From Alaska, For Alaska: Local jobs in the woods

2017 Forestry Training Academy. All photos by Bob Christensen

2017 Forestry Training Academy. All photos by Bob Christensen

“I like to say that I get paid to walk through the forest and hug trees,” Buck Grasser laughed. He was fresh off a long day of working in sun dappled woods. Buck lives and works in a special place, Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska, known for its vast natural wealth from ancient forests to salmon runs. As I talked with Buck, he was gathering up his two young kids to go to their local park, and Buck’s enthusiasm for his new Forest Service job and the training that helped him get there was infectious. 

Buck is one of the first graduates of the Forestry Training Academy, class of 2016. The Academy is a free two-week training course setting local community members on the path to jobs in the woods. Buck was one of the seven 2016 Academy grads to find work. On a remote island with isolated rural communities still feeling the effects of a significant downturn from a once booming timber industry—this is no small thing. 

Buck’s new job with the Forest Service as a technician provides much more stability than he’s had in years. Most striking is that Buck says he’s now working towards an occupation, not just a job. Buck’s taking every opportunity to prepare himself for new opportunities in forestry, from taking classes offered by the Forest Service to mentoring for this year’s Academy. This chance for advancement is huge, Buck tells me. I get it, a chance for advancement is truly something rare and of value—no matter where you call home.

This local workforce development in Alaskan natural resource stewardship has been over a decade in the making. The Forestry Training Academy is a tangible, pragmatic outcome of a collaborative path through conflict. A diverse group people came together which included timber interests, environmental groups, and the State of Alaska—to carve a new path to better long-term management of the Tongass National Forest. They went beyond the usual focus on forest planning and articulated how to get projects done on the ground, through local jobs with local workers.

The Academy “is a key element of the new Tongass Land Management Plan, put into action. It’s good for the region and it is an improvement in forest management,” said Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society. Proving collaboration is more than just a buzz word, in its second year the 2017 Academy trained 12 new students, all from Alaska. Funding and support for the Academy is also, importantly, a collaborative effort. Supporters include the Forest Service, Alaska’s Division of Forestry and Division of Economic Development, Sealaska Timber, Spruceroot Community Development Fund and Sustainable Southeast Partnership.

RVCC is preparing to go to DC at the end of May for our annual Western Week in Washington, so I asked Buck what message he would want us to share. He told me that it was important to get the word out that federal funds for programs are working in rural communities, especially when bad news is mostly what we hear.

Buck said the Forestry Academy Training program provides a “great opportunity to show that the people who live in Alaska are the people who should be working in Alaska – to give people a chance to make something of their lives outside of traditional college, to have a trade school, to be able to work your way up the ranks, is a valuable asset. It’s cost effective, good for the community, good for everybody.”

As the new administration proposes cutting essential investments in the programs RVCC cares about, we look forward to bringing this critical message to policy makers—federal funds make good.

Best of luck to this new crew of Forestry Training Academy Grads!

Thanks to Buck Grasser, Andrew Thoms, Bob Christensen, Bethany Goodrich, and Quinn Aboudara for your help in telling this success story. Author: Ashley Rood

Team Kenya Report from Johnny Sundstrom

Denny Iverson, Blackfoot Challenge – Maasai Moses, Professional Safari Guide – Johnny Sundstrom, Siuslaw Institute / RVCC Leadership Team

Denny Iverson, Blackfoot Challenge – Maasai Moses, Professional Safari Guide – Johnny Sundstrom, Siuslaw Institute / RVCC Leadership Team

When our son, Shiloh, was killed (November 22, 2015), he’d been to Kenya 4 times for a total of about one year, studying and doing research for his graduate degrees, looking for ways to help the people and landscapes he loved, and making special friendships as he always did wherever he went. Each time he returned home he would say to me, “Dad, when we go to Kenya, I’m going to show you…I’m going to introduce you…I’m going to take you…” all with such enthusiasm and excitement. Now, we have just returned home from taking that trip, without him in person, but with his constant companionship in spirit.

