In Alaska, tribal conservation districts (TCDs) combine local knowledge with technical resources to actively manage natural resources on traditional lands, the goal of which is to set local priorities for conservation and ensure sustainable use of natural resources for subsistence, economic opportunity, resource development and cultural preservation. “TCDs are a way for conservation to be driven by the tribe and community,” said Laurie Stuart, executive director, Tyonek Tribal Conservation District (TTCD). “They implement tribally led habitat restoration projects that support subsistence species and oversee projects that increase the value of tribal lands and create jobs.”
History of TCDs
Following the devastation of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recommended the Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Act be signed into law by all state governors. This act gave states a step-by-step guide to create conservation districts and laid out their powers and responsibilities. Alaska’s soil and water conservation districts formed after the Territory of Alaska enacted legislation in 1947, with local farmers and landowners creating districts in their respective areas. In 2005, TTCD became the first Tribal Conservation District formed in Alaska under federal jurisdiction. It was formed through a mutual agreement among the Native Village of Tyonek, Tyonek Native Corp. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Today, there are 21 TCDs in Alaska, three of which—Eklutna, Knik and Tyonek—are in the Cook Inlet region.
Some TCDs are formalized as a department within the tribe, some are 501(c)3 entities governed as tribal entities, and others represent and are governed by a consortium of tribes. It is estimated that each of the 21 Alaska TCDs serves approximately 423 tribal and community members.
Regardless of classification, all TCDs were formed to facilitate technical and financial expertise to meet their stakeholders’ conservation priorities.
Though all 21 Alaska TCDs hold formal agreements with the USDA, they receive no base funding and must pursue competitive opportunities. TCDs work with federal (Natural Resources Conservation Science, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), state (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) and local agencies—along with universities, nonprofit organizations and others—for technical expertise, funding opportunities and partnerships.
There was an active Alaska Tribal Conservation Association from 2012 to 2019, incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. But this model of an independent association— which required an executive director, board members and a separate operational budget—proved unsustainable.
“There is currently no formal avenue for TCDs to collaborate and share resources,” Stuart said. “There are organizations that see the potential of TCDs and want to create centralization or incubating programs housed within their own organizations, but these efforts create an additional layer of bureaucracy between communities and federal agencies, divert direct funding opportunities from TCDs and perpetuate a scarcity approach to TCD capacities, which disrupts tribally led, community-driven priorities.”
“One of the challenges Alaska TCDs are working to address is getting tribal and rural agricultural projects registered as federally recognized ‘farms’ so they qualify for USDA programs,” said Theo Garcia, environmental director, Knik Tribal Council. “A second hurdle is access to training certifications. TCD staff have been unable to become certified as conservation planners because USDA-required courses relevant to projects in Alaska are undeveloped and/or unavailable in the state.”
“A lot of the folks who did the hard work in the beginning have left us, taking that institutional knowledge with them,” Stuart added. “This is occurring on the federal level as well, which means we are constantly retraining new program managers or waiting for agencies to develop new protocols for funding opportunities.”
Additional challenges include lack of matching funds needed to apply for many federal grants; too few non-federal funding opportunities; and staffing issues, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, it was announced that TTCD will serve as project-partner lead on the Restoring Access to Tyonek Creek project ($780,000). The project is part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, which includes National Fish Passage Program projects. The organization has been restoring salmon habitat through culvert work since 2012. This culvert—TTCD’s 13th—will be its largest to date.
“Habitat monitoring and restoration is one of TTCD’s four program areas addressing conservation needs and goals in our district,” Stuart said. “Salmon is a primary subsistence resource for Tyonek and a major component of the community’s cultural identity. For this reason, protecting fish habitat and improving fish passage has been a major priority for TTCD since our formation. This project will enable us to open a total of 31 miles of stream habitat for subsistence salmon populations.”
Located approximately 40 air miles from Anchorage on a bluff overlooking the northwest shore of Cook Inlet, Tyonek is home to the Tebughna, or “Beach People.” Many of the village’s 175 residents still look to the water for subsistence.
The Restoring Access to Tyonek Creek project comes on the heels another large-scale fish-passage project: In 2021, TTCD worked with CIRI and other partners to replace culverts on tributaries of Indian Creek and the Chuitna River, opening a total of 2.8 upstream miles and 78 acres of habitat for the migration and movement of adult and juvenile salmon. The culverts were part of a 10-year fish passage prioritization plan developed in 2011, the efforts of which have collectively reopened 44.1 miles of salmon habitat. “It was a 10-year prioritization plan, but we continue to implement projects based on these priorities,” Stuart added.
Eklutna and Knik are making strides of their own: Carrie Brophil, land and environment director for the Native Village of Eklutna, said Eklutna’s community garden is “up and growing.” Through a grant partnership with other local TCDs and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the village is working to propagate native plants, as well as working on an education project to help start community gardens in other areas of Alaska.
For Knik, the focus is on stream-bank restoration work using native plants and addressing the issue of food insecurity. The tribe began the development of several potato fields in 2020. In 2022, a whopping 27,000 pounds of potatoes were harvested and distributed to tribal and community members. “TCDs build on the strengths of the tribes and communities they serve,” Garcia said.
According to Stuart, future opportunities include “working toward a co-created tribal conservation district network led by TCDs” and pursuing collaborative projects. “Habitat restoration anywhere in the upper Cook Inlet is good for the salmon populations of all the tribes,” she said. “And mitigating invasive species in any district helps to protect the habitat in all of our districts.”
“Sometimes applying for a limited number of grants can feel like a competition, but we’ve been able to find niches and partnerships with other entities,” Garcia added. “TCDs provide services that enhance and preserve our traditional lands, and that benefits everyone, regardless of location.”
In June, TTCD and Knik Tribe were awarded a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to work together on a waterweeds-mitigation project in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and expect to receive additional funding for such joint projects.