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Natalie Dawson first came to Alaska when she got a summer job in college with the Fish and Wildlife Service. She trapped wolves, lynx, and hares on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and learned about wildlife conservation across the state. That led her to a graduate degree and years of studying wildlife populations. Eventually, her interest turned to conserving those populations. In 2019, Natalie Dawson became executive director of Audubon Alaska, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting habitat for Alaska’s birds and wildlife. ~ as told to and edited by Alexander Deedy

What does your role as executive director of Audubon Alaska entail?

It’s a combination. I’m still getting to do science. Still getting out there on the ground and asking questions like, where are the birds located? What are they doing? What resources do they need? I have other parts of my job that are really focused on the human component and our actions. So, how do we construct policy that is informed by science? 

I spend a lot of time working with legislators at the federal and state levels to think about what’s best for Alaska, wildlife, birds, and human communities.

You’ve been in this position since only 2019, but is there anything the Audubon team has accomplished so far that you’re particularly proud of?

We released a big climate report last year called “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.” It’s national in scope. One of the things the report illustrates is that as climate warms, there’s going to be a lot of species of birds that move north. So, Alaska is actually going to be a place of refuge for many species of birds that will have no habitat left in the Lower 48.

One of those species I think about a lot because I grew up in Michigan is the common loon. Loons are projected to lose their habitat from the Lower 48 in its entirety by 2050. We often think about how climate is changing this place so fast. But what this report talks about is how Alaska is also going to be an important refuge for species that are losing some of their habitat in other parts of the country and world.

Natalie Dawson posing with two other women on a boat holding a small flag that says Save the Tongass
Natalie Dawson with Mara Menahan, left, and Elsa Sebastian, right, as they embarked on a month-long journey around Prince of Wales Island to document the impacts of clear-cut logging. It became a film that was released early in 2021 called Understory. Photo courtesy Colin Arisman, Wild Confluence Media

In the face of these enormous challenges, what keeps you motivated?

I think in Alaska it’s easy because pretty much anywhere you step outside your door, you’re interacting immediately with the natural world. It would be hard for me to understate the importance of being able to just be out on the land and water. Going for a ski or a walk or even just a 30-minute lap around the neighborhood. It’s a really important well of resilience. 

I also think my years as a biologist taught me that nature’s pretty resilient. We can do a lot to places and once we leave them alone nature kind of takes back over. Knowing that we’re just part of the system, not at the center of it, is actually a really important piece of what keeps me going. 

Is there anything you’ve encountered professionally that broke your heart? 

I worked for many years in the Tongass National Forest, and I worked on an island called Kuiu Island. It’s the northernmost island with red cedar in southeast Alaska. There are huge 800-, 900-year-old red cedar trees in these remaining old growth stands. I saw logging happen while I was there. I didn’t really understand what an industrial clear cut looked like until I spent two years working in a forest that you could walk across for a day and never walk into an open space. Then in a week, that whole forest is gone. It’s leveled. When I think of the most visceral, heartbreaking thing I’ve seen in my work over the years, it’s definitely learning about a forest and spending time in it, and then having the entire forest just gone in a matter of days or weeks.

Natali Dawson posing in a line of people
Dawson, third from right, on the Hulahula River with a group of conservation partners and Inupiat elder Robert Thompson in summer 2020. Courtesy Natalie Dawson

Thinking about your legacy, if there was one thing you’d like to accomplish before leaving Audubon, what would it be? 

If it’s one thing, I would want Audubon, the name of the organization, to be synonymous with working in communities. So, we would be known as an organization that works in and represents Alaskan communities. And when somebody heard the Audubon name, they would think, ‘That’s a good organization that I want to work with.’ I also want the community of people that recognize our name and believe that we’re a good partner to be as diverse as Alaska is. 

Is there anything else you want to add?

When we think about Alaskan conservation, we all have a stake in it. About 65 percent of the land in Alaska is federally managed. So a visitor to Alaska, especially if they’re from the United States, has a stake in what these places will look like going forward. When we think of the Arctic refuge, Bristol Bay, the Tongass, the Yukon-Charley, these are places that are all of our legacies. And protecting them is a part of our national legacy. When you’re visiting Alaska, in many ways you’re visiting these places that are jointly owned by all of us.

Author

Alexander Deedy is the assistant editor and digital content manager for Alaska magazine.

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