Lower winter snowfall levels in recent years in the mountains around Togiak, Alaska, have resulted in reduced summer melt, and a poor crop of wild berries on the tundra, according to MEHS student Robin Masterman. This photo from the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 shows mostly bare slopes. (US Fish & Wildlife Service/Steve Hillebrand)

Sitka’s local Fish & Game Advisory Committee adopted a pair of resolutions at its last regular meeting (11-13-19) — on climate change and the Roadless Rule.

The votes — both unanimous — were a significant departure for the group, which usually deals in routine matters of fishing and hunting —  and came in response to advocacy by Sitka students.

The Sitka Advisory Committee — or “AC” as it’s known — is one of 84 similar Fish & Game committees throughout the state. Its primary purpose is to advise the Department of Fish & Game on matters relevant to well… fish and game. Usually this means sifting through dozens of allocation and harvest proposals bound for the state’s two major wildlife governing boards — that would be the Board of Fish and the Board of Game.

But at the November meeting of the Sitka AC — instead of hearing crusty fishermen argue for an increased harvest limit, or a change in an area boundary, the committee took testimony from Robin Masterman, a Mt. Edgecumbe high school student from Togiak, in Bristol Bay. Masterman explained how climate change was affecting her family’s way of life. She gave several examples, like this one:

“My grandparents, and a bunch of my aunts and uncles rely on the berries that we pick on the tundra for food,” said Masterman, “but in the past few years there haven’t been as many berries growing because there’s not enough runoff from the mountains, which comes from the snow in the winter.”

Masterman was one of several students present from the Mt. Edgecumbe Environmental Group who urged the Sitka AC to adopt a resolution in support of recent action by the Alaska Federation of Natives declaring a climate emergency. Another of her classmates spoke about last summer’s two-week stretch in Tok when temperatures climbed to 90 degrees.

The Mt. Edgecumbe students were backed by Sitka High’s climate action group. One of their representatives, sophomore Darby Osborne, also spoke.

“Even in Sitka we’ve been seeing the changes,” Osborne explained. “Alaska as a whole is warming at twice the rate of other countries. And even in my short time living in Sitka I’ve seen the winters disappearing. I remember growing up and having it snow on my birthday, and that simply doesn’t happen anymore.”

Osborne said that climate change had been politicized, and  that it was time to move past that debate, accept the science, and initiate drastic action.

But did that argument really apply to the Sitka Advisory Committee? Osborne suggested that it did.

“The future and sustainability of our planet is what we should put before anything else,” she said.

The presence of the students at the AC meeting wasn’t a total surprise. Longtime AC member Eric Jordan, a commercial salmon troller based in Sitka, had been working on his own draft resolution to present to the committee. Coordinating with the student activists struck him as a reasonable approach.

“From the loss of (sea)birds, to the loss of feed fish, to the warming temperatures that we’re seeing as we travel around,” Jordan said, “to every time we look at the ice fields back here, we have a dramatic climate… well, the word in these resolutions is ‘emergency.’”

Other members agreed, and most of the remaining work was to figure out how to merge the student’s ideas with Jordan’s draft.

There was little discussion on whether climate change fell within the purview of the Sitka AC. Member Steve Ramp said he called board support in Juneau to double-check, and was given the go-ahead.

“One purpose of our committee is to provide a local forum for fish and wildlife conservation issues, including matters related to habitat,” Ramp said. “And this is right in there. So, I’m fully in support of us taking this up.”

The AC’s interests in habitat came into play again later in the evening, when the committee considered a second resolution — this one all its own: To support the “No Action” alternative of Alaska’s proposed exemption from the 2001 US Forest Service Roadless Rule. The 3-page document is a litany of reasons why opening the last remaining areas of old growth forest in the Tongass is harmful to to the way of life in Southeast Alaska, and is actively opposed by a large majority of residents.

As with the climate emergency resolution, there was little debate about whether the state Fish & Game Advisory Committee had the right to chime in on a federal policy. Member Eric Jordan again pointed out that the AC had long felt an obligation to take positions on policy matters — state or federal — if those matters had an impact on the areas wildlife resources.

The Roadless resolution also passed unanimously. Jordan commended his fellow members.

“I served with Larry Calvin, Moe Johnson Sr.,” said Jordan, “and a lot of other people — Richard Nelson, who just passed — who were on this committee who really fought to protect the environment. They would have been so proud to have been part of this committee, and us working together on these issues.”

The Sitka AC is comprised of 17 members. It is non-partisan.