Q & A with Alaska State Director Steve Cohn
"We can accomplish so much more when we combine our strengths."
In 2018, Steve Cohn became the fourth state director to lead The Nature Conservancy in Alaska since its founding 30 years ago. He joined us for a moment to talk about his career shift, who should consider teaming up with the Conservancy, and one particularly memorable outing into the Alaska wilderness.
You were in the middle of a successful career leading conservation initiatives and building relationships with a diverse constituency as the BLM’s deputy state director for resources in Alaska. Why take the leap to The Nature Conservancy?
Through my work with the Bureau of Land Management I built relationships with people across much of Alaska – from tribes to oil, gas and mining interests to leaders of Alaska Native corporations. It was a satisfying career, and I had a wonderful experience working for the BLM for over 16 years, including 5 years in Alaska. Then, I reached that point in my career where I wanted to broaden my scope and work on conservation issues beyond those limited to the geography of one land management agency. This is why I felt like this was an ideal time for me to throw my hat in the ring for the role of Alaska state director.
What makes the Conservancy’s approach stand out?
Wherever my career has taken me, I’ve witnessed The Nature Conservancy at work. I have always been impressed by the Conservancy’s quality of work, the commitment of the staff and the reach of the organization to attract and mobilize people who come at conservation from diverse perspectives.
The Nature Conservancy has a tremendous reputation as an organization that strives to build collaborative strategies to conserve lands and waters across land ownership boundaries and among people with conflicting interests. These are the kinds of solutions I’d like to help shape.
How is doing the work of conservation different in the 49th state?
Alaska is unique in several ways. In the Lower 48, the primary challenge is attempting to piece together natural systems that in many cases have already been significantly changed by human activity, leaving habitat fragmented. In Alaska, natural systems are still largely intact, though under increasing stress due to impacts from climate change, increased resource development in previously remote locations, and fiscal challenges that make investments in natural resource stewardship increasingly difficult. If we’re careful in Alaska, we may be able to do conservation right the first time and that’s an amazing opportunity.
Who in Alaska should consider themselves a good partner for The Nature Conservancy?
The Nature Conservancy is committed to conserving lands and waters for nature and people in Alaska. We do this by creating non-confrontational, pragmatic solutions to conservation challenges that respect everyone’s rights and interests. Any individual, institution, tribe, Alaska Native corporation, non-profit or business who shares this commitment should get to know us better. The Conservancy believes we can accomplish so much more when we combine our strengths and commit to a shared purpose. I invite everyone with similar commitments to reach out and join us.
How is the Conservancy poised to tackle challenges that lie ahead for Alaska?
The Conservancy is in a unique position to address Alaska’s conservation challenges moving forward. The grassroots, science-based, and collaborative approaches developed in multiple locations throughout the state provide a firm foundation for continued growth and partnership development. The Conservancy’s staff in Alaska are not only expert in their field, but have become trusted members of communities of place and practice. Existing and future networks provide the basis for the Conservancy to expand our relevance for Alaskans and the resources and values we cherish. Also, one of the amazing aspects of the Conservancy is the truly global network of professionals and expertise available to inform local conservation strategies. We see this in practice in the Emerald Edge, where the Conservancy is working directly with Indigenous and local communities to put their priorities first.
As Alaskans, we love sharing stories about nature. Have a favorite?
I think it has to be our trip on the Kobuk River several years ago. That river, along with all its fish and wildlife, amazed us. We encountered the elusive sheefish, and were also surprised to catch huge grayling that were actually gorging on voles! A highpoint of the trip was surprising a wolf mother and pup sunning themselves on a sand bar. As we rounded the bend, they leapt up and swam for shore as fast as they could, shook themselves off on the far bank, and then watched in disbelief as we floated past. That one-week trip was a brief but life-changing window into what sets Alaska apart.