Sue Flensburg loves to pilot her banana-yellow Super Cub into the wild and remote locales of Bristol Bay. She travels familiar routes to favorite destinations: the lakes of Wood-Tikchik State Park, the shoreline of Togiak Bay. Her trips take her over terrain she knows intimately from her years of flying, yet each flight remains an adventure of its own.
“You can take the same route but every time you see something different,” she says.
For decades now, Sue’s work has had a singular mission: protecting the Bristol Bay habitat that allows Native subsistence traditions to continue as they always have. Over the last few decades, Sue has had a primary role in a lengthy list of habitat conservation milestones for the region.
“Sue has helped launch the conservation programs that ensure today’s Bristol Bay remains for future generations,” says Randy Hagenstein, Alaska state director of The Nature Conservancy. “Her deep regard for the people and traditions of the region shines through in all that she does.”
Sue grew up in New York’s Westchester County and first arrived in Alaska in 1974, when she worked with families and their children living in remote locales for the school in Aniak. Before long, she was living in Dillingham with her husband, Oscar Flensburg, and working on commercial fishing boats and coastal management issues. For many years, she has led the environmental program of the Bristol Bay Native Association, a regional non-profit.
Sue helped establish water quality monitoring programs among Nushagak River village tribes, ensuring the project trained local people in scientific collection protocols. She was instrumental in the ongoing campaign to reserve stream flows for fish in key salmon streams, starting with the Koktuli River. Under her leadership, the Bristol Bay Native Association was a partner in the Conservancy’s field efforts to document wild salmon in previously unsurveyed headwater streams – a necessary step in ensuring those streams are protected to the fullest extent possible under Alaska state law. Sue is also a founding member of two Bristol Bay organizations notable for their commitment to the people and the resources they depend on: the Nushagak-Mulchatna Watershed Council and the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust (formerly the Nushagak-Mulchatna Wood-Tikchik Land Trust).
The Conservancy joined her in supporting those organizations in their fledgling years, and today the local groups continue to make their mark. The watershed council was this year awarded a “highly commendable” review by Australia’s International River Foundation for its long-term commitment to protecting the fish and wildlife habitat of the Nushagak River. The land trust has recently expanded its geographic reach to include the entire Bristol Bay region.
Among Sue’s other accolades? An experienced musher, she was for many years a regular contestant in Dillingham’s western Alaska Sled Dog Championships. And for a decade, she reigned as the female arm-wrestling champ at Dillingham’s annual Beaver Round-Up winter festival.