Our Team of 13 + hosts was made up of 4 Professors, 2 of their daughters. 3 graduate students, Shiloh’s mother, our video/photo expert, a rancher from Montana’s Blackfoot Challenge, and myself.Te n days on some of the roughest roads I’ve ever traveled gave us our daily, “Kenyan massages,” and challenged our stamina and endurance. At the end of every day or segment of this travel, there was always a community, a family, or an exotic place to spend the night waiting for us, always with a warm and gracious welcome, and almost always with folks who’d known Shiloh.

The core of our mission on this trip was to carry on his research, ground-truth his recommendations, and expand on the diverse relationships he’d initiated to create and include both technological and collaborative knowledge exchanges. Major funding for the trip came from Colorado State’s Center for Collaborative Conservation, with additional financing coming from 2 departments at Oregon State: Geography and Engineering.

While on the trip, it became very clear that he left behind three major things that comprise his legacy and his contributions to the future. The first was momentum. Many times when people leave us in this way, it brings closure to their life’s work which is then archived or forgotten. What he provided is a very significant “work in progress”—continuing to involve those he had recruited and inspire new people, attracted by its values and prospects for positive change developed in practice. The second was an incredible number of connections with so many people of all walks of life, all waiting for him to return and engage them in these endeavors. And, the third thing that tied it all together was the articulation of a vision that says we can and must have both productivity and protection on the same landscapes. If one or the other is lacking or ignored, then there is no way to avoid conflict, as each side jockeys for winning rather than sharing, and the goals of cultural, economic, and resource sustainability can never be achieved. 

Two of the highlights of the trip for me were in the socio-economic realm. The first of these was the Women’s Milk Co-operative in Bisil. This was started several years ago to provide a marketing outlet for milk, the primary product of the livestock basis of Maasai life. The men own the cows, and the women own the milk, but until this Co-op was formed they did not have a way of providing reliable income from this source for their families.

Officers of the Women’s Milk Co-operative:  Emily, Anna, Jacqueline, and Faith. Photo by Kate Harnedy.

The accompanying photo is of Shiloh's "Milk Ladies" - his friends and the officers of the cooperative which now consists of over 700 members. They are pictured standing in the new collection facility, recently constructed to make their community-based business more useful and able to serve the needs of the women who produce the milk and families as far away as the capital city of Nairobi who need its nutrition. Through donations to Shiloh’s Memorial Fund, we were able to provide the final $3,000 needed to complete the facility.

The other climactic event of the trip for me was the dedication of a new classroom for the Meidenyi village school.

Meidenyi School children awaiting our arrival for the dedication of their new classroom. Photo by Kate Harnedy.

This is the community where Shiloh often stayed and where he had some of his closest friends, especially among the children. He promised that when he finished his college work and made some money, he would pay for and provide a new classroom. This addition would allow for the school to add another level for the students. His family, relatives, and friends collected donations in his memory to accomplish this goal, and raised $9,500 needed to fund construction and supply the furnishings. The Classroom was finished in time for our Team to be present for its dedication as a finale to our journey through Maasailand. The happiest and most emotional point of the trip for me came when the children of the school sang this song which they memorized and were helped to write by one of the teachers:

"Shiloh, Shiloh, Shiloh,
I wonder who you are?
A friend, a brother, or a
I have an answer!
Shiloh, Shiloh,
You are our Savior,
much more than a friend,
who was sent by God,
like a angel
to change our lives
from illiteracy to literacy.
Shiloh, Shiloh,
we are proud of you, 
and your donation. 
No more harsh weather on us,
Thank you, thank you for
your beautiful classroom.

Rest in Peace, Shiloh"

In conclusion, I want to say that I know it never crossed Shiloh’s mind to think of himself as being important. This trip proved he was wrong about that. 

Donations for the ongoing work on these Projects and others being developed in Shiloh’s Memory can be sent to: Shiloh Sundstrom Fund, %Banner Bank, PO Box 96, Mapleton, OR 97453,

For comments or more information about this story - please contact Johnny Sundstrom at



The We in RVCC - A Note from Ashley

Reflections on my first RVCC annual meeting – a salve in tumultuous times

When Nils welcomed me to RVCC in November, he said, “Welcome to the RVCC team, and the movement.” Movement? As a newbie to RVCC, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I learned quickly that there’s no better place to understand the we in RVCC than our annual meeting.

