by Lisa Busch
Executive Director, Sitka Sound Science Center
The Sitka Sound Science Center in Sitka, Alaska has a story rich in history that reflects the very essence of what makes Alaska so special.
The Sitka Sound Science Center is a nonprofit dedicated to improving scientific understandings through scientific research and science education. It is a popular tourist destination in large part because of its famous touch tanks that reveal the color and diversity that reflects life below the surface of the North Pacific in Sitka Sound. Also, the Science Center is home to the Sheldon Jackson Salmon hatchery, which has trained people to work in marine biology, aquaculture and natural resources for forty years. SSSC is open for tours during the summer Monday-Saturday, but today the research and education mission of the Science Center reaches far beyond the summer visitor’s season.
The Science Center was built on a long legacy of scientific research in Sitka that began when the Russians first came to Alaska in the late 1700s. They collected rain and oceanographic data that represents some of the oldest data of its kind in the North Pacific. Then later Sitka played an important role in the seminal text book Between Pacific Tide authored by Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin who was not only a longtime resident of Sitka but created the first environmental group, Sitka Conservation Society. Ricketts and Calvin, thought by many as the grandfathers of marine ecology, were pals in Monterey, California, in the 1920s and 30s with writers John Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell, and Henry Miller. Their book researched along Sitka’s coastline concluded that intertidal creatures living on the Outer Coast could be categorized by community rather than simply taxonomically. In the late 1800s Sheldon Jackson training school was set up in Sitka to train Alaska Natives and by the 1970s Sheldon Jackson College became one of the Alaska’s premier training locations for fishery biologists, natural resource managers and environmental studies. In 2007, the tiny college shut its doors leaving behind 22 historic buildings, debt and a legacy of science and education for Alaska.
Sitka is a very can do community, and it’s very Alaskan to work toward the community good. To me, the Sheldon Jackson Campus revitalization is one of the most impressive stories in America.
The buildings were boarded up and the facility was shut down. While the Trustees of the school first looked for relief from outside colleges, the campus was not an appealing investment – the buildings were dilapidated, and the college was in debt. But in 2010, a small group of Sitka leaders representing a few nonprofits asked the Trustees to pass the small campus over to local groups. The Sitka Sound Science Center purchased the Sage Building in 2010, and raised an additional $1.3 million to repair and renovate the exterior. The rest of the campus was taken over by several small nonprofits (Sitka Summer Music Festival, Youth Advocates and the Sheldon Jackson Museum) and the majority of the campus was deeded to Sitka Fine Arts Camp, a nonprofit that puts on Alaska’s most famous residential arts camp for the past 30 years.
Faced with dilapidated historic buildings that needed new roofs, heating systems, plumbing, and carpentry and cleaning, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp opened its doors and asked the community to volunteer. Volunteers came in droves and not just the kind of volunteers who offered moral support but skilled labor. People from the community cleaned the old dormitories, fixed the plumbing, landscaped, scraped, painted and much more. Sitka is a very can do community, and it’s very Alaskan to work toward the community good. To me, the Sheldon Jackson Campus revitalization is one of the most impressive stories in America. Philanthropists agreed. They were impressed by the steady stream of volunteers that came each weekend for four years. They saw a community helping itself to preserve a treasured resource. One philanthropist, Carol Odess, was walking by the campus one day after a fishing trip, and saw volunteers donating time, skills and energy and she was inspired to donate $1.75 million to the effort. Since then individuals and small businesses have donated over five million to upgrade the facilities.
With over 40,000 volunteers hours documented, the Sheldon Jackson campus revitalization is the greatest volunteer effort in the history of Alaska.
SSSC conducts fisheries research.
Meanwhile, The Sitka Sound Science Center which occupies the old scientific laboratories and classroom building, has established itself as a premier field station in the Gulf of Alaska. It’s locally relevant research includes marine mammal and commercial fishing interaction studies, such as those on sperm whales, who have figured out how to feed off of commercial longline gear. The collaborative research is done in cooperation with Scripps Oceanographic, University of Alaska and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. SSSC also conducts intertidal research on abalone and kelp collaboratively with the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and it’s been working on a long-term study with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game looking at the relationship between hatchery and wild salmon stocks. SSSC also does marine debris clean ups of local beaches. Its educational programs include a scientists in the schools program, after school enrichment programs, summer camps, internships and a Scientists in Residency Fellowship funded by the National Science Foundation. The SIRF fellowships provide mini sabbaticals for scientists from around the nation and gives them a variety of community engagement opportunities that include science cafes, community lectures, family field trips and inspiring young people to pursue scientific careers. For more information, visit www.sitkascience.org.