By Kayla Walsh, Alaska Conservation Foundation Intern
What brings a city girl like me to Cook Inlet, a place I hadn’t heard of just 6 months ago? Well, I started a graduate program in Conservation Medicine and I’m here to learn all about it from the real experts: Alaskans! I’ve been asked what Conservation Medicine is countless times since starting my Master’s degree last year at Tufts University in Massachusetts. And the answer I give is never the same or very clear. I try to explain that I’m hoping to make a career out of finding conservation or medical solutions to the many issues that affect the environment, wildlife, and humans alike. Conservation Medicine is based on the OneHealth theory, which is the idea that the health of the environment, non-human animals, and humans all intersect and affect each other inextricably.
While the terminology may be new to the academic world, Indigenous communities have always understood that they are not separate from the ecosystems they reside in. Indigenous tribes and local communities have stewarded the resources they live amongst and depend on for centuries. It’s obvious to me after just a few days at Cook Inletkeeper that the people of the Kenai Peninsula are already masters in Conservation Medicine – the habitat and ecosystems which so many hike through, work in, and live amongst affects them directly, just as it directly affects the fish that affect their own environment and feed the wild species with which they share this beautiful environment. And of course, the health and number of those fish directly impact the health, economy, and life of all the humans here in Alaska, and beyond.
While that may be obvious to most in the Cook Inlet community, it’s a far-fetched idea for many people in places like New York City, where I was born and raised. There, people experience a disconnect from nature, where our food comes from, and how wildlife hold up our economic and health care infrastructure – it’s no wonder it took an event like the COVID-19 pandemic to open our eyes to how our health and survival depend absolutely on the health of our earth and wild neighbors.
Of course, many problems that arise at the intersection of environment, animals, and people are nuanced or complex and are affected by socio-political, economic, national and international issues that don’t have easy solutions. We have to look no further than our water systems, one of the most fascinating and crucial pillars of life on Earth, to find complex problems caused by the modern world that need large-scale solutions. From the water crisis in the Middle East to heavy metal poisoning in the Amazon, to warming waters here in Alaska, we have wide-ranging water problems that will affect all aspects of life if we don’t take action. While here, I will listen to Indigenous leaders in environmental science, monitor waters of precious salmon habitat, and learn how to connect with the community about these vital topics. But most importantly, I hope to take the concept of Conservation Medicine as it is practiced here on the Kenai Peninsula to the rest of the world in whatever small way I can.
I’m learning from the amazing staff at Cook Inletkeeper and their community how to do just that.