I jumped in. It started small and fast. Karen and I, working steadily at the hub, our intrepid leadership team, the spokes. Goals and themes became breakout sessions and invited speakers. RSVPs slowly trickled in. Food was ordered. But I still couldn’t quite make out the contours of our movement.

The RSVPs became a participant list of almost 100 names. People from ten states in the West. County commissioners, state agency staff, Forest Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service leaders, academics, journalists, innovators from non-profits and community based organizations. Slowly, I began to see. The stuff of conferences was gathered (name tags stuffed and flip charts packed). And the snow fell.

The snow kept falling (it would be recorded as the biggest snow storm in twenty years). And yet, our people arrived. Names on a list, now faces. Smiles and hugs shared between old friends. New friendships created. Stories told, opinions aired, and lessons shared. At every turn, the most creative, inspiring, eloquent and dedicated people I’ve ever met.

I began to understand this Movement and our strength. I began to understand that RVCC is needed now more than ever before.

Here’s what I learned . . .


We want to make our lives and our communities better. We are not afraid to talk about the messy stuff to get us there. We are ready and willing for the tough conversations.

We believe in people, partnership, and place.

We believe conservation is not defined by political party, property lines, or population size. We believe in integration—of conservation and community, of economic and environmental health.

We believe in transformation and possibility. We believe in solutions.

We believe in inclusion and democracy.

We believe in good policy. We like diving in to the details of how policies work (or don’t) on the ground—we want find the ways that work.

We want to leverage our power as a movement. And we’re willing to put in the hard work to get there.


We believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We want you to be a part of this transformation and change.

We're following Mark Rey's advice during his talk at RVCC: Don't get distracted. Do what you do well.

In 2017, RVCC will be focused on policy, learning, and stories. We will work on federal policy through efforts like the Farm Bill and budget appropriations, we will host learning exchanges, and develop shared communication strategies.

Join our policy work group, be a part of our collective communications, participate in a learning exchange. Contact me and Karen today at: 








A Note from Nils

I just returned home to the mountains of Eastern Oregon after a post-election trip to DC. As I talked with rural innovators from across the nation, and as I return home, I’m struck by the need for unifying solutions in our communities. Solutions that strengthen the integration of economy, community and environment—solutions that bridge the divide between urban and rural.

Today, rural communities across the West remain in a sea of political and social turbulence. America’s recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009 was concentrated within the nation’s most vibrant urban centers. This was the first time that rural jobs and businesses not only failed to lead an economic recovery, but failed to show up at all.

Yet significant opportunities exist for strong returns on investment in natural resource stewardship—in investing in resilient forests and rangelands. Beyond the long-term benefits to the national treasury and tax-payer, these investments would help revitalize our rural communities while improving public and private lands and reducing the risk posed by wildfire and invasive species. Such investments would contribute in meaningful ways to a new dynamism across the United States, and restore the sense that everyone is advancing together.

The Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC) is promoting practical solutions to advance these kinds of stewardship investments. Most importantly, these solutions are collaborative and place-based. We draw on the experience of local practitioners, county government, local businesses, and federal employees across the West. Parties that historically battled over resource use and protection are clearly uniting around a new vision, and an open, inclusive process, for managing federal lands. 

It is critical to the health of our public lands and their neighboring rural communities that we build on this foundation, that we invest in the value of a stewardship economy. RVCC provides a unifying forum and voice for these rural communities—and a network to catalyze innovative solutions to the underlying challenges.

Our commitment to this work has remained constant and bipartisan over the past 16 years. A strong, unified rural voice has a unique opportunity to advance rural development and job creation through land stewardship in the West. We invite you to join our network and support us in the months and years to come.

--Nils Christoffersen, Executive Director of Wallowa Resources (RVCC's fiscal sponsor)