. The organization’s hope is to increase awareness about this important issue.

Prince William Sound Science Center: A world-class research facility in Cordova

In Cordova, the Prince William Sound Science Center unveiled its new facility last year. The only place-based institute on the Prince William Sound, its opportunities for climate research and data collection are unmatched in Alaska.

The 5-acre waterfront research campus is surrounded by mountains, a rainforest and a bountiful salmon-spawning stream.

The new facility is “absolutely amazing and beautiful,” said Robyn McGhee at ConocoPhillips Alaska, who sits on the board of directors for the science center. The new campus provides opportunities for world-class research, recreation, and education in the ConocoPhillips Alaska Classroom.

The Spirit of Conservation grant will help support the science center’s Headwaters to Ocean education programs, providing access and education about the region’s ecosystems for participants aged pre-k through adult.

The immersive, age-appropriate learning opportunities range from field trips and outdoor nature groups to day-and-overnight expedition camps, lectures and community festivals, to internships and teacher training and curriculum.

“These experiences help create ecologically literate citizens, prepared to make informed decisions that promote strong economies and bright futures,” said President and CEO at Prince William Sound Science Center, Katrina Hoffman.

Construction at Prince William Sound Science Center campus is ongoing, and next, it will be installing a seawater heat pump as its primary heating system.

“We will be the third building in Alaska to be heated by energy from the ocean,” said Hoffman.

The science center has also applied to become a kelp hatchery with the State of Alaska. Prince William Sound produces a quarter of all permit applications for new kelp farmers, but farmers must get their seed from elsewhere, Hoffman said. The hatchery will be able to provide seed to local kelp farmers without the logistical challenges of flying or ferrying both people and supplies.

“We’re positioning ourselves to support a growing industry,” Hoffman said.

The science center’s wide range of research programs, led by 20 staff members, touch on different aspects of sustainable ecosystems and economies.

“We absolutely could not do it without companies like ConocoPhillips Alaska,” Hoffman said.

ConocoPhillips Alaska has been leading the search for energy in Alaska for more than 50 years. The company is committed to responsibly developing Alaska’s resources, providing economic opportunity for Alaska, operating at the highest safety standards and being good stewards of our communities. For more information, visit

This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ConocoPhillips Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.